Housing in WA: A perfect storm

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, housing was at a crisis point in WA. But now, even more so. With jobs lost and the Australian Government’s JobSeeker payments about to end, there are  people falling through the cracks and slipping into homelessness.

John Berger, Executive Officer, Caring Agencies at the Uniting Church WA, is also the Executive Officer of the WA Alliance to End Homelessness. He said Western Australia has come to this point after decades of failing to fund and support social housing in WA.

“We have a housing system where the investment in social housing has declined over the past few decades, the private market is not delivering stock that’s affordable for people on low incomes, and so we have this pressure point in our housing system,” John said. “It’s my understanding there are 14 000 applications for social and affordable housing in Western Australia and the average wait time for an allocation can be beyond two to five years.

“Over the last three or four decades, government investment in social housing has steadily declined. Once upon a time social housing represented around 7-8% of the total housing stock in Australia. That has now declined to 4% in some states, or even less.

“It’s declined on the assumption that the private rental market will fill the gap. But we know that the private rental market, over three or four decades, has come to a point where most houses are unaffordable for people on low or government supplementary incomes. Australia has one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world.

“We seem to be obsessed with building large homes and wanting to rent them for top dollar. What we need is a variety of affordable housing and even slightly smaller housing – one and two bedroom homes. We have a significant lack of housing at that bottom end.

“One of the fastest areas of homelessness is older single women. These are people who’ve never been homeless, finding themselves homeless, and they’re at the mercy of a system that says ‘tough’.

“The need for affordable housing is across our community. Whether you’re an older person that just needs an affordable rental, whether you’re a student at university, or whether you trying to come out of homelessness.

“There are needs across the community.”

Housing stress

People are considered to be living in housing stress in Australia if they are spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. This is the benchmark Anglicare Australia has used for its Rental Affordability Snapshot, which they research and release each year. This year, due to COVID-19, they’ve released two – one in April and an update in August. The snapshot looks at rental properties all over Australia and tests whether they are suitable and affordable for people living on low incomes.

In August’s update, the Rental Affordability Snapshot looks pretty grim, with an even worse projection for December, when the Federal Government’s JobSeeker Coronavirus supplement will be  cut. These payments were also reduced in September.

According to the report, a single person in Australia earning minimum wage can afford 1.7% of the rental properties on the market. A couple with two children earning minimum wage can afford 2.4%, and a single person on the government’s Youth Allowance or JobSeeker payments after they are cut in December can afford zero – not even a room in a shared house.

These stats show more and more people are being pushed into homelessness.

In October this year, the Government of WA’s Department of Communities launched the WA Housing Strategy 2020-2030. The strategy aims to increase social housing in WA by 2 600 homes over  the next ten years, but with 14 000 people on the waiting list this strategy needs to go further and faster.

Gayle Mitchell, Practice Lead – Transitioning from Homelessness at Uniting WA (previously UnitingCare West), said demand for affordable housing is not being met.

“There needs to be 61 000 new houses built just to compete with demand now,” she said. “We know that there’ll be more people needing social and community housing with COVID and what’s  happened with employment and job security – and it doesn’t happen quickly. Housing seems to happen very slowly.

“The State Government has promised Common Ground and Housing First, but they’re years away. They’ve not even turned soil yet.

“The rate of people experiencing homelessness is on the rise. In Tranby, our engagement centre, in the first three weeks of September we saw 38 people who were new to homelessness. And that was before JobSeeker money decreased, so we’re not seeing the full hit yet.”

Homeless and invisible

Gayle explained that people experiencing homelessness are not necessarily sleeping rough on the streets. Homelessness can come in many forms, and can be hard to track.

“Homelessness is someone who can’t call their safe place permanent,” she said. “It could be someone that’s couch surfing, it could be someone in an overcrowded house.

“They’re not the statistics that we’re capturing. So the problem is way bigger than we think it is.

“We’re not capturing overcrowded dwellings, people going house to house. Some people won’t even think they’re homeless if they’re in a squat or an abandoned building because they’ve got shelter.

“The situation is bigger than people think. There’s a lot of people that I would deem homeless that we don’t see.”

The situation is only going to get worse in the near future as the Federal Government’s JobSeeker Coronavirus Supplement is cut.

“We’re anticipating a lot more people becoming homeless,” she said. “We’re already seeing that the private rental market is really hard to get into at the moment.”

Gayle said Uniting WA is working with people who’ve applied for more than 30 rental properties and continue to get knocked back because there’s not enough suitable properties on the market.  There’s also a group of people who have put their mortgages and rent payments on hold, which she said will catch-up with people soon.

“There’s a perfect storm and it’s going to lead to a bit of a crisis in our state unfortunately,” she said. “We’re trying to meet the demand on very limited resources. Where we used to see 80 people  in Tranby on similar funding that we have now, we’re now seeing 260 a day.

“We are really strapped for resources and staffing and we’ve done everything we can to try and squeeze as much out of our contracts as possible. The impact that has on people accessing our services is that it’s chaotic, because we’re so busy we’re just bandaiding peoples issues. We’re not really getting to the bottom of ‘why’. Why are people experiencing homelessness, why are we not seeing movement?

“When someone presents to Tranby in the morning we’re dealing with what happened to them during the night. So we’re just starting again every morning.

“We’re meant to be able to work intensively with someone and move them through the system out into long-term accommodation. And it needs to be driven by the person, it can’t be one single response for everyone that walks through the door, they’re all different.”

Homelessness affects us all

Homelessness impacts more than just the people experiencing it – though they bear the brunt of it. It has huge effects on other areas of social services and our economy. John said it is actually financially beneficial to support people experiencing homelessness into housing, and that our attitudes towards people affected needs to change.

“From an economic perspective, to allow someone to live on the street will cost us more in taxes than to house them because of the impact that person has in our community in the sense of deteriorating health, potentially law and order interactions, counselling services, policing and justice. All those services cost government, and us as taxpayers,” John said. “Economic studies have shown that the best way to deal with homelessness is to house people because it’s actually more cost effective. There is no lack of documentation that says the best investment in homelessness is  to put people in affordable housing.

“From a humanist perspective, everyone can only lead a fulfilling and productive life if they’ve got safe and secure housing.

“How can someone find work when they’re struggling to live day to day? How can you address your trauma or alcoholism if you don’t have a safe secure home? Having safe secure housing gives people a foundation to build their life.

“[Our] government believes that if you’re homeless it’s your fault and you should be working hard to change your situation, get yourself into a job and essentially earn your own home,” John said.

“There is this lack of understanding that, actually, we all should have a home. This is a human right.

“There is a lack of understanding both in the community and government to take action. There is a strong value judgement around blame.”

Raise our voices

The Uniting Church WA is calling for planning which will ease this crisis.

In September, at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Synod of WA, the Uniting Church WA agreed to call on State and Federal Governments to prioritise investment in renewable energy and social housing in WA. The Social Justice Unit, on behalf of the Uniting Church WA, has written to members of State and Federal Government, and is urging Uniting Church members to do the same. With the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, they have prepared a briefing paper to help with this process.

“What we need is either government to significantly increase the investment in social and affordable housing, and/or changes to our tax and regulatory schemes to support the construction of more affordable housing in the private rental market,” John said.

“For instance, in Australia we have a lack of concessions and incentives for investment in construction of affordable housing. So we have a situation where our superannuation funds are investing in affordable housing in America and UK and not Australia, because there are a lack of policies and tax concessions that make an appropriate return on their investment, but delivers on affordable housing.

“Australia doesn’t have the policy or the tax concessions to facilitate this. And this is all within the means of government; government can change these policies.”

Housing which runs on renewable energy is beneficial to people on low incomes as it brings energy costs down and makes their housing more affordable.

“The other issue around social housing, is many of those houses are very inefficient and therefore expensive to heat or cool. So there would be a strong argument to reach better standards in terms of their sustainability and ability to not draw on energy to heat or cool these places. There’s a good environmental argument, which then in turn makes it more affordable as well.

“We need to get to a position where the community understands that it’s actually good for us as a society to ensure that everyone has an affordable and appropriate home, and that those homes are sustainable from an environmental perspective.

“Government has two options – invest in social and affordable housing, and/or change policies and settings to allow the private market to deliver on affordable housing.”

John said that while we all have different capacities to create change in this situation, as Christians, members of the church are called to act. For some that might mean financially, others may be able to offer practical help, and others may be called to speak up and call on governments to do more.

“I think from our Christian faith we are compelled to speak out in terms of this injustice,” John said. “I think it is an issue of injustice that somehow we believe it’s okay for people to be homeless. So the church should be a strident voice in ensuring that everyone has access to a safe, affordable and appropriate home.

“As a church we should seek to be more inclusive of those who live in our community at the margins.

“It’s about justice, it’s about empowerment, it’s about inclusion and it’s about compassion. As Christians, we are called to demonstrate all those values.”

Want to know more?

Download the briefing paper from the Uniting Church WA and Vic/Tas and get some tips for writing to your local MPs on this issue.

Read Anglicare Australia’s Rental Affordability Snapshot

View the Government of Western Australia’s Housing Strategy 2020-2030

Find out more about the Housing First initiative

Heather Dowling

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