SUSAN RYAN. Older women need housing too.

In the growing discourse around affordable housing, the federal and some state governments are edging forwards. Recently proposed changes have merit, but they may exclude poorer older women in need of housing.  

Single, older women are amongst the most marginalised groups in terms of their access to safe and affordable housing. The 2011 Census found that 36% of older homeless people were women and the number of older women renting in the private rental market increased from 91,000 in 2006 to 135,000 in 2011.The numbers would have grown significantly since then. Older women in today’s inflated rental market are vulnerable to big rent hikes, or to lease terminations, leaving them facing homelessness.

Their circumstances require policy focus, and it seems that with the new measures recently proposed or announced, focus is lacking.

Even if the federal Treasurer’s idea of setting up an aggregated bond trust, to entice major institutional investors into providing significant funds for community organisations to build and operate affordable housing for rent does happen, there will be a long list of eligible renters. Guidelines for access must provide that older low income individuals are treated fairly along with young families. This bond proposal has attracted support from successful community providers such as the NSW Federation of Housing Associations, whose members supply and manage affordable housing successfully but are constrained by lack of funds to develop and acquire more properties. With this new scheme, as with the previous national Rental Affordability Scheme, NRAS, there is a challenge to focus more closely on the target population of beneficiaries, which must include older women as well as men and young families.

Even if the Victorian government’s new package of measures succeeds in reducing the size of the deposit needed, and with government as equity partner creates a lower initial mortgage requirement, we would still be left with gaping holes in housing policy. Very few single low income older women would be likely to pursue home ownership under the new Victorian measures, important though they will be for other deserving groups.

Much media and political attention is directed to the obstacles facing young first home buyers, and for good reason. They are locked out of purchase by impossibly high prices fuelled by tax favoured investors who absorb supply, existing and new, as soon as it comes on the market. These tax cosseted investors often don’t even bother to make their favourably acquired properties available for rental. Premier Andrews’ proposed tax on investors who leave properties vacant is a positive move.

In the context of increasing the supply of homes that most first home buyers can afford however, Treasurer Morrison’s insistence on supply as the main solution is inadequate. He has no proposals to target supply to lower income people, people who need a home to live in. As well as reducing investor friendly tax concessions, he could encourage his state counterparts to mandate inclusionary zoning, so that a proportion of all new developments must go on the market at prices lower income people can afford, and be available only to those who will live in the properties, not to investors.

Community housing organisations are leading the way in managing affordable rentals successfully and equitably, and would continue to do so if they can get many more units to manage. They will get these extra homes if the new schemes target the intended market clearly so that rip offs and unintended consequences are avoided. The Labor government’s NRAS scheme(National Rental Affordability Scheme) had many successes, but lost favour and focus because the intended beneficiaries were not clearly defined. Quantities of subsidised housing intended for poorer people went to campus accommodation. Noting that the highly successful provider of affordable rentals, Bridgestone Housing in NSW has recently brought on stream some high quality low cost apartments at Ashfield, supported by NRAS, it seems the time to revise that scheme rather than abandon it.

We have a crisis of housing affordability affecting all age groups including older women. If a substantial increase in supply of affordable housing is not forthcoming soon, there will be more cohorts of people reaching retirement each year without secure housing

Because of the obstacles to young would be purchasers, the age of people entering the first home purchase market for the first time is much higher than it used to be. Nearly 10% are attempting this purchase for the first time between 45 and 54 years, compared with a bit more than a decade ago just over 7%. Some hopeful first time purchasers are over 55 and some are over 65. There are many social and economic reasons why older people don’t own a home. The pipeline effect of people getting older without being able to purchase will produce even higher numbers of homeless older people, most whom will be women.

Access to affordable housing, for purchase or as secure rental, should be the top priority for federal and state governments, who need to agree on the guiding principle that all Australians must have access to homes regardless of age. They should set up practical cooperative policy implementation across all tiers of government, and work with the successful community housing sector.

If the policy aim is housing for all, we require innovation beyond tax reform and new sources of private funding. Many older people are single. If there were more innovative home sharing arrangements in place, some could look to shared ownership. Small well designed studios near to amenities at lower cost would be the answer for others. Incentives by federal, state and local government should promote new lower cost units that are liveable and affordable, and can be shared.

At present, federal funding for homelessness and domestic and family violence crisis services via both the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness is at risk. Older women need these programs, as do others.

In the case of homeless older women there is no strategy from Federal or State Government for responding to their crisis.

No targets have been set, evidence is not being systematically gathered to understand the scale and nature of the problem, and no funds have been allocated to respond to the issue.

As affordable housing gains traction at policy level, these gaps must be addressed.

Susan Ryan AO is the former Age Discrimination Commissioner at the AHRC. She was a cabinet minister in the Hawke government and led a number of superannuation bodies. 

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