Reclaim the right to shelter
On March 28, the Senate passed a resolution congratulating organisations and groups across Australia providing essential services to people who are homeless, including the Larrakia Nation, Darwin; 24/7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space, Sydney; Food Not Bombs, Adelaide; After Dark Saints, Brisbane; South West Australian Homeless People; and the Homeless Persons Union, Victoria. The motion, moved by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, also called on the federal government to increase federal funding for homelessness services and public housing, and ensure the money is spent effectively.
The following is Senator Rhiannon’s contribution during the debate on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017:
When it comes to the housing crisis it is clear that young people are getting done over. It was not so long ago that houses were recognised as homes for people, but now they are increasingly commodities to make money from.
A generation ago you only needed three or four times your annual income to buy a home; now it is more like 10 times in our big capital cities. Government used to intervene into the market to ensure homes for all, but it is now a cutthroat world with millions in housing-related stress.
There is clearly a generational divide, but we must remember that many older people are also doing it very tough. In particular, owing to the sexist nature of our workplaces and retirement benefit schemes, older women are increasingly being left without a secure, affordable home. Just remember these figures: 105,000 Australians face homelessness every night and over 40 percent of these are women. Fifty-five percent of homeless women are fleeing domestic violence.
Last year, the government threatened to cut the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH). Thanks to the tireless work of housing campaigners, including an open letter signed by 209 major charities and frontline services, it was saved for another year. A cut would have impacted some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
Unless the NPAH is extended and increased we will see more people living on the streets, more women facing family violence and sexual assault alone, fewer young people going to school, higher unemployment and more admissions to emergency departments. All these things are connected.
Not spending enough on homelessness is particularly harmful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who disproportionately experience both family violence and homelessness.
Why are so many women finding themselves homeless? The issue is of course complex. However, there are two major reasons why this has become a major crisis. Housing has become a commodity in international financial markets. House prices continue to escalate in major urban centres. Housing has become unaffordable for the average resident.
The Liberal-National government argues that the solution is to increase the stock of housing. Developers and investors, including foreign investors, are being encouraged to build more housing, with tax breaks to encourage this. But in fact, according to a recent UN report, a significant portion of investor-owned homes are simply left empty – for example, one report estimates that 82,000, or about one-fifth, of investor owned units in Melbourne are unoccupied.
In such markets the value of housing is no longer based on its social use. Properties are equally valuable to these people regardless of whether they are vacant or occupied. They are built with the intention of lying empty and accumulating value, realised thanks to the unfair tax breaks on capital gains.
Developers and speculators are likely to replace affordable housing that is needed locally with luxury housing that sits vacant because that is how best to turn a profit quickly. This goes to the heart of why there is the housing crisis that we have today.
United Nations special rapporteur for housing Leilani Farha said it best in her recent report: Housing has … become a financial commodity, robbed of its connection to community, dignity and the idea of home. Women and children are most vulnerable to this disconnection.
There are many reasons for this, all embedded in an unjust patriarchal society that privileges male control over female human rights. For example, women are still more likely to have low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs. As single mothers, women have less opportunity to find suitable employment. When domestic violence occurs, women are often forced to flee and often lose the family home.
Domestic assault in NSW has risen from a rate of 257 per 100,000 people in 1995, reaching a high of 400 incidents per 100,000 people in 2014. Similarly, reports of family violence incidents in Victoria have increased steadily since 2010-11, with an 8.8 percent increase from 2013-14 to the following financial year. The private rental market is also becoming increasingly unaffordable. This also creates gender segregation.
In Australia, average-income single female workers can afford to live in only one suburb of Melbourne and cannot afford to live anywhere in Sydney. Older women are even more vulnerable to extreme poverty and homelessness. They are more likely than men to experience discrimination during their lifetime of employment, are very likely to spend much of their retirement years living alone, have relatively little access to superannuation and are likely to experience severe poverty in their old age.
Indeed, one study found that 51 percent of older women over 85 live in or near poverty. Older women, especially those living alone, become particularly vulnerable to homelessness if they are in the private rental market and dependent on the pension.
The number of older women renting in the private rental market is increasing, from 91,000 in the 2006 census to 135,000 in 2011. The vulnerability increases in the case of a medical crisis or a chronic medical condition, as successive governments have cut Medicare down to the bone.
According to a new report from the Mercy Foundation, women older than 55 are being squeezed out of the private rental market in Melbourne as real estate prices continue to rise. As a result, more, older middle class women are being exposed to homelessness, especially those who have led traditional roles raising a family.
Adequate housing must be seen as a human right. It is not a commodity. Older women – our mums, our grandmothers, our aunties – are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. We are now in a major social crisis, and it will get worse if we do nothing. Governments must intervene to revitalise public housing and take on the real estate speculators and big banks. We owe it to those women to reclaim housing as a right and a social good.