Older People and the Housing Crisis
This article by HAAG Executive office Fiona York was originally published in Chain Reaction.
The housing crisis is disproportionately impacting on some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. Despite the media’s attempt to pit the generations against each other with “boomer vs millennial” tropes, home ownership in this country is largely determined by intergenerational wealth transfer, rather than age. Yet often, the impact of the housing crisis on older people is hidden from view.
Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) is a community organization that has been campaigning for housing justice for older people since 1983. We believe in a society where older people have safe, secure and affordable housing, and seek to raise awareness and influence decision makers to improve the housing circumstances of older people. This article will explore the latest research on housing trends for older people.
Why is private rental unsuitable?
Having a safe, affordable home is the most important factor for health and wellbeing. To be able to age in place , older people need to have housing which is affordable, accessible and secure. These elements often do not exist in the private rental markets. Private rental laws vary across the country. In some states, there are still “no grounds” evictions meaning even a “good” renter can be evicted at any time. Short term leases mean that there is no guarantee of staying in private rental long-term. There are no minimum standards for accessibility, meaning that if your mobility decreases as you age, you can’t live in many rental houses – for example, houses with stairs, narrow corridors, or showers over baths.
Affordable housing is defined as paying no more than 30% of your income on rent. This is not the case for most people living in private rental on low incomes, who may be paying 90-100% of their income on rent.
More older people renting
More and more older people are renting, or retiring with a mortgage. Latest research commissioned by HAAG and undertaken by Swinburne, Curtin and Western Sydney Universities examines the 2021 census data , shows:
- Nearly 700, 000 people aged over 55 are renting from private landlords,
- Over half of these people are in the lowest income quintiles
- Over 1.5 million people are either at retirement age, or approaching retirement, without having paid off their mortgage, and many of these people are on the lowest incomes.
Many older renters who are relying on income support payments, especially those over 55 years on JobSeeker are at very high risk of homelessness due to the rapidly growing rental crisis. The largest cohort receiving JobSeeker are people over 55 years old
Not all older people are the same.
The main driver of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. A lack of access to affordable housing impacts differently on different groups of people, and some groups of people have more systemic barriers than others.
Older Women – “the hidden homeless”
Older women are the fastest growing group of people facing homelessness. We estimate there are 405,000 older women at risk of homelessness in Australia.
Multiple structural and systemic issues, as well as changes to personal circumstances, can increase an older women’s risk of homelessness. Rising housing costs, eviction, job loss, financial instability, domestic violence or elder abuse, the end of a relationship, sudden illness and disability or a combination of these factors can result in older women experiencing homelessness later in life. These challenges are exacerbated for older women who have been in the largely feminised and low paid care sector, taking time off work for care responsibilities and have limited superannuation.
Since the start of the pandemic, women have been found to be more likely to live in poverty than men and tend to stay in poverty for longer; additionally, rates of poverty for older women have risen.
Many older women are “hidden” and do not present at homelessness services. They may be couch surfing, pet sitting, or travelling in vans, not recognizing that they are “homeless” or not knowing where to go for help. Many have managed their whole lives and have not needed services before, or think that there is someone worse off than them. Many are facing homelessness for the first time in older age.
"I’ve always been frugal, extremely careful with my choices. But I had a marriage breakdown, an abusive one, and then I had to go through a long time of being primary carer for my child. It takes its toll, it’s a lot of pressure. I’m a strong person, so I coped. I coped with sickness, financial burden, as a single parent, but I got through.” Priscilla, 67, Melbourne
Older LGBTI People
The public perception of LGBTI people is largely one of a young, affluent community. However, the reality is that within the LGBTI community a large share of LGBTI adults are older, have a low-socioeconomic status and are at risk of homelessness.
There are significant research gaps in the experiences of older LGBTI Australians and housing. Throughout 2019-2020 HAAG surveyed and interviewed 228 older LGBTI people aged between 50 and 85 years of age about their housing. We found that more older LGBTI people have experienced homelessness than their non-LGBTI counterparts and are in circumstances that place them at risk of homelessness, including:
- Lower numbers own their own homes outright, and significant numbers are in private rental, even at retirement age.
- High numbers living in “informal” housing arrangements such as share housing, living with ex-partners or renting from friends
- Significant numbers of older LGBTI people live with disabilities and are in caring roles
- LGBTI elders are 7 times more likely to live alone than the general older population
- Although older LGBTI people are at a greater risk of homelessness, they do not recognise that they are at risk and 60% of LGBTI older people do not know where to go for help and information about their housing options
“I am terrified of becoming homeless in the future… I have no family or friends to ask for support” John, 55, Gay, on the Disability Support Pension
There are a lack of affordable housing options for older LGBTI people, a lack of LGBTI friendly homelessness services and a lack of appropriate community education about housing options to prevent older LGBTI people becoming homeless.
As a consequence of colonialism, racism, the impact of stolen generations, dispossession from land, culture and traditional social structures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities experience disproportionately high levels of financial stress and homelessness.
“When our elders are not housed or not housed properly, they are the hub of the family. All the family will congregate around the elders, they’ll support them, they’ll be there with them, they will see them daily, they will want to interact with them, that’s their teaching for the future, that’s the stability. So if the stability isn’t there for the elders, then its not there for the family.” Teresa Jasper. Wamba Wamba woman
Aboriginal people persistently report that they experience discrimination in the private rental market and this, combined with high rents, digital exclusion, and poor quality housing, means that Aboriginal people are “excluded from the start” from obtaining housing .
Older Culturally and Linguistically Diverse people
Migration history plays an important part in housing security and risk of homelessness. Post-war migrants who migrated as younger people may be home owners and own multiple homes, however, they can be at increased risk of being exploited or even abused by adult family members upon whom they rely upon for navigating Australian services or translating documents.
“Some people can be settled (in Australia) for a long time, they sign as a guarantor for their family, and lose their house when their children go broke.” Serbian Community Reference Group Member
People who migrated as older people, for example, on grandparent visas, may be living under “assurances of support”, limiting their housing options if things go wrong with family. Refugees and people on temporary protection visas may not be eligible for public and community housing. Many face racism in the private rental market. Language barriers and poverty make online service navigation difficult.
"A lot of parents are selling their property [overseas] so they can pay for a visa to come to Australia. Then when they come to Australia they are treated as a ‘free domestic worker’ or ‘free babysitter’ for their children… Because they are not eligible for social security for 10 years, even if they face the problem of homelessness, they aren’t eligible for support” Chinese Community Reference Group Member
Climate change and housing
Climate change has disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable communities. For example, older people, especially women are overrepresented in heatwave related mortality statistics .
There are no minimum standards for rental properties that may mitigate the effect of extreme weather. Older renters can’t cool down their hot, poorly insulated homes, as the cost of electricity rises. A recent study by ACOSS showed that 90% of Centrelink recipients were getting sick from not being able to cool their homes. Heatwaves are not considered an “emergency” therefore do not receive a coordinated emergency response, like bushfires and floods, with local governments often taking the lead on providing support to residents.
However, these supports often rely on having money (eg. going to airconditioned shopping centres) or transport (going to the pool), which older renters may not have.
Housing affordability and homelessness is a political choice. We need more investment in well-designed and well-located public housing, stronger rental laws to protect renters and a building code that enforces minimum standards for energy efficiency and accessibility. Older people need a range of housing options – rental villages, housing co-operatives, public and community housing, and even private rental can work for older people if they are underpinned with the minimum requirements for a healthy life, that is, affordability, accessibility, comfort and security of tenure.
Many older people are activists, volunteers, community workers – as younger people, they may have travelled around, squatted, lived in big share houses, dumpster dived, and survived on low incomes. But this becomes harder and harder as you get older. The reality is if you are a single person aged over 55 and living in private rental, you may be at risk of homelessness. We need to address the systemic issues impacting on housing inequality and fight for housing justice as part of our response to environment and climate issues.