Condos near Metrotown in Burnaby | Photo: Jennifer Gauthier
August 11, 2022

Faculty research: Housing Vulnerability and Well-being in the COVID-19 Pandemic


This is an ongoing research project supported by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and led by SPP faculty member Dr. Yushu Zhu, in collaboration with Dr. Meg Holden from SFU’s Urban Studies program.  The overarching objective of this project is to understand housing vulnerability and well-being outcomes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The public health crisis has transformed our social life into a new normal, with severely restricted social contact, travel, and activities. However, staying safe and healthy at home may be a luxury, particularly for those whose home is unsafe, inadequate, unaffordable, or who simply do not have one. Many kinds of housing vulnerability exist or are exacerbated during the pandemic, and new vulnerabilities may emerge. 

When we talk about housing vulnerability, it often refers to the official concept of “core housing need” – a situation where households are living in unaffordable, overcrowded and/or poor-quality housing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic sheds new light on various risk factors associated with public well-being in housing and community settings. It urges us to reconsider what housing vulnerability constitutes, what are the lived experiences of vulnerability, and how housing vulnerability should be understood in public policies. These questions have far-reaching policy implications for building healthy and resilient communities.

As part of the study, the research team conducted a BC-wide survey between March and April 2021. The survey targeted adult residents who had lived in the province at a minimum since March 2020. A total of 1,004 BC residents were surveyed on their well-being status, residential experiences, and the secondary effects of physical distancing measures. This study also examines the heterogeneous experiences of housing vulnerability across tenure types: outright homeowners, homeowners with mortgage, market housing tenants, and community housing tenants. 

Key highlights from the survey are presented below:

  • The well-being impact of COVID-19 has been widely felt among BC residents one year into the pandemic, with one in three reporting worse mental and over one third expressing distrust in social institutions, lack of sense of community, or sense of loneliness.
  • Market housing tenants are the worst off in terms of well-being outcomes, followed by community housing tenants. 
  • The most common housing stress during the pandemic is rising housing unaffordability and decreased residential satisfaction. Some also reported worsened housing or neighborhood conditions, involuntary relocation, and loss of a stable place to live.
  •  Market housing tenants are the most likely to live in poor-quality and unaffordable housing. Community housing tenants are happy with affordability; but similar to market rental counterparts, they tend to live in poor housing conditions.
  • One in ten BC residents experienced housing instability during the pandemic. Market housing tenants have disproportionally high incidences of housing instability compared to community housing residents. 
  • BC residents face various challenges to stay at home during the pandemic. The primary ones are to host occasional visits of family members and close, work or study at home, and perform physical activity at home or in the neighborhood. A sizable proportion also reported difficulty maintaining physical distances with non-family members.

Overall, this study shows that housing vulnerability manifests in multiple ways. Other than unaffordability, overcrowding, and poor dwelling quality, housing vulnerability can also manifest in other forms such as residential instability, housing constraints for staying at home, and reduced access to various amenities and resources within the neighborhood. Renters in the private market are in particularly vulnerable housing situations. 

Our current understanding of housing vulnerability has mainly focused on access to bare minimum housing and ignored other domains of housing. This approach fails to capture varied experiences of vulnerability. This study suggests that the understanding of housing vulnerability should be broadened. Any policies that aim to reduce housing vulnerability should focus on building community resilience and capacity to cope with long-term environmental, health, economic, and social risks rather than stop at providing basic shelters. 

Yushu Zhu is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy at SFU, in a cross-appointed position with the Urban Studies Program

With a background in human geography and urban studies, Yushu’s research focuses on housing and community issues against the backdrop of urbanization and globalization. Her empirical research examines the spatial and temporal patterns of housing stratification, sense of home, and social relations that constitute urban neighborhoods. She pays a special attention to communities of immigrants, low-income populations, and ethnic minorities. Yushu teaches courses in housing, urban transformation, public policy, and research methods.