In February, Annie Harvey was forced to flee the life she had made for herself in Western Australia. Work had dried up, courtesy of an arts sector yet to experience the same post-pandemic rebound seen among others, and she was left unable to make rent.
“I've actually had to move back in with my parents in Victoria,” Harvey told VICE.
Before the pandemic, Harvey said she was able to manage “the cost of living” and didn’t really struggle to pay rent. As her income began to whittle away earlier this year, though, Harvey turned to Centrelink, like millions of other Australians. But on Centrelink, being able to afford rent was nudged out of the question – and her experience is not an anomaly.
Australia’s rental crisis has descended into a catastrophe.
According to Anglicare’s most recent annual rental affordability snapshot, only 2 percent of the rental properties on the market across the country in March were classified as “affordable” to workers earning the minimum wage.
For those who rely on Centrelink for income support of any kind, matters were even worse.
Someone on the age pension, for instance, would only have been able to afford 312 rental properties across the entirety of Australia last month – that’s less than 1 percent of the market.
The snapshot’s findings track with recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, too, which on Wednesday found that rents in all of the nation’s capital cities had risen over the last three months.
In order to try and stay afloat, lower income earners like Harvey have tried everything to make ends meet. While looking for work, she and her housemates have even tried selling our things on Facebook marketplace just to pay their rent.
During the weeks they managed to scrape enough cash together, they’d be left with nothing more for food, medicine, or other necessities.
As inflation begins to put Australia in a chokehold, matters have only intensified. People who can’t afford to buy a home have been forced to flood the rental market, which has in turn put immense pressure on rental housing supply and availability, and driven prices up.
The result has seen lower income earners left out in the cold.
Kasy Chambers, executive director at Anglicare Australia, said those who have been left to bear the brunt of the nation’s ever-worsening rental crisis are, without exception, Australia’s poorest. They have long been ignored, she said, and both of the major parties should use the upcoming federal election to “step up” and make affordable housing a priority.
“The picture of economic recovery, resilience, and good economic management being painted by the government and commentators is at odds with the experience of Australian households who cannot afford suitable housing,” Chambers said.
“Rising inflation and stagnant wages are making it harder to make ends meet. Housing costs are the single biggest expense in the budgets of households on low incomes,” she said.
The Anglicare report found that only five rentals across the country fell within the budget of a single person on JobSeeker, out of more than 45,000 listings.
The state of play was the same for someone on Youth Allowance, who would in March only have found one affordable property, if you could even call it that. All the properties found by Anglicare were reported to be “rooms in sharehouses”.
Wading deeper into the report’s findings, the rental market conditions faced by Australia’s most vulnerable continue to degenerate.
Couples out of work, for instance, as well as single parents on Centrelink payments and people who rely on the Disability Support Pension, can only afford about 0.1 percent of the market’s listings. Those who depend on the Age Pension have become subject to the same odds.
In order to turn things around, housing and social services experts have declared a state of emergency.
Experts suggest that if the Australian government doesn’t want to be made responsible for an impending wave of mass homelessness – which some experts argue has already begun – housing supply needs to be addressed with urgency.
The first thing the government should do is “stop the situation getting worse,” and secure more rental supply from building projects that are already underway. That’s the view of Michele Adair, the CEO of one of NSW’s largest community housing providers, Housing Trust, and chair of the peak body for community housing in the state.
“We have to have short term immediate schemes interventions nationally, that can secure more affordable rental housing straightaway. So that's the first thing. And then secondly, would be to establish an approach to the national housing strategy,” Adair told VICE.
Adair said that the Morrison government’s approach to housing supply across Australia has been “unconscionable”. It was only weeks ago that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s advice to those struggling in the rental market was to simply “buy a house”.
Adair says whoever lands in government after the upcoming election should look to funnel much-needed cash into affordable housing supply.
She pointed to the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which was introduced under the Kevin Rudd government in 2008. Under the scheme, landlords are offered government subsidies for building low-cost housing and renting it out to tenants well below market value.
“By 2026, all of those subsidies will stop. Most of them will be lost in 2024. Which means nationally, there are [about] 28,500 additional households who are immediately going to be at risk of eviction, or having their rents jacked up,” she said.
As it stands, only Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party and Adam Bandt’s Greens have baked housing affordability policies into their 2022 election pitches. What they both have in common are calls for a National Housing Strategy.
Within Labor’s affordable housing policy is a promise to spend $10 billion on 20,000 new social housing properties across the country over the next five years, along with 10,000 affordable homes for frontline workers, like police, nurses and cleaners, who have for the most part been priced out of the areas where they work.
The Greens, meanwhile, have promised 750,000 new public housing properties, and 125,000 affordable rentals as part of an election policy that would cost $22.9 billion over the next 10 years, paid for in part by the introduction of a new “Billionaire’s Tax”.
Beyond housing supply, experts say the Australian government should also consider lifting income support payments to help low income households manage soaring rental prices.
In a joint letter signed by 64 peak bodies and community organisations from across the social services sector, experts called “all parties” to heed the lessons of 2020, and the pandemic, which spurred the largest increase to the JobSeeker rate since 2013.
The letter, which was co-signed and delivered to the government by the Australian Council of Social Service, also called for a commitment to building at least 25,000 more social housing properties every year, along with the introduction of a National Housing Plan led by the federal government and a National Homelessness strategy.
Adair, along with the leadership at Anglicare, have made similar calls of their own. But until a government moves on any one of them, renters like Harvey aren’t left with much hope – even if the issue will decide her vote.
“It’s a big, scary thing.”
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