Western Australia is in the midst of its worst-ever housing crisis: an increasing number of suburbs have rental vacancy rates of 0%, meaning they go as soon as they are advertised.
The West Australian reported on March 19 the case of a woman living in the Peel region, south of Perth, who had to send her children back to live with her abusive husband after she lost her rental. Another was required to pay three months’ rent upfront and $30 per week above the asking price to secure the property for her five children and herself. The property, reportedly, has severe fungal problems but she had no choice — she was escaping domestic violence.
Meanwhile, according to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, older women are the fastest growing group to become homeless, with a 31% increase over 2011–2016.
This stems from a number of risks accrued by women over the course of their lifetime, not least the gender pay gap and low levels of superannuation. Add to this, an unaffordable and insecure private rental system and the situation is really grim.
For those living on the street, the situation is bleaker still. More than 100 rough sleepers have died on Perth’s streets since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing organisations estimate that well over 1000 people are sleeping rough across the city. First Nations people, who make up only 2.2% of WA’s population, make up around 40% of this group.
Efforts by housing activists and the homeless to draw attention to the shocking situation in the last couple of years have been derided by the WA government.
In response to the set-up of a homeless camp of about 100 people in Fremantle in December 2020, Premier Mark McGowan launched an arrogant attack on those helping coordinate food and support for them: he accused “professional activists” of exploiting vulnerable people.
Despite McGowan’s slander, activists’ efforts undoubtedly had an effect.
Last year, his government announced “the single biggest public housing investment in this state’s history”. But a combination of long-term neglect and Labor’s cuts to public housing by 4% or 1300 dwellings just in its last term of office, means this investment won’t go anywhere near meeting the need.
The problem of homelessness goes well beyond those sleeping rough: 17,320 WA households are on the social housing waitlist, more than 9000 without secure housing every night. Of these, 4100 access specialist homelessness services every day and two out of three of their requests for accommodation go unmet. Ninety-eight percent of rentals are not affordable for a person on a minimum wage and 50% of low-income households suffer rental stress.
Of course, the housing crisis is a national problem. The federal government tries to blow it off by claiming that housing is a state government responsibility.
However, previous federal governments have taken some significant initiatives. Kevin Rudd’s Labor government introduced the National Rental Affordability Scheme in 2008, which aimed to increase the supply of new and affordable rental dwellings by providing an annual financial incentive to property owners for up to 10 years.
This created affordable rentals at 20% below the market rate for low and middle-income earners. The scheme provided 22,000 properties nationwide but was axed by Coalition Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014 and closed to new entrants. As the 10 years have come to an end, investors are upping their rents to market value and thousands more will become homeless.
In an election year and when homelessness is at an all-time high, we urgently need a national response.
The federal government needs a national strategy that seeks to massively increase the stock of public housing. This would go a long way to dealing with a host of other social concerns including women escaping domestic violence, child protection, mental and physical health and drug and alcohol addiction.
A bigger chunk of WA’s $5.6 billion surplus last year, in combination with the federal government’s $100 billion earmarked for nuclear-powered submarines, could go a long way to resolving homelessness and housing insecurity.
We need to re-win the idea that, like healthcare and education, ensuring access to dignified affordable housing is a basic obligation of government. Green Left believes housing is a human right and should be guaranteed for all. If you agree, become a supporter and chuck in a donation — small or big — to our $200,000 Fighting Fund.