SUSAN RYAN. Older women – the new homeless.

Oct 24, 2016


It is more than timely that focus on increasing inequality in Australia include recognition of a massive contributing factor: the lack of affordable housing, especially for older women.

Several groups have been identified as severely disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing: unemployed young people, single parent families, and low paid workers who need to live near their place of work. Older women, especially single older women need to be recognised as facing an increased risk of homelessness.

How has this come about?

First, there is Australia’s ageing revolution. Average life expectancy for women is stretching to 90 and beyond, but women still work fewer years than men, earn less, and can save less to support these extended years. Older women have little chance of getting their own home, especially if they are single. The disadvantages of poor older women are the culmination of a lifetime experience of sexism and discrimination, especially in the jobs market.

Women face employment discrimination at every stage. They earn less, and get less superannuation. They are denied access to skills training and professional development, and are blocked from senior roles. Financial support for parental leave is minimal, and mothers face barriers returning to paid work.

Typically, it is women who undertake caring roles for elderly parents and family members with disability. To do this they may need to leave the workforce entirely. Most of this caring work is unpaid.

Different from previous generations and creating new inequalities, more women as they approach age pension age are single.

According to the most recent census (for which we have results), 2011, nearly 700,000 women were single, over 45 years, had less than median income and did not own their own home. From this data, it has been projected that more than 500,000 women are likely to fall into housing stress over the next two decades.

As we move through the second decade of the 21st century, we face challenges arising from economic and social change.

Some such as improved medical practice or new technologies are beneficial, others have created hardship. When the dislocations of a globalised economy destroy blue collar jobs in manufacturing, and low skill white collar jobs, women as well as men are forced into early retirement and poverty. Once the jobs go, home ownership, and family cohesion go too. Relationship breakdown has become more common, usually affecting women worse.

Ageism and health issues see labour force participation decline sharply with age: in November 2015, about 73% of Australians aged 55–59 years were participating in the labour force, compared with 56% of those aged 60‑64, and around 12% of those aged 65 years and over.[i]

With only a little over 12% of over 65s working, how are the other 87% are supporting themselves?

When individuals reach age pension age owning a home, or sharing a home, the situation is manageable. With the age pension, supplemented by public health services, various concessions and some super, home owning older people can get by.

The proportion of Australians reaching pension age owning a home is in decline. A generation ago, most people retired with a house. This is less and less the case. Women who are single at the end of their working lives and don’t own a house cannot afford private rents.

Neither the market nor public policy supports these women. They rely on charities to provide them with some sort of accommodation, often temporary and insecure. They sleep in their cars, if indeed they have a car, or are forced to move in with family or friends, a situation which is intrinsically short term.

The fundamental barrier to these women living out their older years in security and dignity is the lack of affordable housing.

The shocking aspect of this new face of poverty is that most of the women involved have not experienced long term serious illness, and have worked most of their lives, often in good, middle level jobs. They may have once owned a house, but lost it through relationship breakdown, domestic violence, business failure or sheer bad luck. They would not be eligible for public housing in NSW. The NSW housing minister advises we have a waiting list of around 60,000, most of them people with significant problems who must be accommodated ahead of our well and capable, but poor older women.

We need to ask, of our governments and of our private sector developers, why is it that when we see evidence of a continuing housing boom, with the construction of dwellings at an all-time high, that a proportion of these new dwellings cannot be offered at an affordable rent?

In parts of Europe, government requires about 20% of new developments to be affordable. Here, we don’t do that. The massive new developments at Barangaroo, developed on what was public land have only 2.8% of units available as affordable housing. What stopped the state government from insisting on 20%?

Commercial factors are not the obstacle. New housing developments are hugely profitable, and would remain so even if the state government were to require a 20% affordability component.

The St Vincent de Paul Society is developing a mass petition to urge the NSW government to require at least 15% of units in all new developments be affordable. The Commonwealth government needs to become more active. It pays income support to all who because of unemployment, illness, disability or age, cannot earn an income.

People who are securely housed are healthier, happier, more able to get paid work, and cost the Commonwealth less.

Aged care is funded entirely by the Commonwealth. It pays for care delivered to a person’s home. Individuals prefer this, and the costs to government are much lower than residential aged care. To receive care at home, one must have a home.

Mission Australia, St Vincent de Paul, Brotherhood of St Laurence, and various housing associations and ngos are demonstrating how to provide, allocate and maintain affordable housing. They need more public funding to extend their efforts. We need immediate solutions.

At the same time, so that we won’t be facing worse problems in 25 years’ time, we need to continue efforts to get rid of entrenched workforce and pay inequity for women, and improve support for women for their home based caring roles.

Susan Ryan AO has recently completed a five-year term as Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights commission.She also served as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She has led several superannuation bodies, was Senator for the ACT 1975-1988 and a minister in the Hawke cabinet 1983-1988


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