• “When people have access to housing that is safe and affordable, they no longer have to live as patients, criminals, inmates, clients, and homeless." (Getty Images)
Astronomical property prices in Sydney and Melbourne are exposing thousands of people to the risk of homelessness.
By
Nicola Heath

23 Jun 2017 - 8:29 AM  UPDATED 6 Aug 2018 - 12:39 PM

Buying a home is one of the most talked about issues in Australia today – because fewer and fewer people can afford it.

Across the country, house prices rose 7.7 per cent in 2016. In Sydney, house prices jumped nearly 19 per cent in the 12 months to March. Melbourne experienced a 17.15 per cent increase in the same period.

Countless media stories have told how the high cost of housing in Sydney and Melbourne has frozen first home buyers and families out of the market.

Often overlooked is what is happening at the other end of the spectrum. A hot property market has led to a sharp increase in rents. A new report has revealed a lack of affordable housing and widespread rental stress (where over 30 per cent of household income goes to rent).

“The evidence is unambiguously clear that the biggest driver of homelessness in Australia is the lack of housing affordable for people on low to moderate incomes."

Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot surveyed 67,000 rental properties across one weekend and found that less than one per cent was affordable for people on minimum wage or who receive Centrelink benefits. The number of properties affordable for people receiving the aged pension have reduced by half.

Director of advocacy at Anglicare Sydney Sue King told ABC that it was the worst result since the survey started seven years ago. “For single people who are working on the minimum wage, single people on Newstart, single people on disability support benefits — there is absolutely nothing available,” she said.

Comment: I can't get a rental because I own a dog. So now I'm homeless
"Australia's strict 'no pet' rental rules made me choose between having a permanent place to call home or having a dog. I chose my fox terrier", writes Scarlett Harris, "and now I'm homeless."

Other demographics with an elevated risk of homelessness include women leaving abusive relationships, Indigenous Australians and people leaving incarceration.

“The evidence is unambiguously clear that the biggest driver of homelessness in Australia is the lack of housing affordable for people on low to moderate incomes,” says Cameron Parsell, a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. “For people who are homeless, the lack of affordable housing is the biggest barrier that there is for them to exit homelessness.”

A hot property market has led to a sharp increase in rents.

Until data from the 2016 census is released later in the year, it’s hard to say if homelessness has increased directly due to the housing affordability crisis. The most recent data available this year comes from the 2011 Census, when 105,000 people were deemed homeless, eight per cent up from 2006.

Anecdotally, street counts of people sleeping rough in Melbourne and Sydney show an increase in homelessness, says Parsell. “We know most people in Australia who are homeless don't actually sleep on the streets though; that's a minority of the broader homeless population.”

According to the ABS, the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011 was due to people, mostly born overseas, living in severely overcrowding dwellings (up from 31,531 in 2006 to 41,390 in 2011).

Housing affordability also affects the lives of people who are economically and socially on the margin who Parsell says tend to live in unaffordable private rentals rather than social housing.

The result is often “families doubling up”, where people live in severely overcrowded houses, also a form of homelessness. According to the ABS, the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011 was due to people, mostly born overseas, living in severely overcrowding dwellings (up from 31,531 in 2006 to 41,390 in 2011).

It also pushes people into the unregulated peripheral rental market where someone might sublease a garage, spare room or a room in an unofficial boarding house. These informal arrangements are “precarious” and ripe for exploitation, says Parsell. “The rents are still very expensive, and there's no sense of 'home' or amenity that we would hope people deserve in Australia.”

Homelessness: The real housing crisis gripping Australia
Housing may be a human right but right now, there are over 110,000 people without a permanent place to call home in Australia. Dr Catherine Robinson uncovers the 'other' very real and urgent housing crisis.

 Little is known about the peripheral market, but it is believed to be large. “We know that it's prevalent, because people on very low incomes, they've got nowhere else to go, there's nowhere else they can empirically afford.”

These arrangements are often unsafe. After 15 foreign nationals escaped a fire that gutted a ‘makeshift slum’ in Alexandria in 2014, the City of Sydney revealed it was investigating over 1000 cases of overcrowded and unauthorised accommodation.

“When people have access to housing that is safe and affordable, they no longer have to live as patients, criminals, inmates, clients, and homeless people.”

One solution - and indeed a preventative measure - to homelessness is social housing, something Australia lacks. Just 4.2 per cent of Australia’s housing stock is public housing (compared to 20 per cent in Denmark). One figure puts the shortfall at 270,000.

According to Parsell’s research, it costs $13,000 less per year to provide supportive housing for someone who is homeless than the current cost of funding homelessness services (A$35,117 vs. A$48,217). He says helping people escape homelessness also reduces the burden on the criminal justice and health systems as well as the need for homeless services.

“When people have access to housing that is safe and affordable,” he writes, “they no longer have to live as patients, criminals, inmates, clients, and homeless people.”

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath


Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

What it's like to be homeless and have a mental illness
"I just felt completely and utterly disconnected to you and your world. There's no thinking 'next minute, hour or day' like you do when you have the luxury of your own walls. It's just thought to thought, step to step."
Unconditional charity: Why it's okay to give money to homeless people
Australia prides itself on being a giving nation. But would you give unconditionally to a homeless person and be okay with not knowing what your money was spent on?
Supportive housing is cheaper than chronic homelessness
Not only is it cheaper to provide permanent supportive housing to the homeless, new costings show, but the improvement to their lives is immeasurable.
Why the housing affordability crisis is making the poor even poorer
Australian research finds that the housing affordability crisis is pushing people to relocate to more affordable areas to live, forcing poorer people into an ongoing cycle of disadvantage.
Comment: Think of the children - why the housing market has to change
Home ownership is becoming a far away dream for many who are not lucky enough to still be living with their parents at the age of 30 and saving every penny. Something has to give.