Nowhere to go – older women and housing vulnerability

By Anwen Crawford
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15 minute read

Annette, 67, lives alone in a western suburb of Sydney, roughly 25 minutes by car from the CBD. She rents a one-bedroom flat nearby to her two young grandchildren, whom she helps to care for. When she is not caring for her grandchildren Annette works part-time as a teacher at a school for children with special needs. In addition to her pay, she receives a partial age pension, plus Rent Assistance, from Centrelink.

“The rent is going up on my place, and it’s going up out of my reach,” Annette tells me, when we meet. Her total income comes to just over $2,000 a month, but she currently pays more than half of her income in rent, and she cannot afford the increase. She would like to remain in her current flat until the end of her six-month lease, but will be looking for somewhere else to live in the meantime. On her income it will be difficult to find affordable rent in Sydney, but with her work and family commitments she is not in a position to be able to leave the city either. “I’ve come to the point where I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” she says.

Annette is not alone in the uncertainty of her accommodation. The number of older women who are rental tenants in Australia is growing, and these women, if not already poor, are increasingly vulnerable to poverty and homelessness.

In 2011, according to ABS Census data, there were 135,494 women aged 55 and older in the private rental market, up from 91,549 who were counted in the 2006 Census. These figures are likely to underestimate the real number of older women who are renters, especially those with an informal or sublet rental agreement. Officially, older women now make up four per cent of private rental tenants (as opposed to those living in community or public housing), and, as Australia’s population ages, this percentage is set to increase.

As the number of older renters increases, rental affordability in Australia is worsening. A nation-wide Rental Affordability Index, published in November 2015 by housing advocacy group National Shelter, found that households in the lowest 40 per cent income bracket face “severely and extremely unaffordable rents” across all major Australian cities and regional areas. The Index defines unaffordable rent as 30 per cent or more of household income and finds that in “the worst cases” low-income households are paying 60 per cent or more of their income on rent.

Rent affordability is worst in Sydney, which has the nation’s most expensive private rental market. The Rental Affordability Index found that “low income households, particularly non-family households” – people living on their own – must pay “severely unaffordable rents in order to access a rental home in Greater Sydney.”

The number of older women who are rental tenants in Australia is growing.

Annette is a long-term renter. During her working life in teaching and disability care, she has experienced several different kinds of housing, including live-in accommodation. And from the time that her two children were small she was renting on her own. “I think that’s one of the reasons why, after all these years of working, you end up without anything to spare,” she says.

“Many older women experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness have led conventional lives and never previously had a housing crisis,” Robert Mowbray, Project Officer for Older Tenants at the NSW Tenants Union tells me. These women may have spent a significant proportion of their lives as primary caregivers to children or other family members, and, like Annette, they may also have worked in low-paid fields such as health, childcare and disability services. “I think that’s one of the reasons why, after all these years of working, you end up without anything to spare,” Annette says. The unpaid nature of family labour, combined with historic wage inequalities between men and women, has produced a situation in which many older women are now heading towards retirement age – or beyond it – without housing or financial security, including adequate superannuation.

Annette tells me that she still enjoys working, but even if she didn’t she couldn’t afford to retire. Living solely on the age pension wouldn’t leave her with enough money left over after paying fixed expenses, including rent and bills. Anglicare’s annual Rental Affordability Snapshot, published in April, surveyed 12,993 private rentals advertised in Greater Sydney on the weekend of April 2nd this year, and found that only ten of these rental properties would be affordable for a single person living on the age pension. That’s ten properties altogether in the whole of metropolitan Sydney, extending north to the Central Coast, west to the Blue Mountains, and south to Sutherland. The median rent for an apartment in Sydney is currently $520 a week, while the current age pension for a single person, including supplements, plus the maximum amount of Rest Assistance, comes to $1,163.77 a fortnight.

The crisis of housing affordability in Greater Sydney – and elsewhere in the country – tends to be discussed in terms of house prices for buyers. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated September 5, notes that “house prices in Greater Sydney have continued to climb skyward despite a five-year boom in housing supply.” The policy of the NSW state government has been to try and lower house prices by increasing supply, but critics of this policy argue that new housing stock has made little difference to affordability. Tim Williams, CEO of the Committee for Sydney, observes that access to this new supply is “being channelled to existing homeowners over first-time buyers, leading to many Sydneysiders owning two and three properties while the average 30-year-old cannot get into home ownership.”

This idea of a generational divide in home ownership dominates discussion of the Australian housing market. We often hear that older home-owners are reaping a disproportionate benefit from taxation policies – including negative gearing and capital gains tax – that reward investment on secondary properties, while excluding young buyers from the market. A report published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April is typical, observing that “the next generation may well be the first to be locked out of the Australian dream of owning their own home”.

This conclusion is largely borne out by statistics, which show that household wealth in Australia is highest among those over the age of 50 – the group most likely to own their own houses. ABS data published in the Productivity Commission’s 2015 paper Housing Decisions of Older Australians shows that 73.4 per cent of Australian residents aged over 65 are home owners, a figure that excludes age-specific housing such as retirement units.

But the Productivity Commission report also notes that older people are “overrepresented… among long-term renters in the private market”. These older renters spend an average of 42 per cent of their income on housing, a much higher proportion of income compared to those who are home owners.

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Linked to affordability is another problem facing older rental tenants: insecurity of tenure. “Compared to other developed countries,” the Productivity Commission notes, “Australian tenancy laws offer relatively low security of tenure to tenants, including short lease terms and the ability of landlords to terminate leases without a specific reason.”

By law, rent cannot be increased during a fixed-term rental lease of less than two years, unless an agreement of increase is written into the lease. In Australia, the duration of a fixed lease is often no more than six months, and rental increases are legal outside of a fixed-term lease. In all states and territories except for NSW there is a limit to how often the rent may be raised while a tenant is on a periodic (month-to-month) lease: once every six months or once every twelve months, depending on the state. But in NSW there is currently no limit as to the number of times a landlord can increase the rent outside of a fixed-term lease.

A lack of stability in rental prices and tenancy agreements is a cause of anxiety for many older tenants. Annette wonders whether or not her housing situation will be resolved in the long-term, or whether she will have to settle for “a band-aid solution for six months or a year”, and then be forced to move again. Ideally, she would like to leave Sydney, but as a regular and needed carer for her grandchildren, she could only do so if her family moved as well. She is thinking about applying for community housing.

Yet older women who are in need of housing services often do not receive adequate support. In 2011-12, 1,299 older women who used housing services required short-term or emergency housing. While 60 per cent of these women received the assistance they needed, according to unpublished data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, short-term and emergency housing services may not provide a suitable or safe living environment for older single women. Instead, emergency shelters are often designed to help people with complex needs, including mental health problems and substance dependencies. Unlicensed boarding houses at the bottom end of the rental market can also lack adequate security, with tenants forced to share bedrooms and bathrooms.

Older women in need of long-term housing do not fare much better.

In 2011-12, only 11 per cent of the 1,789 older women who needed help with long-term housing received this assistance. The data alone does not provide an explanation for why so few women in search of long-term housing were helped, but the lack of available options – from the expense of private rentals to the paucity of social housing – surely has something to do with it.

These problems are not just confined to Sydney’s expensive housing market. In regional areas, older women struggle with rising rents, short-term leases, unsuitable accommodation options and the possibility of eviction.

Maureen, 59, lives alone in a small town in north-eastern NSW. She has lived in the region for more than 15 years. She rents a two-bedroom house for $255 a week, and, like Annette, she is a long-term renter who raised two children on her own. An accident at a showground some years ago left her with serious injuries, including spinal fractures; her sole income is the disability pension, plus Rent Assistance.

When we speak on the phone about her living situation, Maureen sounds exhausted and distressed. She has only been living in her current house for a matter of months, and has already been to the Rental Tribunal in an effort to get repairs made. She lists the problems at her rental property, which have included blocked drains, faulty light switches and oven, a missing clothesline, “fleas in the backyard from the dogs belonging to the previous tenants… and to top it all off the place was absolutely filthy, I documented it all with photos.” There were also missing locks on the doors and windows, which made her feel unsafe.

At the end of May the Rental Tribunal ordered that repairs be undertaken at the property, including the replacement of the clothesline. But when we speak in mid-July these repairs have still not been made. Maureen thinks that the landlord is unlikely to comply with the Tribunal’s orders, and despite not having the money to move house again, she expresses a desire to “get out of here”.

“It’s just misery. I’ve already got misery, I don’t need more,” she says.

Maureen has recently registered with the National Disability Insurance Scheme: her current home is not suitable for her disabilities in the long-term. Among the types of housing support funded by the NDIS is home modification, but this is more a more difficult prospect for rental tenants than for home owners. Evidence submitted to a 2015 Senate inquiry into housing affordability indicates that “private landlords have little incentive to modify properties to suit the needs of older tenants. Older renters are forced to move as dwellings are no longer appropriate to their needs.” NDIS housing support can also include a contribution to the cost of specialised housing, but only where the cost of that housing is “higher than the standard rental cost that the participant would otherwise incur”.

A move to a larger regional centre such as Tamworth might be better for Maureen in the long-term, because she would have a wider choice of rental properties, and improved access to health and medical services. “There’s nothing in this town worth renting for under $350 [a week],” she says. “That’s the starting point for something decent. And it’s the mining that has taken it sky-high.” Maureen has previously applied for social housing, but the waiting list is long. Even in regional NSW, wait times for a social housing property often exceed five years.

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“The proportion of affordable rental and purchase for very low and low income households has declined in every New England North West region LGA between 2001 and 2014,” reads the Housing NSW Market Snapshot for the area. Factors including an increase in the number of low-income households, an increase in median rents, and an influx of mine workers indicate “that there is a strong argument for increasing the supply of affordable housing”.

So what is being done to put this affordable housing in place? Early this year, the NSW government announced a ten-year reform program for social housing, outlined in the government paper Future Directions for Social Housing in NSW. The reform plan prioritises housing development “through partnerships with the private and non-government sectors”, and aims for the redevelopment of existing social housing with “a 70:30 ratio of private to social housing to enable more integrated communities”.

The aim, in other words, is to ensure that low-income households rely more, and not less, on the private rental market. One initiative flagged in the Future Directions paper is Rent Choice, a “new medium term rental subsidy” to assist renters in the private market. Available for up to three years, Rent Choice is aimed at tenants who have “suffered a destabilising event such as retrenchment or illness”, and tenants “with persistent low income who are prepared to commit to improving employment outcomes.”

But encouraging low-income tenants to rely on the private rental market is hardly a solution to the housing needs of older women, who do not need work incentives or employment outcomes, but rather security of tenure, and housing which is appropriate to their age and needs. Security of tenure would, among other things, allow older rental tenants to remain living in areas where they may have significant familial and social ties. This is particularly critical for women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, who may experience significant social isolation if they are forced to move away from a place where they could previously rely upon ongoing support networks and access to appropriate community services. Women of CALD backgrounds are also more likely to experience discrimination in the private rental market.

In a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which is conducting an inquiry into the issue of elder abuse, Juliet Foreman, Executive Officer of the Tenants’ Union of NSW, points out that though the state government’s NSW Ageing Strategy “does not refer specifically to ‘ageing-in-place’, a number of significant documents commissioned by it do.” Ageing-in-place is a principle that supports the right of older citizens to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Housing policies to support ageing-in-place could include council and/or government commitment to the protection of existing low-income housing, or changes in tenancy law that would allow older tenants to modify their homes more easily. Such policies could also involve planning provisions to ensure that new housing developments included affordable, rent-capped properties for older low-income tenants.

Rent-capping or rent control policies would necessitate a shift from landlords looking to make the largest short-term return on their properties to institutional investors – government or otherwise – with an interest in the long-term stability of rental housing. So long as access to the private housing market is strongly connected to the profits of small investors who wish to see their assets increase in value, rents will likely continue to rise across the country. “Private tenants will only achieve greater structural security by policies that discourage speculation in housing,” according to Robert Mowbray, “and that instead foster an increased number of institutional landlords, including community housing providers which are primarily interested in income derived from a rent roll rather than capital gains”.

Barriers to affordable housing also have a direct impact on people who experience homelessness. 5,330 homeless women over the age of 55 were counted in the 2011 census, up from 4,772 counted in the 2006 census. But as with the ABS data on older renters these official numbers are likely to be lower than the real figure.

This census data is included in the 2014 report Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness, published by the University of Queensland. The report’s authors, Dr Maree Pedersen and Dr Cameron Parsell, draw upon national and international research to highlight “three pathways into homelessness” for older women. The majority of older women who end up homeless “have led conventional lives, and rented whilst working and raising a family”. Other older homeless women have faced ongoing housing problems, or have lived transiently in the long-term.

The report also highlights the gendered nature of poverty and homelessness, as experienced by older women. Factors including “the decline of the nuclear family and the increase in single person households”, alongside “the persistence of gender pay gaps” and “occupational and sectoral gender segregation”, result in structural economic disadvantage for women over their lifetimes, including a discrepancy in superannuation savings between men and women.

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Fran, 66, lives in northern NSW. Since February her only accommodation has been her small caravan, which is currently parked on a municipal sports ground. She pays $120 a week in rent – which includes access to electricity – for the right to stay on the site. Prior to this she was, in her words, “free camping”, moving from place to place on Crown land, without paying site fees.

Her last rental tenancy “ended disastrously”. She took her landlord to the Tribunal for overcharging on utility costs, and in turn the landlord took her to the Tribunal twice for claims regarding cleaning and maintenance, losing one hearing and winning the other. At the second hearing, Fran was charged nearly $1500 in costs. Her sole income is the age pension, plus rent assistance. On top of the rent at the sports ground, she is also paying weekly fees for the storage containers where the rest of her possessions are held.

Fran trained as a nurse, and has also worked as a visual artist. She once owned a house, but sold it in 1991 and, since then, she tells me, “I’ve been going from rental to rental, with long periods of homelessness in between”. She has lived in state forests in back of a Land Cruiser, and at informal camp sites.

As a single, homeless woman, safety is a pressing concern for her. “When I was free camping the issue of safety was probably my number one issue,” she says. “Men in vehicles come onto such land with various motives, and the issue is always to avoid such men causing me harm.” Even now at the sports ground, she only feels “relatively” safe. Her caravan doesn’t have a toilet, which means that she has to rely on public amenities nearby. The lack of basic services is having a negative effect on her mental health, she says.

The life that Fran describes is one of material and emotional isolation. Apart from a social worker whom she sees periodically, she has no meaningful support network in the area. “Loneliness and isolation are a given in my situation,” she says. “It’s a good day for me if I get a hug.”

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But Fran is also well-informed about rights as a renter, and articulate in defending them. During the second of our phone conversations she details many shortcomings that she sees in current tenancy law, in particular the existence of no-cause evictions.

“The landlord is treated as a just, kindly father figure, and the tenant is considered an aberrant child.”

In all Australian states, landlords can legally order a tenant to vacate a rental property without specifying a reason. 30 days notice of eviction must be given to tenants on fixed-term leases; 90 days to those on periodic leases. Evictions without cause are evidence of the significant power imbalance in the relationship between rental tenant and property owner: no tenant has any real security of tenure, while tenants who have been in dispute with their landlords fear retaliatory eviction.

Maureen worries that she will be issued with a no-cause eviction notice at the end of her current lease because she took her landlord to the Tribunal for repairs. In cases of retaliatory eviction a tenant can apply to the Tribunal to have the notice overturned, but the burden is on the tenant to prove that the notice was unjustified. An end to no-cause evictions is not the only thing that can improve security of tenure for older renters, but it is, Robert Mowbray says, “a prerequisite” in working towards stronger tenants’ rights both in NSW and across Australia.

More broadly, Australia requires a shift in attitude towards renters, particularly as the number of renters across the country continues to increase. Fran articulates a truth when she says that “a patronising attitude to renters” is written into tenancy law, which is also felt by tenants who experience hostility or negligence from property owners. “The landlord is treated as a just, kindly father figure, and the tenant is considered an aberrant child,” she says.

Along with reforms to tenancy law, the challenge for those who wish to see greater housing equality in Australia is to coordinate with each other. Such co-ordination is beginning to take place. Mowbray points to the initiative of state-based tenants’ unions coming together to form the National Association of Tenant Organisations, while Jeff Fiedler, of the Melbourne-based housing service Housing for the Aged Action Group, talks to me in Melbourne about a five-year project towards building a national coalition of older tenants. Among the aims of the project is the creation of an online information service to serve as a “one-stop shop” for older tenants seeking housing advice and support across the country. “If we could get together,” Maureen says of the many low-income tenants in similar situations to her own, “it would be all good, wouldn’t it?”

Housing affordability and security for rental tenants will only become a more pressing issue as Australia’s population continues to age. And with more people unable to afford to buy a home, changes to housing policy now will help to determine the living conditions of tenants in the future. The issue is complex, but solvable. Safe and secure housing should not be a luxury but a right of all citizens, regardless of income.

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  • Monica

    “By law, rent cannot be increased during a fixed-term rental lease of
    less than two years, unless an agreement of increase is written into the
    lease.”

    This is a standard clause in all rental agreements now. If you try to have it excluded the landlord just refuses your application. Too bad how sad.

  • Red Sage

    please credit the artist (a woman?) for amazing story book style illustrations… (btw thanks for thorough article)

    • @red_sage:disqus , thanks so much for the nice words! The guys at Right Now did credit me- it’s just off to the side at the top. If you want to check out my work, you can view more here: http://www.fredachiu.com

      • Red Sage

        that’s great Freda, nice to meet you, and love your website – especially like the colour illustrations. cheers

  • Shilo Smith

    Hi…I live in Brisbane and am keen to find out if there is a servic that connects older single women to possible housing options. I have a granny flat that I would like to offer to someone but do not know how to target them specifically outside the regular channels. Also would be inter she’d in getting together with some people to create something if it does not already exist……Thanks.

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