Today, the housing ‘market’ is never out of the news. Affordability, availability, development, investment, interest rates: the ever-cranking machinery of casino capitalism where the chips ‘flipped’ are investment properties and no longer the suburban dream home of the past. In the 21st century, the Australian paradigm of home ownership is increasingly subverted. The intrinsic function of housing was once to provide shelter, safety, a sense of community. Through the financialisation of housing, this has been superseded by a model of home ownership where property is an asset to generate wealth.
There are winners and losers in this financialisation of housing. Among the losers are Australian women, who are at the forefront of housing precarity.
Patterns of disadvantage in relation to women and housing have emerged across the globe, but in Australia are shaped by our history as a nation literally built on the ‘conquest’ – i.e. theft - of First Nations’ land.
Housing disadvantage in Australia is structural, it cascading in hierarchies of gender, Indigeneity, ‘race’, ability - even sexual identity. The gendered nature of Australia’s housing crisis is not the so-called ‘invisible hand’ of the market at work, (even if the typical housing investor is a 40-year-old male). Rather, it reflects deeply embedded hierarchies of power established under the colonial capitalist mission.
We can understand the structural or systemic nature of intensifying housing inequality by looking at the factors which make some ‘cohorts’ much more vulnerable – expendable? – than others. Indigenous women, women with disability, single women and single mothers, women fleeing domestic violence, primary carers, or women simply ageing are amongst those who experience housing inequality.
Poverty is core to housing insecurity. Family breakdown, unemployment, chronic illness and disability have all been shown to disproportionately impact upon women’s economic circumstances and therefore women and children’s housing outcomes. Single parent families, 83 per cent of whom are led by women, are particularly vulnerable. Single parents are known to spend the highest percentage of gross weekly income on housing, and families with children are one of the fastest growing groups experiencing homelessness, making up 64 percent of Australians seeking support from specialist homelessness services. Rather than being episodic and situational as once thought, family homeless is becoming chronic.
Homeless families face substantial and complex problems. The longer the period of homelessness, the greater the impact. Young mothers are particularly vulnerable to physical and mental health decline when homeless, to alcohol or drug dependency. Homeless children are known to suffer developmental issues and experience poorer health outcomes. Tragically, emerging US research also suggests these children are more likely to experience homelessness in later life.
Family violence is the principal driver of homelessness for women and children, with Indigenous women, younger women and pregnant women most vulnerable. Response services are woefully inadequate and chronically underfunded (although the federal Labor Government’s National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children may improve this). Housing support services are at breaking point and make no mistake, unequal outcomes in housing are seemingly s. We see this in voters rejecting Labor’s 2019 campaign promise to tackle negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount. We also see it in support for legislation such as that passed by the Gillard government in 2012 (on the same day as the famed misogyny speech) which pushed many single mothers “over the poverty line.”
Even in Victoria, where the state government responded to a Royal Commission into Family Violence with a $152 million ‘Family Violence Housing Blitz Package’, the numbers of women and children forced into insecure accommodation increase every year. And those may be the luckier ones: experiences of family violence can scar women’s rental records: being forced to move without notice, rent arrears, the destruction of (rental) property and other factors mean many women are forced to remain living with perpetrators as they cannot access the private rental market or secure social housing.
Australia’s housing market reflects global trends in housing financialisation and land grabbing of a finite resource. However, housing market failures in Australia can also be linked to domestic policies; policies put in place and enduring with the support of the Australian electorate. This sees massive incentives for landlords property speculators through the capital gains tax discount and negative gearing. Indeed, the tax revenue losses of negative gearing alone roughly equate to the amount paid in Commonwealth Rent Assistance. However we frame policy choices, they are not accidental. They are structured in and reinforced by how we choose to live our lives: Australian values, Australian culture.
We can see this in the nature of funding for so-called affordable housing announced in the October 25th Labor Budget. Funding that will bolster both the construction industry and the market model more broadly: it does nothing to address fundamental system issues. Perhaps not surprising when we understand that ‘the majority of federal politicians are in a class of their own when it comes to property ownership, with many holding sizeable portfolios that most of their constituents could only ever dream of’. With more than half of Australian politicians investing in housing, one might argue that if you actively engage in the investment paradigm, you are part of the system, not part of the solution.
That Australia’s housing market fails can be of no doubt. On any given night, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, 1 in 200 people experience homelessness while over one million homes were sitting vacant on Census night 2016, over half Prosper Australia suggests, as ‘speculative vacancies’.
Australia’s enthusiasm for individual wealth over collective wellbeing rewards attainment of a housing ‘portfolio’ over and above addressing homelessness. In addition to issues of unaffordability, substandard housing quality and sustainable building practices also present the failure of the market to address the climate crisis and the wellbeing of Australians more broadly. We are a nation where housing developers hold significant power and political influence - spheres where women have traditionally lacked a voice - and that politicians are, as Crikey reported this year, ‘the most prolific real estate investors out of any profession in Australia’.
As both ownership and private rental costs spiral, the pool of affordable properties diminishes. In Victoria, only 1.3% of dwellings were affordable for a single mother with one child in 2020. Only three properties in total were affordable in Sydney, for a single person relying on ‘social security’ payments, even with Commonwealth Rental Assistance.
The unaffordability of housing puts massive pressure on social rental housing, where we now see waitlists of up to two years for even the highest priority cases, including women and children fleeing family violence and older women. Of course without affordable or ‘social’ options, gendered homelessness proliferates. Subsidies, brokerage and other incentives to enter the private rental market are inadequate. Even when women overcome routine discrimination by landlords with many potential tenants to choose from, they experience evictions, rent rises and frequent moves which disrupt schooling, service access and social networks for families.
The common response to Australia’s housing crisis is a call to ‘increase supply of social housing’ and meeting the housing needs of vulnerable populations must always be our priority. However, shifting the full financial burden of housing market failure onto taxpayers, rather than those who profit so significantly, seems disingenuous and short-term. It also means that systemic problems such as land-banking, short-term letting and the proliferation of ‘holiday homes’ - all crying out for robust government intervention - go largely ignored.
The housing vulnerabilities experienced by women increase as we age. The 2011 census identified women over-55 as a new and growing cohort at risk of homelessness and in the decade since the problem has only become acute. Barriers to paid employment are key: older women spend three times as long on Jobseeker than people under 25. . Many older women are also ‘sandwich carers’, looking after both children and ageing parents; even parents-in-law. As I wrote for Per Capita Australia, back in 2019, ageing women face a ‘triple threat’ of housing insecurity, increasing care needs, and vulnerability to social isolation. This is particularly poignant when we consider that the same research piece suggested that older women may experience ‘home’ in a different, more relational way than other groups. Older women currently comprise 16 percent of homeless Australians.
The numbers of Australians achieving outright home ownership by the time they retire is decreasing. Significant barriers for first time buyers (of all ages), means that the housing crisis will snowball. Even those fortunate enough to get on the ‘property ladder’ can expect mortgage debt 600% higher than that of 30 years ago. And if these mortgagees are women, they are likely to be paying higher interest rates.
That one third of women in Australia facing retirement are single puts them ‘at high risk of housing stress’., Australian women retire on average, with half the savings of Australian men; a third with no superannuation at all. It is not surprising that many older women are experiencing homelessness for the first time. This homelessness often takes the form of couch surfing, living in a car, house sitting, rendering it less visible than the stereotypical rough sleeping. As a result, older women may miss out on support they are eligible for. Additionally, their “strong sense of pride…makes it difficult to ask for help”.
There are many policy solutions to mitigate Australia’s (gendered) housing crisis. One key area for development is cohousing, a model emerging for older women in other countries but only nascent in Australia. And nor do we need to build new; our suburbs are already ripe for retrofitting housing to meet both homelessness and longer term housing needs.
Across NENA Housing Week, we shall hear from a range of experts, advocates and people with lived experience of homelessness and housing precarity. We shall hear of the myriad of solutions which collectively, could really ensure housing equality for all Australians.
Unless we tackle our culture of greed and individual over collective ownership however, gendered - and broader - housing disadvantage will only proliferate.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6695950/
-  Davidson, P., Saunders, P., Bradbury, B. and Wong, M. (2020), Poverty in Australia 2020: Part 1, Overview. ACOSS/UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report No. 3, Sydney: ACOSS.
-  A Sydney Morning Herald article from August 2022 estimates 5-6 billion dollars per annum to be the costs of negative gearing. In 2020-2021, the Australian Government spent 5.4 billion on CRA.
-  https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2049.0Explanatory Notes12011; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-17/vacancy-tax-wont-solve-australias-empty-housing-problem/8709184
-  Department of Social Services data in: https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/2019/07/17/surprising-age-newstart/
-  https://percapita.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Mutual-Appreciation_formFINAL.pdf
-  How other cohorts experience housing was not within scope of this thinkpiece.
-  This is theorised as women having less financial literacy although not backed by evidence.
-  https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=73b1524f-fa47-458c-a447-99c1a42c8c9b&subId=406297, page 20
-  https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/ahrc_ow_homelessness2019.pdf, pages 11-13
-  ‘Queer cohousing’, for another marginalised group of Australians is also an option to be explored, as I argue in the pending ‘Neuroqueering Public Policy: Queer Cohousing’. Due to be published in November 2022.