Some of Australia’s most vulnerable citizens are being left to languish without homes and hope on years-long waiting lists as the nation’s funding-starved social housing system groans under the weight of demand, research shows.
Government-funded social housing is the key to a better life for many of Australia’s most vulnerable citizens – from victims of family violence to people with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness – a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states.
However, while “having a roof over one’s head is generally regarded as essential to a person’s health and wellbeing”, not all Australians have “the same access to safe and affordable housing”, the AIHW found.
Social housing – a mix of government-owned public housing and private-sector “community housing” for low-income earners – has been starved of funding in Australia, with just 3.3 per cent of the population living in social housing in 2016, compared to 5 per cent in 2001.
Tenants gain “multiple benefits” from living in social housing, including feeling more settled and managing rent better, the AIHW found.
With 195,000 Australian households currently on the waiting list, however, many face the prospect of years without a home.
Once a home owner with her own cleaning business, 54-year-old Melbourne woman Brigitte* saw her life turn into a “nightmare” after she lost her home in a divorce, and then her business due to the onset of chronic illness.
Unable to work, the mother of two lives with constant pain, surviving on a disability pension in a community housing apartment she shares with her adult son, who also suffers from a disability.
After Brigitte’s life “fell apart” finding an affordable home became a “big battle” – one she considers herself lucky to have survived after being turned away by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“When I went to find government housing, it was terrible. They told me it was a 20- to 30-year wait. I didn’t want to live that way,” Brigitte said.
Brigitte said she received little help or information, despite her desperate situation.
“They never even told me about community housing. They lost my papers, and they took me off the list so that I had to re-apply,” she said.
There is a current shortfall of 433,000 social housing homes thanks to 25 years of inadequate investment by state and federal governments, research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) shows.
“The current construction rate – little more than 3000 dwellings a year – does not even keep pace with rising need, let alone make inroads into today’s backlog,” the researchers said.
Homelessness in Australia rose 13.7 per cent over the five years to 2016, according to census data.
“Somehow, some way, by the grace of God”, Brigitte found a St Vincent de Paul Society support worker who offered to help her find community housing.
“Without her I wouldn’t be here,” Brigitte said.
After four years, Brigitte was finally placed in a community housing apartment in 2017.
“I thought I was dreaming,” she said of receiving the call to let her know they’d found her an apartment – a “beautiful place” where she hopes to “stay forever”.
Brigitte now pays $250 rent per fortnight – it’s “barely affordable” but “at least I have a home”.
“I lost it all when I didn’t have a home … Now I feel like I have something to live for,” she said.
Brigitte wanted to share her story so that “somehow the government can reach out to people that were like me in need”.
“I’m not sure the government really know how much people are suffering without an affordable home,” she said.
“I hope and pray that the government can reach out and build more places like this and cut the waiting time. The waiting time alone is a killer.”
Two in three Australians want more social housing, not tax breaks for property speculators
The AIHW report follows new polling showing that most Australians would prefer governments to fund social housing rather than continuing to provide tax breaks to property investors.
Two-thirds of Australian voters would prefer the government to invest in more social and community housing to ease rental costs than continue to allow property investors to claim negative gearing tax concessions, an Essential Research report released on Tuesday found.
The poll found that 68 per cent of voters support government investment in social and affordable housing over negative gearing tax breaks for property speculators, including 80 per cent of Green voters, 79 per cent of Labor voters, and 53 per cent of Coalition voters.
Just 24 per cent of younger voters aged 18 and 34 preferred investment in negative gearing tax concessions, compared to 38 per cent of voters older than 55, Essential found.
Despite recent price falls in Sydney and Melbourne, voters still ranked increasing housing affordability as the fourth most important issue for the federal government to address over the next year.
Everybody’s Home campaign spokesperson Kate Colvin said housing affordability is clearly a critical issue for voters before the election.
“Genuine home buyers are missing out to people building investment portfolios, and growing competition for rental properties is driving up prices and rental insecurity,” Ms Colvin said.
“Australia’s chronic shortage of social and affordable rental options means more than 800,000 households are living in serious rental stress, and as a nation we now have record levels of homelessness,” she said.
Ms Colvin said that the $11.8 billion a year that negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions costs the budget should instead be invested in “helping to deliver the 500,000 social and affordable rental homes for Australians who cannot even afford to buy their first home, let alone a second or third.”
*Surname withheld to protect privacy.