SUSAN RYAN. A roof over their heads.

Nov 27, 2017

The Annual Report for 2016 of the Women’s Housing Company demonstrates solutions to the terrible and growing situation of older women facing homelessness. These solutions however continue to elude policy makers, the media and business, whose failures to recognise the size of the problem and its costs to the public purse inflict great damage on the human rights of poorer older women.

The disadvantage experienced by older women vulnerable to homelessness is not just a function of age. It is an accumulation of a lifetime of gender discrimination. They have spent most of their lives in the workforce, in lower paid jobs because they are women. Years out of the workforce to raise children put big gaps in their superannuation savings, and most of them did not have paid parental leave. Later they had to reduce working hours, or give up their jobs completely, to care for frail parents, again without any fair compensation or superannuation.

When they finally retire, or are forced out of paid work by age discrimination or health issues, they have no home, no savings and usually just the age pension to live on.

They cannot afford private rents and they are usually not eligible for public housing. There are no public policies targeted to support these women. They are supported by community organisations like the Women’s Housing Company, who house many hundreds of women every year in their 769 properties across the Sydney region. Some tenants are escaping family violence, some have come out of jails, some are just poor. Around half are over 65 years of age.  The Company is successful in accessing government programs. Half their income comes from tenants’ rents and they get some philanthropic support. They return a profit. With more funds they could do more.

This form of community housing works, it houses people securely and saves public spending on health, residential aged care, crisis accommodation and prisons. Public policy should reflect the evidence that women safely housed retain better health and are able to contribute through paid work or community activity. Where are the national or state-wide strategies to get similar success across government initiatives? Scant attention was paid to the needs of older women in the various new housing policies announced at federal and state level over the last year.

The federal Treasurer’s proposal in the last Budget to set up an aggregated bond trust, to entice major institutional investors like superfunds into providing significant funds for community organisations to build and operate affordable housing for rent will, if competently implemented, bring welcome extra investment into this area. The policy challenge will remain to focus on the target population of beneficiaries, which must include older women, the neglected but fastest growing of the cohorts facing homelessness.

The Victorian government’s recent package of measures may reduce the size of the deposit needed by purchasers, and may create a lower initial mortgage requirement. Very few single low income older women would be likely to pursue home ownership under the Victorian measures.

A similar blind spot prevails in NSW. The government’s stamp duty concessions will perhaps prove useful for first home buyers, but again the focus is on young people locked out of purchase by impossibly high prices fuelled by tax-favoured investors who absorb supply as soon as it comes on the market. Often the tax-cosseted investors don’t even bother to make their favourably acquired properties available for rental. Although recent measures by APRA and the Victorian government have tightened concessions for investors, they remain unfairly advantaged.

In the context of increasing the supply of affordable homes, Federal Treasurer Morrison’s insistence on supply as the main solution is inadequate.

Premier Berejiklian also seems captive to the “increase the supply” solution, without acknowledging that unless a significant proportion of new supply is targeted by regulation to low income purchasers, or to community providers serving low income renters, the new supply will continue to be snapped up by the high income and investor sectors.

The NSW government needs to mandate inclusionary zoning, so that a realistic proportion of all new developments must go on the market at prices low income people can afford, and be available only to those who will live in the properties. State Labor has announced a strong policy of requiring 25% affordable on new developments but we are 18 months or so off from the possibility of a change of government. If we are looking for roofs to put over the heads of vulnerable older women now, we need implementation of inclusionary zoning as an urgent priority.

Every year the cohort of older people reaching retirement without owning a home and without significant superannuation savings is larger. Home ownership among older Australians is declining.

The age of people entering the home purchase market for the first time is much higher than it used to be. 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 secure rental, should be the top priority for federal and state governments. They should set up practical cooperative policy implementation across all tiers of government, and work with successful community housing providers and developers.

If the policy aim is housing for all, we need innovation beyond tax reform and new sources of private funding. Many older people are single.  With innovative home-sharing arrangements, some could look to shared ownership.  Small well-designed studios near to amenities have lower costs and would be the answer for others. Public policy should pursue the interest by some major developers in build to rent projects where the developer remains the landlord and makes profits from long term rental income. This could be part of the solution only if approval requires such projects to meet the long term needs of older and other low income renters, and utilise the management capacities of community sector.

Even with some helpful government initiatives in place, in the case of homeless older women there is no national or federal/state cooperative plan for responding specifically and systematically to their crisis.

We need targets, comprehensive evidence about the scale and nature of the problem, and more funds. Accessible centralised Information services should be set up. As affordable housing gains traction at policy level, the gaps in specific provision for the needs of poorer older women must be addressed.

(This is a summary of an address to the 2017 AGM of the Women’s Housing Company.)

 Susan Ryan AO was Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission and a minister in the Hawke cabinet.


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