Older renters living on edge

Friday, 25th August, 2017

Older renters are asked to share their stories of rental stress. Photo: Graham Tidy

AN AGEING population, a lack of investment in public and social housing and skyrocketing private housing rents are leaving increasing numbers of elderly people in rental distress or even homeless.

Traditional government policies have assumed most retirees will be home owners and have failed to provide for vulnerable older people living in poverty and insecurity.

In many cases they pay more than half their age or disability pensions on accommodation and forgo food, heating and medication to get by.

Ageing on the Edge, a five-year national project by the Housing for the Aged Action Group and the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning, funded by the Wicking Trust, is seeking a better housing deal for older people.

Recent data shows more older people are renting in retirement – between 2006 and 2011 the number of people aged 55-plus living in private rental housing increased by 44 per cent to 334,000, while the number of people who owned their home outright dropped from 63.8 per cent to 60.5 per cent.

It is also estimated that by 2031 the number of Australians aged 65 and over will increase from 2.4 million to 5.8 million and represent a quarter of the population.

Ageing on the Edge spokesman Jeff Fiedler, who is working with Dr Debbie Faulkner from the University of Adelaide, said the project involved working with federal and state governments to develop housing strategies and improve access to housing options by developing specialist services to help seniors navigate the complexities of obtaining affordable, secure housing.

For example, the Home at Last program in Victoria helped 70 per cent of older clients into accommodation in a three- to four-month period.

Mr Fiedler said when people were in extreme rental stress they often went into a downward spiral, leading to chronic ill health that required more intervention and significant support – and could result in premature entry into residential aged care.

Affordable, secure housing, he said,  made a big difference in their lives. They became healthier, ate better and led a better social life.

“There is evidence that if you do provide services like this there are benefits to society,” Mr Fiedler said.

The project has started mapping the housing environment state by state, looking at what housing options are available, how people find and access them, and what services are available to help with the process.

Ageing on the Edge would like to hear from older people suffering rental stress to include their stories in their research and link them with services.

Who are the renters?

Victoria: 12,138 people aged 65-plus on the age pension or below live in the private rental market.

Eighty-two per cent of those living in greater Melbourne and 71 per cent in regional and rural areas pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent (the rental stress benchmark).

Half of those in greater Melbourne and 18 per cent in regional and rural areas pay half or more of their income in rent.

(Data from the 2016 census)

SA: About one in six SA households (16.8 per cent) are suffering housing stress, according to the state's peak welfare body, the South Australian Council of Social Service.

The organisation's 2017 cost of living update shows 107,000 households spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs, the definition of housing stress, with 60 per cent of those renters.

The report shows rates of housing stress have increased among renters in the last five years.

NSW: In a submission to the NSW government, peak seniors' organisation Combined Pensioners and Superannuant Association said: "It is estimated that there are 35,000 low to moderate income, over-65, renter households in housing stress in NSW and this is projected to double by 2036.

"There are virtually no areas in Sydney where a small, one-bedroom unit is affordable for a single or couple pensioner household in receipt of the full-rate pension. In rural and regional areas, there is a lack of diverse housing stock, so there are fewer smaller dwellings which would otherwise be affordable."

In Greater Sydney, 81.3 per cent of older private renters on the age pension or below (61.3 per cent in regional and rural areas) pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. 

QLD: Queensland couples who rely on the age pension and rent in the private market are at greatest risk of living in poverty compared to other seniors, according to the 2016 Queensland Council of Social Service's Cost of Living Report.

It said age pensioner couples renting privately in Brisbane earn, on average, nearly $31 a week less than what is needed to afford a basic standard of living and are most likely to experience housing stress, which means they spend more than a third of their income on housing costs.

WA: Many low income seniors have been unable to keep up with increasing rents, as their income has not kept pace with housing and other costs.

In a submission to the Housing Authority's Seniors Housing Strategy discussion paper last year, Shelter WA said 26,501 people aged 60 and over in WA received Common­wealth Rent Assistance but more than 41 per cent of recipients were in housing stress, paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. 

The submission said seniors generally required smaller housing close to services, transport, care and support, however finding and maintaining suitable housing could be difficult.

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