Rent or food: The choice some older renters have to make

Wednesday, 17th May, 2017

Some older Australians are having to choose between groceries and paying the rent. Photo: Dean Osland.

AS THE rental affordability crisis spirals out of control throughout Australia, research has shown that less than two private rental homes in every hundred are affordable for a single aged pensioner.

And pensioner couples do not fare much better with just over four houses in every hundred affordable for them.

Anglicare's Rental Affordability Snapshot 2017 surveyed nearly 68.000 properties in both metro and regional areas on the weekend of April 1-2. It showed that people reliant on government payments such as aged pension, disability support pensions, Newstart and youth allowances find it almost impossible to rent an affordable home resulting in an increase in homelessness throughout the country.

The social and welfare charity used the common benchmark of rental affordability - 30 per cent of disposable income - for its research and 14 different low income categories. The housing also had to be appropriate for the size of the family. The country was divided up into 19 metro and non-metro regions.

"The Snapshot has shone a light onto how the private rental market fundamentally fails to deliver affordable and appropriate shelter for millions of Australians, let alone provide what most of us understand as a home," said the report.

"We know from the work of Anglicare network members that people on low incomes in Australia are enduring severe financial stress, routinely having to forgo essentials such as food or seeing a doctor, just so that they can pay their rent.

"The number of people who are homeless has risen. For our most vulnerable - for older people renting on their own, people living with disability, women escaping violence, young people just making their way, and people living with mental health concerns - the barriers to obtaining affordable and appropriate accommodation can be insurmountable.

The snapshot report said Anglicare agencies across the country were working with people from all walks of life living in severe rental stress, or dealing with being locked out altogether due to unaffordability.

"For many individuals and families, particularly in our metropolitan areas, and especially if they are receiving government income, payments are now so far below the real cost of living they are paying 50% or more of their income in rent, and living with the constant threat of becoming homeless.

"Put simply, people go hungry, and turn to emergency food relief if they can; go without heating in winter and cooling in summer; can't afford essential transport, medical expenses or have to deny their kids involvement in school and recreational activities."

Recent research by National Shelter, CHOICE, and the National Association of Tenants' Organisations has shown that Australian renters often live in a climate of fear with little rights.

In their report 'Unsettled' they found that:

  • 83% of renters in Australia have no fixed-term lease or are on a lease less than 12 months long
  • 62% of people say they feel like they can't ask for changes
  • 50% of renters report experiencing discrimination when applying for a rental property 
  • 50% of renters worried about being listed on a residential tenancy database
  • 20% renters experiencing leaking, flooding and issues with mould
  • 8% of renters are living in a property in need of urgent repairs. 

Ian Yates chief executive of Seniors' advocacy group COTA Australia said: "Homelessness is increasing amongst older Australians. We cannot address this crisis without taking rental affordability seriously.

"We need a comprehensive and coordinated approach to housing affordability across government - not just one-off measures on property ownership which may help some people but not those most in need.

"People are being forced to make choices between paying their rent, buying groceries and accessing crucial medical supplies. The situation is unacceptable in modern Australia.

"The gap between rental costs and income support is growing and it is becoming harder and harder for older people to maintain even a basic standard of living.

"Increasing social and community housing and increasing the overall supply of affordable and appropriate housing are essential parts of the answer.

"COTA and many other advocates have also consistently called for an increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance and an increase in the Newstart Allowance to make it a feasible income for a person to live on.

"Tens of thousands of jobseekers over the age of 50 face daunting odds against getting back into the job market due to age discrimination and then struggle to make ends meet on the Newstart allowance."

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