Renters are increasingly spending high proportions of their weekly income on housing without adequate heating or cooling, a new report by the Anti-Poverty Network South Australia (APNSA) has found.
Broke, Cold, Stressed, released on September 29, surveyed almost 300 low income renters in South Australia and found that “overwhelming numbers” are “struggling with high rents and large rent increases, with profound impacts for their health”.
Many are “living in homes that they cannot afford to properly heat; and are feeling disempowered, insecure, and stressed”. Nearly 80% of those surveyed are experiencing housing stress — defined as spending more than 30% of income on rent.
“We have never encountered more overwhelmed low-income people who have been pushed to breaking-point by our housing market,” the APNSA said. “We have never encountered more people locked-out of housing, or who have been homeless, or on the verge of homelessness, even among our own members and volunteers.”
Alarmingly, 44% said they spend more than 50% of their income on rent and 12% spend more than 70%.
Most said high rents impact their ability to afford other basic necessities: 79% said it affects how much food they buy; 68% find it difficult to afford medical costs; and 70% said they struggle to pay bills on time.
It is even worse for people on welfare payments who spend, on average, 20% more of their income on rent than those in paid employment. This is largely because welfare payments, such as JobSeeker, are far below the poverty line.
Many renters said they felt pressured to offer more than the advertised rate to secure a private rental.
High rents have a “major impact” on the mental health of 75% of respondents. One said: “The anxiety that paying rent causes is destructive to my mental health. It inhibits my participation in social activities, because I have no discretionary buffer.
“I always pay rent first. If there are any surprise expenses … I feel despair and panic. I do have coping strategies, but I never have a financial buffer.”
Secure and affordable housing is a crucial factor affecting people’s health: poor quality housing can lead to severe health issues.
More than two-thirds of respondents reported that their rental accommodation had inadequate heating and cooling. Landlords are not mandated to do the repairs, and low-income households cannot afford properties with adequate insulation and weatherproofing.
Given the expensive of trying to heat a property with poor insulation, 44% of the APNSA’s survey said they only use a heater “very briefly” and in one room. Twenty-eight per cent said they often go to bed early because of the cold.
Cold homes lead to illness, asthma and mental health problems. Respondents reported that pain conditions and arthritis are impacted by the cold and some said their homes are so cold they find it difficult to sleep at night.
“I give the kids all the blankets to keep them warm, but I have none left for me,” one person said. “I wake up several times in winter because of the cold which makes me more tired throughout the day.”
The report noted that poorly-insulated buildings force renters to spend more on energy costs in winter, and low-income renters are more likely to live with mould and damp which worsens any health problems.
The report said: “A constant theme among renters who completed our survey was how stressful the rental experience is: the process of securing an affordable, appropriate rental (and particularly an affordable pet-friendly rental) is extremely frustrating.”
Low-income renters, particularly those on welfare, also experience discrimination when searching for rentals. Discrimination based on race, relationship status and disability is illegal in SA under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984. But discrimination based on income, or whether a person receives welfare, is allowed.
One respondent said: “welfare payments have the appearance of risky tenants, we’ve been told”.
Another significant hurdle for renters is renting with pets, with 70% saying finding a rental was “much harder” or “extremely difficult”. “Pets are ‘destructive’,” one said, adding: “Despite keeping things orderly and tidy and not hoarding, we’ve been told we’re ‘hard to market to investors’.”
More than 40% said they had been discriminated against because they receive a welfare payment.
Many respondents said they had experienced discrimination from landlords and property managers because of mental health issues, sexuality, gender identity, race and disability.
Almost 80% of renters with a disability felt their rental property was not fully accessible.
The report listed a series of reforms to make renting more accessible and affordable.
They include state governments freezing rents, re-introducing a moratorium on evictions, massively expanding public housing, implementing a vacancy tax (SA has 86,000 vacant homes according to the 2021 census), and strengthening minimum standards on rental properties (including energy efficiency, ending “no-cause” evictions and allowing pets).
It urged the federal Labor government to raise welfare payments above the poverty line to at least $88 a day and to cancel the stage 3 tax cuts, which will leave a $200 billion hole in the budget over 10 years.