There's no place like home



Over the weekend in most Australian states, rules requiring people to stay home were relaxed somewhat. The country has commenced its easing of the significant restrictions on venturing out in public. As we begin to reacquaint ourselves with life outside, it is useful to reflect on the new resonance of ‘home’ — but also on its inherent limits.

Mother working from home (Getty images/FatCamera)

Since the ‘soft lockdown’ started some weeks ago, ‘home’ has featured in our consciousness like never before. We have had to stay home, work from home, learn from home, isolate at home. Borders in four states and territories have contained us within our home jurisdiction. Our social interaction has been limited to those ordinarily resident within our homes.

The entire premise of the lockdown — soft or not — is based on home as sanctuary. A place of retreat from the danger posed by engagement outside our bubble, where everyone is a stranger and all strangers are suspect. According to this narrative, inside the home we can perform our work and education, as well as enjoy our leisure activities and our intimate lives. But as home and work merge, their close relationship has become apparent, revealing the limits of our comprehension of home.

At all times, but particularly during the pandemic, home is not safe for everyone. Family violence was not going to take a break simply because of a virus. The pressures of remaining in effective isolation with limited respite, together with financial pressures associated with job losses and the economic slowdown is likely to have made matters worse. The sanctuary of home has been further challenged by a reported rise in alcohol consumption.

Further, not everyone has a home and during a pandemic many aspects of life for the homeless become exponentially harder. Already shunned in wider society, physical distancing including in shelters and at communal meals compounds existing isolation experienced by the homeless. Personal safety of those living rough is compromised where they are now unable to congregate due to physical distancing measures. As homeless people generally suffer worse health than other demographics, the risk of the virus is amplified by their lack of adequate housing.

But there are other aspects of home as a feature of the pandemic that offer a real test for our understanding of how society functions.


'So long wealth in Australian society depends upon owning property, the rights of landlords are likely to continue to override tenants’ rights. And this means overriding the importance of home.'


Where our homes become our workplace there is a merger of what was private and hidden from the public gaze, with our public persona. Our children are in plain view as we care for them and supervise their learning while we work. Although UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has referred to ‘enforced inactivity’ of those confined to the home during the lockdown, his statement ignores the daily labour that in normal times prepares us to attend the workplace and that has become visible as it has become collocated with our paid work.

Just as our caring work coincides with our paid work, so too has family violence. What had been a personal safety issue for those in violent homes has now become a question of workplace safety. 

And in requiring work from home, for those with inadequate housing, or no housing at all, the very idea of a workplace is thrown into question. This is not limited to homeless people. It extends also to renters, whose claim to home remains somewhat precarious at law.

While the Prime Minister announced early support for commercial tenancies, he left residential tenancies to the state governments. In fact, all tenancies are a state matter. But the Commonwealth government’s concern was palpably with restarting the economy rather than supporting home — the very ideal at the heart of its pandemic response.

It was not until late April that the Queensland parliament, for example, passed amendments to its residential tenancy legislation. The amendments provide a definition for hardship arising from COVID-19: illness, or loss of more than 25 per cent of the tenant’s income. The provisions allow for a renegotiation of the rent in such circumstances, with conciliation available if the parties cannot agree. There is also a moratorium on evictions for failure to pay rent.

Following initial strong opposition by the Real Estate Institute of Queensland that the then-proposed amendments went ‘too far in favour of tenants’, the provisions put in place purport to provide a better ‘balance’ between the interests of landlord and tenant. This balance seems, however, to be predicated on the importance for landlords of receiving rent. So long wealth in Australian society depends upon owning property, the rights of landlords are likely to continue to override tenants’ rights. And this means overriding the importance of home.

COVID-19 has revealed a fracture between concepts of home and safety, home and work, and home and property. As with short-term responses to homelessness during the pandemic, the residential tenancy moratorium will last only 6 months. And even then, the tenant is left somewhat precariously to negotiate for their home with their landlord, rather than being afforded more substantial protections. And the fiction of home as a synonym for security will continue.

Some are starting to imagine a post-COVID world. The pandemic has allowed a window into a better understanding of the centrality of home to our work and public engagement, and the limits on the concept of home as sanctuary. We should grasp the opportunity of rebuilding to formulate what it means to be home, backed up with substantive policy.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice. She is presently associate professor of law at Griffith Law School.

Main image: Mother working from home (Getty images/FatCamera)

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, COVID-19, coronavirus, home, renters, eviction moratorium, domestic violence



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Existing comments

While I sympathise with tenants who have challenges in meeting their repayments, I also know several people who own an investment property and depend on the income from that property to enable them to pay bills. Small property investors should be differentiated from large corporate and multidwelling investors when legislation is debated.
Anna | 13 May 2020

Kate, I agree we are all living in the " new normal" . A lot of the 'hidden side' of our society is now starkly in view. I have relatives living overseas . From what I hear the situation in their countries is many times worse than anything we are experiencing , notably in the UK and the US, but also in India and the Philippines, where family relatives and relations live. In India in particular, the poor and marginalized are dying at a terrifying rate. At least in the Philippines , depending on your location, local government agencies are doing a wonderful job - other areas like Metro Manila , not so good. I think that we should be relieved that here in Australia and New Zealand, we have seemed so far, to have dodged the bullet. Still, not time to relax the defenses yet, as much as some pollies would like.
Gavin O'Brien | 13 May 2020


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