Australian election: Soaring house prices create new crisis

Her pale blue eyes fill with tears as she describes how she became homeless and her terror of what could happen if she is unable to find permanent accommodation.

“I would be happy if I could just have a little roof over my head,” Faye said, pausing to correct herself. “A safe roof over my head.”

At 72, the great-grandmother never thought she’d be here – in a bare-walled flat in emergency accommodation on Australia’s Gold Coast – but life hasn’t gone down as she hoped.

She once owned her own home, had a husband and two children, but found herself without enough savings to protect her against unexpected events later in life: poor health, unemployment, abuse, divorce.

Faye, who uses a pseudonym for confidentiality reasons, is among the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia: women over 55. Older women made up a relatively small proportion of the 116,000 people who declared themselves to be homeless on the last evening of the national census. in 2016. Most were young and living in “very overcrowded” houses – houses that would need at least four more bedrooms to accommodate the number of people living there.

But at the time, researchers noted a rapid increase in the number of homeless older women – up 31% in five years – and experts say there are no signs the trend has slowed. On the contrary, it has worsened due to job losses during the pandemic, rising rental costs and soaring inflation.

For decades, women around the world have earned less money than men – a disparity known as the gender wage gap. Now, with less retirement savings, thousands of Australian women are left without a safe space to sleep at night. On Saturday Australians will vote in a federal election – and housing has become a key issue.

How a life falls apart

There was nothing unusual in Faye’s life. She married a man, they bought a house and had two children. But when the children were in primary school, she said her husband was “playing with her” – cheating on her – and moved in with the other woman.

Faye tried to make it work as a single mom, but eventually she and the kids had to move in with her parents. “I ended up selling the house. And he took most of it anyway,” she said of her ex-husband.

She then met another man who was out of work and bought him a business, which he destroyed. Faye didn’t get her money back. When her next partner became violent, she ran away, leaving everything behind.

Faye has been supported by some family members, but no one has the space to take her in. Plus, she doesn’t want to be a compulsion. “You don’t want to be a burden to people, you know, because you’re older,” she said. “You can’t stay with people. You just can’t. You’re on the way.”

Low interest rates have pushed Australian property prices to record highs. On the Gold Coast, where Faye lives, some landlords have sold to cash in on profits, displacing long-term tenants. The coastal city, south of Brisbane, has become a popular destination for people moving north from southern states that have suffered larger Covid outbreaks. The recent floods have also increased the demand for accommodation.

The rental market is now tighter than ever, and people like Faye, who receive the old-age pension – nearly 1,000 Australian dollars ($697) a fortnight for people aged 66 and six months or more – struggle to afford to rent in the private sector.

The median weekly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the central Gold Coast is A$644 ($448). Anyone who spends more than 30% of their income on housing is considered to be suffering from “rental stress”, so estate agents will generally not approve their applications, but there are very few other options.

In 2021, the average wait for social housing on Australia’s Gold Coast was over 3.5 years.

While most Australians will save for their retirement by contributing to a scheme that requires employers to contribute to their pension pot, Elise Klein, lecturer in public policy at the Australian National University, says structural inequalities, such as as the gender pay gap, mean that many women do not have enough savings to support themselves in retirement.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women in Australia earn an average of $255.30 ($178) per week less than men. Time spent without work caring for children also limits their retirement savings.

Some older women can rely on their partner for financial support, but many do not have this option. “This shouldn’t be a situation where a woman’s choice to be a single woman is a defining marker of whether she’s going to have a house over her head or not,” Klein said. “But it’s a major contributor to homelessness, because of the way the economy is structured to completely undervalue unpaid care work.”

Excluded from the market

In Australia, owning your own home can be the difference between a comfortable retirement and homelessness, according to a study by independent think tank Grattan Institute.

“Half of all renters retire in poverty, compared to less than 10% of homeowners,” said Brendan Coates, director of the institute’s economic policy program.

Coates added that following a divorce, fewer women than men buy another home, in part because banks assess loans based on the amount of the down payment and ongoing income. As women earn less, they are likely to be offered a smaller loan – if at all – so some are left out of the market.

Older tenants may face problems if they lose their jobs before the retirement age of 66 years and six months, Coates added. Then they may have to survive on unemployment benefits, which are even lower than the old-age pension.

Faye retired early after suffering a brain aneurysm requiring surgery in his early 60s. By the time she recovered, she was too frail to stand for hours behind the till as a retail assistant. Today, her most prized possession is her car, but she now hopes to sell it for AU$2,000. ($1,393) to help pay for food and other expenses. Partly as a result of the war in Ukraine, inflation is at a 20-year high in Australia and the cost of most everyday items is rising, including fuel.

Vote for change?

The housing crisis has been building in Australia for years as property prices rise, making it harder for people to save a down payment.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison entered the final week of the election campaign on Sunday with a promise to allow some people to dip into their retirement savings to get into the market. His Labor rival Anthony Albanese said if elected his government would top up bail for a small number of first-time buyers.

Both politicians made headlines, but their presentation to women voters was more low-key. Morrison says if re-elected, his government will allow working parents to share up to 20 weeks of paid parental leave. Albanese promises to increase childcare subsidies to get more women back to work. Both offer more support for victims of domestic and family violence, although only the Labor Party has pledged to support a new 10-day leave policy for victims of domestic violence.

Morrison has touted his party’s past successes in closing the gender pay gap, while Albanese says he will make it easier to force companies to pay women more.

Whoever wins Saturday’s election, women’s rights campaigners and charity workers say there is still a long way to go to level the playing field – and not just through policies.

“There is still a systemic attitude about who is the primary breadwinner and who is capable of being financially independent,” said Cherylee Treloar, CEO of Footprints, a nonprofit community group that supports those at risk. homelessness. “This concept that women can be financially independent is still something to which there is psychological resistance in Australia.”

Last year, thousands of Australians joined the ‘March for Justice’, a campaign that began with a call for women’s safety and grew into a broader campaign for gender equality.
Crowds join the Women's March for Justice outside Sydney Town Hall on March 15, 2021.

A year later, the movement’s co-founder, Janine Hendry, said politicians had still not done enough to address long-standing issues. “We talk about the gender pay gap, but we don’t really talk about the overall economic insecurity that affects women due to inequality,” she said. This includes women like Faye.

Back in the Gold Coast, Faye says she plans to vote in the election even though she has no fixed address – voting is compulsory in Australia. She does not know who she will vote for but has a simple request.

“I just want someone who will do their best for the country and for everyone.”


Illustrations: Natalie Leung and Claire Manibog

Editors: Eliza Anyangwe and Meera Senthilingam

Julio V. Miller