Addressing Australia’s shortfall of affordable housing

Author: Brad Webb, Samaritans CEO

COVID-19 has taught us that people can become vulnerable very quickly and find themselves in positions where income support and affordable housing are their lifeline.  

It has also taught us that when we work together, we can find solutions to many problems.  

Research published by Samaritans confirms that for people on low incomes in our region, rental properties are simply not affordable. 

In practical terms, this means people are allocating more of their weekly budget to rent, which means less money for everyday living expenses such as food, utilities, transport and education. It also means less access to discretionary expenses like internet access, which has been a challenge for families with children at school. Sadly, in some cases the significant financial strain can put people at risk of homelessness.  

Donna*, who lives in the Hunter, knows the pressure of paying high rent. Donna owned her own home and had a stable job, until her marriage broke down due to domestic violence. Donna had to sell her property, navigate the Family Court and she now spends two-thirds of her income on a private rental. Donna’s life was upended a second time when she suffered a workplace injury. 

People like Donna are able to juggle the cost of renting for now, but her tight budget means constant sacrifices need to be made. 

For people who do not have the money to rent in the private rental market, or who have barriers like no rental history, their path into homelessness leads to places like emergency refuges, overcrowded dwellings or, for a small percentage, rough sleeping. 

Rebekah* spent the first three months of this year in a Samaritans women’s refuge with her three children. Rebekah fled a domestic violence relationship only to face the reality of homelessness when she had no recent rental history for her rental applications. No real estate would consider her. 

Thankfully, Rebekah is now in transitional housing with Samaritans where she will gain a rental history and be able to enter the private rental market later this year. However, this is a daunting experience, and one that already concerns her. 

Samaritans released our annual Rental Affordability Snapshot last week. Alongside the experiences of Donna and Rebekah, the data in the snapshot provides evidence of the hardship in the communities around us.  The conclusion is simple: rental properties are not affordable for people on low incomes across Australia. 

Our research also considered the impact of the recent increase in income support payments, boosted by the Coronavirus Supplement and one-off support payments. Not surprisingly, these increases did not greatly impact affordability.  

However, it did put extra money in the pockets of individuals and families to ease cost of living pressures. Rebekah told us the money will help her buy winter clothes for her children, and hopefully a laptop for her teenage daughter to use for home-schooling. 

The current temporary increases to income support payments must be made permanent. This call has been made by the community sector to government for many years, and the government’s own Senate Committee Report echoed this message just last week. The Federal Government must keep the increase in income support payments so that people have an appropriate standard of living.  

Every year, the Rental Affordability Snapshot tells the same story. Sadly, these findings are not likely to change unless we address the fundamental issue driving affordability: Australia has a major shortfall of social and affordable housing. 

Social and affordable housing should be regarded as a key element of our national infrastructure, supporting the basic need of all people to have a safe, secure place to call home.  

We need a National Housing Strategy, led by the Commonwealth Government, that brings together State and Local Governments, Community Housing Providers, private and philanthropic investors, and the NGO sector to expand the supply of social and affordable housing.  

COVID-19 has shown us that we have the power to solve major problems when we come together as a nation. As the Rental Affordability Snapshot shows us, the problem of affordable housing is not going away. The question is, can we harness our power to solve it?   

Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling service 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.