'We cut off everything to save money': Rental crisis forcing pensioners into poverty

Anglicare's 2020 Rental Affordability Snapshot paints grim picture

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STRUGGLE STREET: Australia's affordable housing crisis is hitting hard with vulnerable seniors and others unable to afford market rents and forced into poor or temporary housing, homelessness and poverty.

STRUGGLE STREET: Australia's affordable housing crisis is hitting hard with vulnerable seniors and others unable to afford market rents and forced into poor or temporary housing, homelessness and poverty.

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Rental market 'failing people on the lowest incomes'

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Age pensioners Ruby and Bruce* relied on their car to get around and look for work.

But at the beginning of this year, the couple from south east NSW were forced to sell their only vehicle so they could afford the move to a caravan park in a bid to make ends meet.

Like other people on the age or disability pension, they are not eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement.

"We cut everything off to save money, but now we feel disconnected," Ruby said. She has started volunteering at a local library but would like to be working and says looking for a job is hard when you don't have a car.

If you're living on the age pension and renting in the private market, it won't come as any surprise that money is tight and simply affording the essentials is hard.

But Ruby and Bruce are just one example of how aged pensioners and people living with a disability are being forced into extreme rental stress, according to research by Anglicare Australia.

'Grim picture'

Anglicare's 2020 Rental Affordability Snapshot paints a grim picture of the rental market for those on low incomes or any sort of welfare payment.

The not-for-profit's research showed that nationally only about 2.7 per cent of private rentals are affordable for a couple and less than 1 per cent for a single person on the age or disability pension. And demand for those properties is huge.

For people on a disability support pension, just 0.5 per cent (326 out of 69,997) were affordable.

An affordable rent for the low-paid is considered to be 30 per cent of their income. It's estimated a couple on an age pension can afford $227 a week in rent without going into rental stress. Ruby and Bruce pay $173 a week for the caravan site plus $70 a month for electricity.

But many pensioners, like Ruby and Bruce, pay much more than that, which puts them into rental stress, or extreme rental stress if they pay more than half - leaving little left for food, power, medical bills, medications and transport.

For singles on the Jobseeker Payment (formerly Newstart), including mature-age unemployed up to age 66, there were just nine affordable properties. Even though the Jobseeker Payment has been temporarily doubled, the number of affordable properties has only increased to 1.5 per cent, or 1040 properties.

'At mercy of the market'

Age and Disability Support pensioners missed out on the Coronavirus Supplement instead receiving a $750 bonus in March/April with a second bonus payment due in July.

Anglicare is calling on the government to make the supplement available to everyone on a welfare payment and to make it permanent.

"Welfare increases have given people badly needed relief," said Anglicare executive director Casey Chambers. "But the market is still failing people on the lowest incomes.

"Age pensioners and those with a disability have been left out altogether. They are at the very bottom of the market and can afford just 1 per cent of rentals.

"Instead of looking after them in the midst of a health crisis, we are leaving them at the mercy of the market.

"Nobody should be squeezed out of the market during a health emergency."

*Not their real names.

Rent or food: tough choice

A report highlighting the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity faced by older Queenslanders has found just under a third of people in extreme housing stress in the state are aged over 75.

It found many of these people are forced to choose between paying rent or buying food, putting on the heating or buying medication.

The Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) report - I Just Want Secure Safe Housing: Older People at Risk of Homelessness in Queensland found a significant amount of households are in extreme housing stress (with incomes in the bottom 20 per cent) yet are paying more than half their limited income in rent.

HAAG is engaged in a five-year Ageing on the Edge Project, in conjuction with the University of Adelaide, which has seen it research the housing experiences of older people in South Australia, NSW and Western Australia.

Its recent report on Queensland found that overall homelessness in the state is rising, particularly among those aged 55 and over.

At the 2016 Census, 20.5 per cent of the homeless population was 55 and over and 8.7 per cent was aged over 65.

There has also been an increase in older people seeking help from specialist homelessness services.

Older people interviewed for the research described the difficulties they face living in the precarious rental market.

They are a hidden group who put up with enormous hardship while being constantly under stress from the emotional toll and fear of losing their homes. They also describe the great difficulties, and even the futility of trying to navigate their way out of the housing trap.

The research found that specialist homelessness services did not provide a specialist older persons approach and the Commonwealth Assistance with Care and Housing Program in Queensland, that aims to assist seniors who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, is severely under-resourced.

The report identifies a number of factors that make households, particularly older households, vulnerable.

They include:

  • Age not being a qualifying factor for social housing in some states;
  • Lack of alternate housing options;
  • Unaffordable private rentals where tenure is limited and unsecure;
  • The growing number of single-person households;
  • Variable workforce participation, particularly among women, resulting in limited savings;
  • The impact of domestic and family violence;
  • The loss of a partner; a lack of family and social support and increasing health issues.

A couple in their 70s describe how each year they receive the same letter from the (Housing) department asking them to update their application and saying they are categorised as "moderate need".

"How can we be described as moderate need when we are elderly, paying 75 per cent of our income in rent, can hardly afford to put food on the table and our health is declining?" they ask.

The report recommends an increase in affordable housing, improved tenancy laws, improved housing information and more support for older people.

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