‘Stay at Home’: Housing as a pivotal infrastructure of care?

Co-authored by Dr Catalina Ortiz and Prof Camillo Boano.


“[P]eople survive difficulty by coming together as communities of care, not pulling apart in a retreat into individualism”  OluTimehin Adegbeye, 2020
“Housing is a condition to the right to life” Laia Bonet, 2020

It is always difficult to write something meaningful when the categories we often adopt are not sufficient to grasp the severity and the globality of the present condition. In pandemic times, the linchpin strategy to prevent the spread of disease relies on a ‘Staying at home’ mantra of securitization and immunization. But staying home proved to be a privilege not feasible for many and social distancing impossible for the majority of urban inhabitants.

This universal measure allows inequalities, vulnerabilities and structural perversions to emerge more violently. Now, more than ever, the centrality of housing and the practices of living are fundamental for the population’s care and health. While many are interrogating on the future, if any, on the post-, and the surely extreme consequences at economic and political levels, the zeitgeist calls for fostering radical care.

In this short piece, we want to expand our understanding of the interdependent nature of housing and urbanism as well as possible directions for guiding the synergies of efforts of response and recovery.  The departing point for global solidarity, we argue, needs to frame housing as the pivotal ‘infrastructure of care’ for surviving in the present and for reimaging the future of cities.

What if we rethink housing as the key infrastructure of care?


The crisis has releveled as ‘essential’ not only the invisible precarious workers that sustain the maintenance and care that make cities operate; as well as, the gendered reproductive labour that sustains the collective responsibility of care. Care refers to “an affective connective tissue between an inner self and an outer world… and as a critical survival strategy” (Hobart & Kneese: 2020: 2). Here, housing conditions represents a matter of life and death and mediates the relations between individuals and societies.  We can think housing as ‘infrastructure of care’ inasmuch as the networks of solidarity in the proximity or from afar contained in the practices and tactics to sustain wellbeing. Here the infrastructures of care is what allows to weave “the individual body, the social body, and the body politic” (Neely & Lopez, 2020: 1). As a result, thinking on housing in a COVID-19 present is thinking on embodied, relational and affective cartographies of the space in our inhabiting practices.

In this context, as Hobart and Kneese (2020) remind us “care is unevenly distributed and cannot be disentangled from structural racism and inequality” (8). In some of our work we thought on inhabitation “as a form of care that emerge from the overlapping, simultaneous, and incremental encounters with and between different people, places, and services, and the spatial practices that develop to endure and maintain life” (Boano & Astolfo, 2020: 222), “support one another to sustain a meaningful life […] where the socio-political tensions are one challenge and the lack of governmental refugee policies is another (Yassine, et.all, 2019). The ‘Stay at home’ rhetoric is exacerbating racial and class prejudices, producing an uneven emptying of cities from certain bodies but also the filling of bodies in domestic spaces not all apt for healthy and peaceful coexistence. This crude reality urges us to call global solidarity to leverage the ‘Stay at home’ to champion the right to adequate housing and the right to be in the city.


The pandemic resurfaces the existing housing crisis


The UN has shed light on an “international housing crisis” (Farha, 2019; Rolnik, 2013), from volatility of housing systems, to evictions, overcrowding, unaffordability, substandard conditions, homelessness, and displacement (Fields & Hodkinson, 2017). But the pandemic resurfaces a housing crisis not tackled systematically across sectors and now a becomes a long overdue duty.

Urban homes are part of a complex system, the outcome of many interdependent elements interacting within the city as a connected whole. Rediscover the centrality of the domestic dimension is to re-discover its political potential of housing as the central role in any society reveals how it contains many of the global challenges of the current urban condition and its possible futures: rapid urbanisation, inequalities, segregation, informality, resource depletion, ecological crisis, displacement and migration, privatisation, financialization, securitization, economic development, ageing, health and well-being.

Much of this is concentrated in cities of the Global South where a ‘second wave’ of global urbanisation is occurring and where inadequate housing puts at risk political, economic and ecological urban futures (Simone & Pieterse, 2017). Some estimate at 330 million the number of urban households living in sub-standard housing or facing financial strain, while in many cities a vast proportion of households and individuals resort to living in ‘informal settlements’ with no secure tenure and poor basic services.


The response has to enact a healthy recovery


This unprecedented challenge requires unprecedented responses for building a long term progressive response to bring about healthy and more equitable cities. Housing, according to World’s Health Organisation’s Social Determinants of Health, along with infrastructure, socio-economic conditions, and social exclusion, is a key determinant of population health. Therefore, an adequate response can only come from interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, situated and trans-regional knowledge, new paradigms of practice as well as new institutional capacities.

Such capacities are sorely lacking, particularly in contexts where specialisation and the action of governments have tended to become fragmented and siloed. Globally, but especially in cities of the Global South, housing policies have failed to respond adequately. This failure is at least partially due to a narrow conception of housing leading to policies that either worsen housing problems or create new ones (Monkkonen, 2018). Unidimensional approaches to housing have perpetuated policies that fail to adequately deal with marginalisation and environmental deprivation and racial capitalism (cf. Madden & Marcuse, 2016; Fiori, 2014; Gilbert, 2004; Goodchild, 2008; Martin et al., 2015).

Being both a commodity and a right, a new examination of housing requires a complex systemic approach to untangle this vast and multidimensional challenge, addressing simultaneously the domestic scale and broader political, institutional and financial issues. Thinking housing as infrastructure of care seeks to capture urban living as a dynamically complex system to help shape urban form and influence urban life.


Survival unite us and a collective vision guide us


The COVID-19 present urges us to lure our collective imagination to enact a vision of the future we want to shape posing the ethics of care as a transversal axis. Inscribed in already agreed on common goals contained in the international agendas such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we propose the following vision and objectives:


In thinking housing in this transformative time we call for urgent actions to develop an adequate response that lay the foundation for housing, infrastructure of care, that helps foster non-discrimination while promoting equitable, low-carbon forms of livelihood creation and sustainable development, as well as physical and mental health and well-being.

A recovery that enacts:

  • Improved urban governance for spatial justice (SDGs 5-17): Urban governance operates at different scales through an ecosystem of formal and informal institutions where the state, civil society and private sector actors negotiate regulatory frameworks and practices around the production and use of housing. However, major gaps exist in understanding the complex multidimensional nature of housing within the urban development conditions. We need to push for open access spatial data on housing and harvest the myriad situated co-produced knowledges of different networks across regions.

  • More just financial mechanisms and markets for land and housing (SDGs 8-12): ‘Markets’ are a core component of housing, relating to how land, finance, materials, construction and sales are accessed and valued. Nonetheless, we experiment lack of consistent definitions, situated data and geographical evidence on the links between housing production, land, infrastructure and labour markets. We need to activate trans-regional and transdisciplinary networks for policy and practices and resistance exchange.

  • Better living conditions for migrants and people in temporary housing (SDGs 8, 9, 13,16): Temporary dwelling is the result of conflict, disaster and economic shocks that is why we need to better understand of how state institutions, civil society, businesses, community organisations and people themselves respond to crises. But we witness a lack of capacity of housing institutions and decision-makers to address housing inequality and affordability. We need that humanitarian agencies and a broad range of stakeholders to develop new forms of collaboration with practitioners, researchers, and activists.

  • Improved urban resilience and physical and mental health through housing (SDGs 3, 5, 16): In most cities, mental and physical illness and premature death are disproportionally concentrated in poor communities and ethnic minorities in as much as the links between housing and health are understood in relation to dwelling features. However, the long term state withdrawal and poor governance has caused the abandonment of housing as a political urban process. We need to push for the kind of institutional transformations to enable structural improvements in both housing and health and shifting urban politics towards more healthy cities.

  • More energy efficient -low-carbon-, innovative and sustainable housing (SDGs 7, 9, 12, 13): Cities across the world perform like linear metabolisms where housing and built infrastructure have a fixed design life expectancy. An appreciation of the city as a ‘circular metabolism’ will further the transition towards a more sustainable and inclusive future, with nature and non-human environments. Nonetheless, we have dysfunctional policy-action systems for housing provision producing energy-intensive consumption. We need advocacy for innovative modes of housing production in Global South cities.

Opening an uncharted territory of infrastructures of care


Thinking housing is to transform the way we think we inhabit the bodies, the collective and the city. The COVID-19 present urges us to rethink, radically our housing future as it is the way we are inhabiting the word (Boano & Astolfo, 2020). Stay at home, at least the in the meaning we want to provocatively frame it here, is not to be interpreted with its a shut-up, privileged immunological meaning, but more stay-with-home as to re-centre home as the significant infrastructure through which we care of each other’s and out cities and territories. Re-centre housing in its global significance as infrastructure or care is to think the problems (economic crisis, migration crisis, ecological crises, violence) from another framework.

If, on the one hand, housing has returned to the centre, at least in the simple public imagery of the pandemic, inhabiting needs a continuous rethinking outside of contemporary nuclear living, governed and imposed by states. Care practices have always emerged in time of crisis, and thinking housing as infrastructures of care is materialising resistances, as adaptations, as desires and networks. It is an attention to bodies and spaces, is revisiting rhythms, collectives, redefining proximity, and coding new positive passions, but also re-inventing spaces and finding new trajectories.

We are all scared of a ‘new normal’ being presented to us, we are also scared of ‘getting back to a normality’ that was complicit if not the whole problem. We have to inhabit the present, inhabitation is a form of caring (Boano and Astolfo, 2020). To live is to be present is caring for the present.

* Note – Some excerpts are adapted and come from a collaborative research proposal for GCRF on Housing Hub led by DPU, UCL.

Works cited:

Boano, C., Astolfo, G., (2020) Notes around hospitality as inhabitation. Engaging with the politics of care and refugees dwelling practices in the Italian urban context. Migration and Society: Advances in Research, Vol.3, pp: 222–232.

Corburn, J. (2015), ‘Urban Inequities, Population Health and Spatial Planning’, in Barton, H., Thompson, S., Burgess, S., and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge. and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge.

Farha, L. (2017), ‘Commodification over community: financialization of the housing sector and its threat to SDG 11 and the right to housing’, Civil society report, Spotlight on Sustainable Development.

Fields, D.J. and Hodkinson, S.N. (2017), ‘Housing Policy in Crisis: An International Perspective’, Housing Policy Debates, 28(1): 1-5.

Fiori, J. (2014), ‘Informal City: Design as Political Engagement’, in Verebes, T. (ed.), Masterplanning the adaptive city: computational urbanism in the twenty-first century, London, Routledge.

Gilbert, A. (2004), ‘Helping the Poor through Housing Subsidies: Lessons from Chile, Colombia and South Africa’, Habitat International, 28(1):13-40.

Goodchild, B. (2008), Homes, Cities and Neighbourhoods. Planning and the Residential Landscapes of Modern Britain, Hampshire, Ashgate.

Hobart, H and Kneese, T. (2020). Radical Care: Surviving Strategies for Uncertain Times, Social Text 142, p. 1-16 .

King, R. et al. (2017), ‘Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure, and Affordable Housing.’ Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Lancione, M. (2019) Radical housing: on the politics of dwelling as difference, International Journal of Housing Policy.

Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016), In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, New York, Verso. Martin, R., Moore, J., and Schindler, S. (eds.) (2015), The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate. A Provisional Report. New York, The Trustees of Columbia University.

Monkkonen, P. (2018), ‘Do we need innovation in housing policy? Mass production, community based upgrading, and the politics of urban land in the Global South’, International Journal of Housing Policy, 18 (2): 167-176.

Neely, A. & Lopez, P. (2020) Care in the Time of COVID-19, Antipode online blog, retrieved at:

https://antipodeoneline.org/2020/03/10/care-in-time-of-covid-19/

Rolnik, R. (2013), UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, ‘Guiding Principles on Security of Tenure for the Urban Poor’, UN doc. A/HRC/25/54.

Simone, A. and Pieterse, E. (2017), New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Yassine B., Al-Harithy, H., Boano, C. (2019) ‘Refugees Hosting Other Refugees’ in Ouzaii (Lebanon): Endurance and Maintenance of Care. The Journal of Refugee Studies.


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