Fuzzy households in an era of urban growth

Housing affordability stress is acute for both low-income households and a growing number of middle-income households, and with housing increasingly commodified and financialised, and as affordability reaches crisis levels, owner-occupation models are also being challenged.

Authors: Megan Nethercote and Ralph Horne

Melbourne residents’ struggle to access and sustain housing, especially in well-serviced locations, frequently makes national and international headlines.

Amidst calls for a national housing policy to address this crisis, there is another, more hidden related set of challenges that deserve urgent attention. This concerns the nexus between three contemporary dynamics of housing and households: the rapidly changing nature of the Australian household, the increasing importance of family and other informal welfare networks in the provision of care and support, and the role of policy in supporting households in need.

This paper uses qualitative data on households in Melbourne to explore how housing constraints are themselves impacting household formation and living arrangements.

It illustrates fluctuations in household composition, and a diverse range of rent-related financial dependencies and interdependencies between householders that together trouble traditional and static definitions of households. Through its findings, this paper seeks to engage with discussions stimulated by the adverse effects of the ‘Bedroom tax’ in the UK, where a policy crack-down on perceived under-occupancy of social housing highlighted the dangers of developing polices based on outdated understandings of households.

Important work has been undertaken to understand the growing complexity and diversity of household forms, for instance through studies of extended and multigenerational households, hybrid ‘blended’ families, and various cohabitation arrangements, including (married) couples ‘living apart together’ (LAT) in separate dwellings, intermittent cohabiters in commuter or ‘living together apart’ (LTA) households regularly returning to a shared ‘family’ home, and serial and involuntary cohabitation patterns reliant on ‘disposable’ ties.

A default explanation for these household trends is significant demographic, cultural and social shifts, including rising individualism, and the perceived declining importance of the ’nuclear’ family. However, there is a need to re-theorise the household in contemporary terms, and also for contemporary policy.

In this endeavour we seek to understand how household composition and household dynamics might also be created ‘by constraint’. In doing so, we aim to peer beyond normative household categorisations, such as the ‘owner-occupier family household’, to understand how current housing crises conditions coincide with, and even specifically circumscribe, more complex household dynamics.

Our initial findings suggest that a range of ‘rent relations’ between householders within low to middle income households are frequently a direct response to, and attempt to counteract, a growing sense of uncertainty about their own future, or that of their children or parents.

These relations bind householders together, and frequently involve ambiguous or unspoken expectations and understanding about reciprocity, including hopes and expectations about the provision of care and support in the future—expectations that take on heightened significance in the context of the privatisation of elderly care, for instance.

Rent relations, and their unspoken or informal terms, weave together and embed financial relations within social/familial relations.

While this can be productive, holding families from the brink of insecurity or even shoring up their financial futures, housing access nonetheless becomes contingent on maintaining a range of (new) social/familial relations beyond those within the ‘nuclear’ family. As we show, the fracturing of these social/familial relations directly impinges housing access and security.

Why are new understandings of household dynamics now so critical? The household sector is now positioned as ‘the shock absorber of last resort’ (IMF 2005: 89) and over the past three decades is increasingly expected to manage an assortment of risks, responsibilities and costs as social reproduction is re-privatised, naturalised and outsourced back to the household (e.g. elderly care, private health insurance, education, owner-occupied housing, superannuation), even when these may exceed the household’s capacity to manage them.

With households so critical to urban futures on a range of fronts, we argue that the time is ripe for researchers in the urban field to look at the household anew to better understand constraint as a source of complexity and diversity in contemporary urban households.


International Monetary Fund (2005) Global Financial Stability Report, April. Available at: hhtp://www.imf.org/Extrnal/Pubs/FT/GFSR/2005/01/index.htm

Megan Nethercote will be speaking at the Australasian Housing Researchers Conference 2017 (15th to 17th February) hosted by RMIT University, Melbourne.

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