The Guardian • Issue #1965

WA housing crisis

Since the moratorium on evictions and rent-rises ran out at the end of March, Western Australia has been experiencing a housing crisis and a rising number of unhoused people as we head into winter.

The pandemic and ensuing housing crisis are disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable members of our community, such as women fleeing domestic violence, children, Indigenous people, single-parent families, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

WA’s rental vacancy rate has reached a forty-year low of less than one per cent, while rent has been on the rise. Many rental property prices have become out of reach for people with low-moderate incomes. Many people are being forced out of rental homes they’ve resided in for some time as landlords increase their rent. One family reported an increase in their rent of $270 per week, a fifty-five per cent jump from what they had been paying. They had no choice but to find new accommodation as they couldn’t afford the increase. Before the moratorium’s end, Housing Minister John Carey said he would not extend protections for tenants despite still being in a precarious situation due to the pandemic. He offered these wise and compassionate words of advice to landlords: they should think of their tenants before increasing rent prices. Helpful!

At the end of April, just a month after the moratorium ended, the rate of homelessness had increased by fifty-eight per cent and the public housing waitlist had already received 16,660 applications – the list had around 15,000 applicants before 29th March. The average time on this waitlist is around two years and this situation is predicted to worsen in the coming months.

It is estimated that there’s a shortfall of over 39,000 public housing units and almost 20,000 affordable homes around WA as the list of people waiting for public housing rapidly increases.

The WA government has only built 119 public housing properties in the last three years. In that same period, they also sold off 1150 public housing properties.

Housing Minister John Carey has done little to address the issue of public housing, instead focusing on the fact that 23,000 new private homes have been approved for construction, with many of these homes being purchased by first homeowners. “As people move from being tenants to homeowners, we will see more [private] rentals open up, helping to ease the pressures we are currently experiencing,” he said. However, this does little to address the people who are already homeless or facing homelessness and the spike in average rental costs that are pricing many people out of the market.

Women fleeing domestic violence are feeling the full impact of this crisis. Many have had to remain in dangerous situations or have had to return to perpetrators in an attempt to protect their children from homelessness – even voiding Violence Restraining Orders (VROs) to do so. South West Refuge reported that the amount of time women are staying in their shelters has nearly tripled since the beginning of the pandemic. Minister Carey’s remarks about newly built homes opening up spaces in rentals do little to address assistance for people requiring immediate public housing, such as the women and children in these circumstances.

WA’s gender pay gap is by far the worst in Australia at 22.9 per cent – the next being Queensland at 15.9 per cent. Along with WA’s average weekly childcare costs of $475 and only 37.9 per cent of women having full-time work, single mothers are some of the most vulnerable in the housing crisis. The insufficiency of legislated rental protections is an attack on single mothers with dependents, who already face adversity in finding housing on one income.

Indigenous people in WA have long been fighting for housing rights. The pandemic has only worsened their situation. While only making up three per cent of WA’s population, Indigenous people account for forty-one per cent of the unhoused population. In November last year they marched on parliament house to bring attention to the suffering of unhoused Indigenous people and demand housing initiatives that authentically meet the material and cultural needs of their communities. “We will never Close the Gap in First Nations injustice and disadvantage without a serious and sustained commitment to provide homes for the families who need them,” Megan Krakouer, Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, said.

This issue isn’t isolated to WA either; people around Australia are vulnerable to losing their housing as the Australian government refuses to extend Jobkeeper payments and Jobseeker COVID supplement payments, and state governments refuse to extend moratoria on evictions and rent increases to protect tenants. In Queensland, potential tenants sometimes offer $100 per week over the asking price in the hope of securing housing. In the Northern Territory, renting is now more expensive than buying, as rent regularly exceeds $400 per week. NT tenants feel pressure to pay higher rent and many were evicted with no grounds – even while rental “protections” were in place. In NSW, social services and housing are already at capacity with 1mil people in the state dependent on these services. Similarly in the ACT, the social housing waitlist has increased to an average three-and-a-half-year wait. The strain on already limited public housing leaves many fighting for a place to live.

Victoria has faced its own unique challenges with especially lengthy and numerous lockdowns. Many workers are casuals, and these lockdowns have left renters facing eviction, or even having to self-evict due to financial stresses. Once evicted, this also affects their ability to secure accommodation or even purchase a house in the future. The Renters and Housing Union (RAHU) in Victoria has created a petition demanding that the COVID-19 rental protections be reinstated; amnesty on rental payments be enacted through the duration of the stage 4 restrictions; and a $500 stimulus support payment be provided to all renters in Victoria.

Homeowners still remain vulnerable to the housing stresses of the pandemic. 41.3 per cent in NSW are now in mortgage distress – an increase from 38.2 per cent in April. In Canberra, 42 per cent of families are struggling with mortgage stress, up from 38.3 per cent. In Tasmania, 56.8 per cent of households are in mortgage stress, and more than 40 per cent in WA.

The housing crisis has also opened the door for many scammers to take advantage of people desperate for housing. WA ScamNet has recorded a marked increase in rental scams since around September last year, as scammers take advantage of people in desperate situations. Many of these victims have been single mothers, including one woman who was scammed out of $3600 leaving her and her four children homeless.

Why does the Australian government refuse to put any real planning into public housing? Because in this system, housing is a commodity first, not a human right. The interests of the “housing market” – i.e., property investors and speculators – come before the needs and dignity of human beings. The threat of homelessness is a fear tactic and a boost to demand that pushes prices further up.

There have been studies undertaken in Australia weighing up the cost of providing public housing versus the cost of homelessness. Ignoring the issue of homelessness is proven to be more expensive, puts more strain onto the healthcare system and increases rates of otherwise avoidable crime.

Ensuring that housing is a right guaranteed to all Australians is perfectly achievable and sensible. The only thing standing in the way is the fact that the government does not care to achieve it. The interests of the wealthy property investors come first, even if it is at a greater expense to the state.

To overcome this, we need a fundamental change in governance – a people’s government that puts the needs of the working people first.

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