Opinion

The misplaced shame prolonging the housing crisis

By Nicole Gurran, Doug Cameron
June 19 2024 - 5:30am

Everyone's got a view about the housing crisis. But it's rare to hear directly from the people most affected.

The People's Commission into the Housing Crisis set out to change that. Organised by the Everybody's Home" coalition, the Commission has received over 1500 submissions from individuals and organisations, all testifying to the impacts of the housing crisis for themselves, their families, and their communities.

WATCH: Regional housing prices outpace metropolitan areas as they soar to record highs

As the independent commissioners chairing the inquiry - one a former senator, the other a professor - we'd thought we knew about Australia's housing problems.

But we were unprepared for the stories we heard.

From mothers skipping meals to pensioners doing without medicine and essential workers evicted from their own communities - our housing system is pushing Australians into poverty, social isolation and ill health.

Libby, mum to two small children is one of the 500,000 renters paying over a third of their income on housing but still lives "in fear of being evicted on no grounds or not having our lease renewed."

Lucie, mother of teenagers works three jobs only to move seven times over the past 10 years, most recently away from their social networks following a $200 rental increase.

Rachael, cancer survivor and mother of two children has experienced homelessness three times since escaping domestic violence due to the lack of affordable rental accommodation.

Each year over 9000 women are estimated to become homeless in the process of leaving violent partners, while another 7700 women return because of the lack of an affordable place to live.

We heard from young people forced to leave unsafe homes but unable to access support services or accommodation, and older women living in squalid yet costly share accommodation, or unable to retire for fear of losing their rental unit.

Lou, a nurse in her late 60s told us of her shock at finding herself homelessness. "I am humiliated, overwhelmed and very distressed by this situation that I find myself in through no fault of my own," she says.

Lynne, who fell out of home ownership at 58 following a divorce explains her desperation: "For women on their own, it is very frightening to find yourself facing homelessness. It is getting even more difficult to get into the rental market forcing more women of all ages into this position. The long wait for public housing leaves them feeling helpless and hopeless. This is so demoralising."

Scott, a former bank worker in his early 50s who was unable to sustain full employment following an injury.

He described having to leave much of his furniture and whitegoods on the street when forced to leave his rental unit for a boarding house room, the only thing he could afford on his income support: "The boarding house is over 100 years old. There is no insulation. It is freezing in winter and an oven in summer. The residents lack full tenancy rights. The owner's enter rooms at their will. In winter they unlawfully want to charge us an extra $20 a week if we want to use a heater. The cleaning is inadequate and there is no pest control ... The contempt shown by neighbours and people living in the same street, serves to exacerbate feelings of disconnect and unworthiness."

Rachel, single mother of a 10-year-old who is living in a rat infested unit which the landlord refuses to treat, writes: "There is no insulation in the walls or ceiling so the sound of the rats nesting and breeding is utterly traumatising." Yet she does not feel safe to report her landlord for fear that she will be evicted and unable to find an alternative place to live. She pleads: "If there are limited or no options for safe and affordable housing rates of domestic violence, financial stress, homelessness and suicide will continue to rise."

There's a real disconnect between the stories we heard from people experiencing the housing crisis firsthand, and the analyses and promises being made by industry analysts and political leaders.

Lynne says: "The people who make decisions don't know what it's like to walk in the shoes of someone in the position I found myself in. Maybe they just don't want to. Maybe it's time for our politicians to spend a day living on the streets."

Rachael pleads: "The term 'housing crisis' gets bandied about but should never be taken lightly. People are suffering. People are desperate. Please make significant change happen urgently."

Right now, tough talk on planning reform and migration from both sides of politics imply governments are working hard to build new homes and relieve demand pressures on prices and rents. Intuitively these claims may resonate. But with a glut of nearly 40,000 dwellings already approved but not commenced, it's clear planning restrictions aren't the root cause of this crisis. Ditto migration. Consider the recent COVID period when migration numbers reversed but house prices continued to soar, rising from $7.17 trillion in March 2020 to over $10 trillion by March 2022.

The latest federal budget commitment of $6.5 billion over five years to fund housing and homelessness support programs provided by the states and territories isn't new - it just continues the tied grants for housing assistance in operation since the late 1940s. Back then, governments were clear in their role to step in where the market fails.

Winding back these measures in favour of market-based solutions hasn't worked. At least, it hasn't worked for lower income earners and younger generations unable to access inherited housing wealth.

Karl, caring for his 26-year-old son with a disability re-entered the private rental sector after his subsidised long term rental unit (provided via the formal National Rental Affordability Scheme NRAS) expired. They now pay an extra $200 per week in rent for a smaller property which is not fully accessible for his son's needs. He observes: "Trickle-down economics doesn't work, but as we can see trickle up poverty does."

We're listening to the wrong voices in this housing crisis. Picture Shutterstock
We're listening to the wrong voices in this housing crisis. Picture Shutterstock

How might our housing conversation change if we listened for a moment to the voices of those giving evidence to the people's commission? Rather than the usual suspects - the politicians, industry leaders, economic "experts"; what if we listened to Marie, who told us how she was able to help others in her community now she herself is secure in social housing.

Would we do more than agree to a plan to write a national housing and homelessness plan?

Would we spend more than the $6.5 billion in recurrent funding which is not even enough to retain current rates of social housing supply; or the promised support for 40,000 additional social and affordable homes over the next five years, amounting to three per cent of the government's targeted 1.2 million dwellings?

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If we acted as though there was a real housing crisis, would we take immediate action to fund homelessness services, who currently turn away a third of those seeking support every night?

We need both immediate interventions and a commitment to long-term systemic change.

Many people spoke of their shame in being unable to access secure housing, meet rising rental payments, or provide a safe home for their children. This shame should not be borne by those bearing the brunt of Australia's housing crisis, but by those who fail to listen and act.

  • Nicole Gurran is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Sydney.
  • Doug Cameron is a former Labor senator.
  • Support is available for those who may be distressed. Phone Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636.