Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: helping migrants find affordable housing

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For new Australians securing suitable accommodation is an integral part of the settlement process. Service providers across the country work closely with governments and communities to develop sustainable and effective solutions. Yet, there are still many challenges facing new arrivals when trying to find affordable housing.

While first settling in Australia, refugees are helped to find housing by a government housing program and offered rental assistance.  It’s provided as an adjunct to the Federal Government’s Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program.

Most new migrants use the service – A 2012 paper in the Journal of Refugee Studies found the program had a 90 percent uptake. Service providers like Settlement Services International (SSI) in NSW deliver the HSS program.

Service Delivery Manager at SSI Yamaha Agha says, from day one they help.

“So new refugees and humanitarian entrants are eligible for short-term accommodation on arrival. It's free rent for four weeks, while they link to different services and start getting their payment. Because initially when they arrive they have no money or no income to be able to pay the rent. So it is provided as part of their government contract.”

Once the contract ends, new arrivals have to look to the private rental market to find a place to live. However, they are often disadvantaged due to low income, no previous rental history and language barriers. 

Yamaha Agha says, after the initial phase, new arrivals are treated like everyone else.

“And when they find long-term accommodation then they start paying rent. Well, after four weeks they start paying rent, like any other Australian resident. Within four weeks, it's a very short time for them to be able to find employment, so they pay rent from their social security payment.”

Being able to afford private rent rates is a major problem. 

At SSI, case managers regularly see refugees and asylum seekers paying between 50 to 60 per cent of their income on private rental. Similar concerns are being reported by frontline service providers, like the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre (LMRC) in Sydney's Western Suburbs.

LMRC Client Service Manager Olivia Nguy says most of their clients relying on Centrelink are paying well beyond 50 percent of their income on rent alone.   She says high rents are a major barrier.

“So a lot of our clients are recipients of Centrelink initially, and they are solely dependent on that initially as well. And when you look at that in relation to the cost of rent and what's considered to be affordable housing, you’ll notice, particularly for single people, single parents, or like small family units, so like couples without children, the cost of rent far exceeds the income they receive, so you know it puts a lot of financial pressure on people.”

In Victoria, each year AMES Australia assists over 40 thousand people by providing humanitarian settlement services for refugees and newly arrived migrants.

AMES Australia's Settlement Accommodation Services' team leader Joseph Youhana knows what it’s like to be a new migrant in need of a home.

“Originally came from Iraq, I arrived in Australian in 2006  through the humanitarian program, supported  by the UNHCR, I was in the neighbouring country in Syria at the time, escaped from the war in Iraq, and I was accepted to Australia in 2006 together with my family. When we arrived at the airport, we were greeted by people, I mean the Settlement providers were welcoming us, we didn't know what does that mean.”

Joseph and his family stayed with his aunt until they moved out to their own home.

“We lived in an area which is full of multiculturalism and CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities, it’s been inherited to that Northern region of Melbourne since the 70s and 80s. So It's something usual to see a lot of people coming from different backgrounds because it's an affordable area.”

He says it's still challenging to rent somewhere close to the city.

“There is a lack of affordable properties in Victoria. Most of our CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities are in newly established areas. In the Western Suburbs we still lucky to have areas like Werribee and around that are affordable. We are lucky enough to have areas like Broadmeadows and surrounding in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne...still available to the budget of the clients.”

A Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) 2013 study shows, each year refugee communities nominate finding affordable and adequate housing as one of their top concerns. 

LMRC's Olivia Nguy says it's also a significant issue for people with disabilities.

“It can be very difficult to find suitable accommodation, it can be very difficult to be dependent on rental properties and to be able to get a perfect modification for it when you're in the private rental market and then when you're relying on public housing, it can take quite some time to find a suitable property that can be modified as well.”

She says, newly arrived people with physical disabilities often live in extremely unsafe situations.

“We had a client that was wheelchair-bound and living in a private rental accommodation at that time and the accommodation had steps at the property, and didn't have any rail or support in the bathroom which made it really hard to shower and to use the toilet. They were living with someone that had low vision as well and required a walking frame. They were essentially residing in unsafe accommodation for quite some time and awaiting an outcome for social housing as well.”

Refugees and humanitarian entrants also face increased financial hardship while they solely rely on Centrelink payments.

Olivia Nguy explains how Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre often provides emergency relief assistance. Help to pay utility bills is a common need.

“Quite a lot of our clients are from Iraq. One of our clients had quite large bills. They were in granny flat type of situation, and so they ended up paying for actually the main house as well as the granny flat and it was quite unclear as to why the utility cost was so high, they were covering both their own utility cost as well as the main provider's, and so through our support and the support of the Energy and Water Ombudsman we were able to ensure that she was only paying her portion of the utility cost.”

SSI's 2014 Senate inquiry submission into Affordable Housing in Australia found, housing instability among refugees and other humanitarian entrants is exacerbated by a lack of rental history.

Olivia Nguy says service providers like LMRC play a vital role in assisting the rental process.

“The best thing we can do to support our clients is to make sure that they are clear in terms of what their responsibilities are, so that they are in turn demonstrate that they are able to really well maintain the property and are great tenants, so that in future they have a much better chance of securing future rental properties in their own right.”

Settlement Services International in NSW provides training and orientation on tenants' rights and responsibilities in several languages, including Arabic, Assyrian, Persian Farsi and Dari.

SSI’s Yamaha Agha says they aim to help refugees to be independent.

“They provided with the training in their own languages, all our training and orientation to refugees are delivered in their own languages. It's kind of like information session in the classroom, and also, the information is delivered to them when they arrive at the house on how to maintain. Now, we've been very closely with different real estate agents. And I have to say we have a lot of real estate agents who are very supportive and understanding of the refugees' needs. And they work closely with us.”

AMES Australia in Victoria offers a similar tenancy training and orientation program in several languages, including Amharic, Nepalese, Pashto, Tamil and Urdu. Housing workers are also allocated to each client to help their search for suitable accommodation. They assist with bond application, letter of support, singing lease agreement and other rental issues.

Joseph Youhana says they’ve established a good working relationship with the different stakeholders.

“The team works specifically with private landlords and local real estate agencies to promote, advocate and increase the capacity of securing accommodation through this channel. So, our job is to help from A to Z [in the] housing process for the newly arrived communities.”

Joseph Youhana says he found affordable accommodation relatively easily because of his existing links in Australia.

“My story was, because I had a link who was looking after my case. At that time he had that connection through the local real estate agencies, so the reference was my aunt's husband. We tried two or three properties, but that one was approved.”

However, many new arrivals lack family and friendship networks in Australia and face isolation in their new communities.

Joseph Youhana says community support is needed along the pathway of settlement.

“I believe the communities that settled already in Australia have role to take on board, to advocate the important factors on how to make a good journey for new comers, the new people arriving in Australia. To make them successful, like others are successful.”

It’s important to understand what affordable, accessible or achievable accommodation means in Australia.

“I would be actually encouraging the community to deliver the correct message to the newly arrived communities, that in Australia it is not easy to rent a property, it is a different system from back home. For any newly arrived person, it needs to take a journey until you get your first shelter approved.”

For more information:

  • AMES Australia clients are assisted with sourcing and securing long term accommodation in Victoria.
  • SSI case managers work closely with their clients, conducting face-to-face assessments and regular home visits in NSW.
  • LMRC's multilingual hub offers different resources in several languages.
  • The HSS program is delivered by service providers in 23 regions across Australia.




Source SBS Radio