Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: Public housing in Australia explained

Source: Flickr/Paul Sableman CC BY 2.0

For new Australians, securing accommodation is an integral part of the settlement process. Community groups across the country work alongside governments to help those most in need develop sustainable and effective solutions. But one of these solutions, public housing, is now harder to find.

For most ‘the housing crisis’ means increasing mortgages in our capital cities and the struggle to buy your first home. But for some people, the crisis runs much deeper. Some can barely afford to rent and may not even have a secure place to stay. Keith Jacobs, a professor at the University of Tasmania, is conducting an investigation into the key housing problems in Australia. 

"So many people are just unable to live in good housing. It seems only wealthy people now have the ability to buy a home. Only very wealthy people can live in good rental accommodation. So people on low income or people who rely on Centrelink for example, on welfare, really are going to struggle."

Public housing is provided by the government to assist people on low incomes, people who can't afford to own a home or may have problems renting in the private sector.

The tenants still pay rent, but it's adjusted so it's never more than 25 per cent of their income. Priority is given to those most in need like people with disabilities or people who have experienced family violence or homelessness. They can apply through their state housing authority. However, Keith Jacobs says because of underfunding, there's a massive shortage of public housing.

"The eligibility for state housing is usually determined by state housing authorities and they make decision based on the level of need. Because there's such a shortage of public housing in the large cities, the state housing authorities actually have great trouble allocating properties to all those people who probably need it. And now what happens is that in practice, only the very vulnerable households, often people very elderly, people with severe disabilities and people with young children who are out to work are usually the people who access housing."

Currently, there are over one hundred thousand people without a home and around one hundred and sixty thousand households on public housing waiting lists across the country.

Depending on the state, the wait can range from a few months to a few years. People have to turn to community organisations to find help. Refugees and humanitarian entrants are among those facing increased financial hardship while they solely rely on Centrelink payments. Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre’s Olivia Nguy explains how they provide emergency relief assistance.

"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."

She says service providers like the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre 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."

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 to 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 it it's 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."

Keith Jacobs explains that it's also the case with public housing. 

While there is some public housing close to the CBD in Sydney and Melbourne, it was mostly built in the outskirts of the cities away from jobs and opportunities.

"Most of the people who want public housing usually want to stay in the neighbourhood where they're from and have access to good services and employment opportunities. Unfortunately a lot of the public housing which was built in Australia tends to be on the outskirts of the large cities because it was cheaper to build public housing that way. We do know that some of the public housing estates, for example, in Sydney, are a long, long way from where the jobs are and that has led to further disadvantages".

Some Australians can count on the support of family and friends, but new arrivals lack networks in Australia and face isolation in their new communities.

Joseph Youhanna 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 to 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."

Considering how unpredictable the renting market is in the country, Keith Jacobs would like to see more money invested in public housing so that everybody can have a fair go.

"You're not going to be turfed out by your landlord if you live in public housing and therefore your chance of creating good conditions for you and your family are much greater. So I suppose what I'm really saying is that it provides much more security for people who are very vulnerable. And the danger of getting rid of public housing or not providing public housing is that you're forcing people to live very marginal and disadvantaged lives. It makes it harder for them to get jobs; it can often lead to stress and therefore affects their health".

According to The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014 data, there are around three hundred and seventeen thousand public housing units in Australia. Even if the large majority is occupied, some households, especially in rural areas are available.

To apply for public housing, get in touch with your state housing authority: NSW Victoria Western Australia Queensland Northern Territory Tasmania ACT South Australia