The struggle for secure housing is, for many, going from difficult to almost impossible. A new generation is consigning themselves to a lifetime of renting on the private market.
Every month it seems another report is released highlighting just how dire the situation is. Living on the brink of an all-out housing crisis has become the norm. But expensive, poor quality homes for renters and unaffordable mortgages for owners don’t have to be the standard.
Melbourne and Sydney are some of the most expensive places in the world to live. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, these cities were the 3rd and 4th most unaffordable places to live. Prices have doubled in the last 20 years. This, combined with stagnating wages, has left hundreds of thousands out in the cold.
Housing stress, where a household spends 30% or more of its income on rent or a mortgage, has been steadily increasing in the same period. Almost 20% of all households are spending more than 30% of their income to keep a roof over their heads. One million low income households across the country are experiencing housing stress, as are more than 330,000 single women over 45.
Working class people have been conned into buying the poorest quality apartments, barely fit for habitation. Many are now falling apart and even catching on fire, as with the Opal and Mascot Towers in Sydney, or the 2014 Lacrosse Tower fire in Melbourne’s Docklands.
When the wait times for public housing can be up to a decade, and barely any new stock is being built, it’s no surprise that homelessness is increasing. It’s estimated that 116,000 people are homeless in Australia and over 8000 are sleeping on the streets. Older women are now the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness.
According to Melbourne Street Count, more than half of Melbourne’s rough sleepers aren’t even on the waiting list for public housing. The Victorian Public Tenants Association has said that rough sleepers with no fixed address struggle to keep up with the paperwork, while others simply see no point because the lists are so long.
Horrifyingly, according to a 2019 paper on homelessness and violence, 15% of 12-24-year olds experienced some kind of homelessness in 2017!
Now, many people in insecure housing situations are also having to contend with the devastating effects of bushfires and the climate crisis. Not only have the most recent bushfires destroyed thousands of homes and led to mass displacement, but heat waves and toxic smoke have created significant health risks for all those living on the streets, in their cars or in overcrowded homes.
This crisis is the direct result of the profit first capitalist system. For decades now ordinary people have been encouraged to take out mortgages which they are increasingly unable to afford. Rising housing prices and easier access to credit increased personal debt.
Mass sell-offs of public housing to “community housing corporations” and a refusal to build more public housing stock has also contributed to the dire situation we now face.
A majority of Australians support free healthcare and education, but housing is just as much of a basic necessity. Access to affordable and good quality housing should be a guaranteed human right.
There is plenty of money to pay for it. What’s missing is the political will. The federal government spends $6 billion a year on housing and homelessness, but $4.6 billion of this goes to paying Rent Assistance, a supplementary welfare payment which goes straight into the pockets of the landlords. The money would be far better spent on a massive public housing building campaign and for the government itself to offer renters cheap good quality homes.
Our safety and security should not be left to the will of the market and big business. Instead, we should take the big banks, land developers, construction companies and other key parts of the housing sector and the economy into democratic public ownership.
We would then be able to use the wealth created to build good quality, sustainable housing, and to provide secure jobs and full access to other key services, such as healthcare and education for everyone.
By Meredith Jacka