Over the past year and a half, Australia's rental crisis has hit Canberra especially hard. The nation's capital has the highest rents in the country.
Enormous rent hikes occurred in Canberra last year. In the city's inner south the average weekly rent for a three-bedroom house rose by a staggering 21.2% to $400 in the March quarter of 2008 said an August 4 Canberra Times report. Similar rises occurred across the ACT.
Rents are said to have stabilised in 2009. Yet Jeffrey Dalton of ACT Shelter told Green Left Weekly that this was misleading. "In the last little while it has been suggested that rental prices have stabilised", he said. "Yet to only say that rents have stabilised does not give a true picture of how bad things are, because rents have stabilised at extremely high prices."
Dalton said there had not yet been an increase in homelessness in the ACT. The proportion of homeless people in Canberra is comparable to bigger cities such as Sydney or Melbourne.
However, in August Shannon Pickles, coordinator of welfare group Family Services in the ACT, told the Canberra Times there had been a sharp rise in requests for housing help from 2007 to 2008.
Students are among the worst affected by the rental crisis, due to a lack of low-cost student accommodation. The rent at the residential halls of the Australian National University is one example of this. The campus' Fenner Hall, housing 500 students, charges $158 a week for a one-person room.
Deborah Pippen of the ACT Tenants Union told GLW the rental crisis has also affected the confidence of tenants to assert their rights. "We come across problems with people getting large rent increases. Tenants are fearful of asserting their rights to their landlords because they think they might lose their home if they speak up."
Dalton said the rent crisis was making life tougher for low-income earners. "In Canberra there is a high proportion of people with above-average incomes able to drive prices on the rental market upward. So we have sky-high rent that low-income earners can't afford.
"Generally speaking, Canberra has the highest rents in the country. There are some places like Darwin where you might find higher rents, but that is only for a particular kind of accommodation."
Although there is now some government funding to build more public housing in the ACT, Pippen said this only scratched the surface of the problem. "There is such a long way to go to catch up. We're talking about 10 to 12 years of neglect."
Solving the crisis
At the same time as rents have skyrocketed in the ACT, there has also been a housing market crash. This indicates that a shortage of houses isn't necessarily the problem. There are houses in the ACT. But the people who need them the most simply can't afford them.
This points to the absurdity of the capitalist approach to housing.
Pippen said there was much more that could be done to rectify the situation. "Although there is some funding for public housing, the things that we have been asking for aren't happening.
"We've been trying to change the tenancy legislation to protect people more, so people have more security. Things such as removing the ability of landlords to terminate leases without cause.
"Making limitations on rent increases, so rent increases have to be limited by affordability rather than the market. When there is so much competition it means real estate agents can behave really badly."
To resolve this crisis, a huge injection of funding into public housing is needed. Investment in low-cost student housing is also necessary. Growing numbers of people are being forced to live in caravan parks, showing the extent of government under-funding of support services for the homeless.
When the private housing market is crashing and the world is in a global economic crisis, it certainly makes sense to invest in public housing.
The rental crisis shows the failure of the market to meet people's most essential needs.
Young people and the poor will be the worst affected as the broader economic crisis takes its toll. Already, the many young people who work in casualised, non-unionised areas are suffering from job cuts and attacks on welfare rights.
The socialist youth organisation Resistance is running a campaign for a moratorium on all rent rises and for a rise in unemployment benefits and Youth Allowance above the poverty line.
Ultimately, to prevent soaring rents and the tragedy of homelessness, it will be necessary to break away from market-based approaches to housing altogether and to recognise that a place to live is a human right.