Standing up for Canberra

Social Services Legislation Amendment: Affordable Housing

I commend the member for Whitlam on his speech and for underscoring those absolutely shocking figures about the nature of homelessness in this country, particularly for children.

Equally shocking is the fact that three out of five people who seek help for homelessness are women. Homelessness for women looks like couch surfing. It looks like cycling through shelters, it looks like staying in cheap motels and it looks like living in poverty in private rental. It looks like moving from the homes of relatives to the homes of relatives to the homes of friends, often with children in tow. Homelessness for older women—those over the age of 55—is becoming an increasing problem and is one of our most rapidly growing issues.

Women are more likely to be at risk of homelessness because of inherent financial disadvantage and inequity. For many of these women, homelessness is a case of their income not being sufficient to pay rent. I have so many conversations with women around Canberra who are terrified about their future and who are terrified about their retirement: they're on modest incomes; invariably, they're divorced; they've got very little in the way of super; and they're in the private rental market. They are facing a very bleak retirement future. They know that they are facing a bleak retirement future because of the fact that they are potentially going into a private rental market on the pension. I have so many women coming to me and talking about this issue, and they are invariably in tears.

These women are more than likely to be in casual and low-paid employment. They would have lower superannuation and savings due to time out of the workforce caring for children or other family members. Some will even have been subject to family violence, a significant compounding effect and major driver of women's homelessness. Elements of this bill will entrench poverty for women who may be recipients of income support and who are at risk of, or who are, experiencing homelessness.

At the moment, some social housing tenants are also income support recipients. They can choose to have a portion of their fortnightly payments withheld and paid directly to a housing provider to cover rent and some bills, like utilities. This is the Rent Deduction Scheme, where participation is voluntary, used by 86 per cent of public and social housing tenants. The Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme proposed in this bill will replace the existing voluntary Rent Deduction Scheme and will apply to everyone, not just to those people who are in arrears and at risk of homelessness. It includes pensioners, it includes people on the disability support pension and it includes those on carer payments. It will capture people who have paid their rent responsibly for years and decades.

In its current form, the Compulsory Rent Deduction Scheme risks tenants being forced into serious financial hardship by not having a choice about where discretionary amounts of their Centrelink payment may be directed. Housing stress occurs where more than 30 per cent of a person's net income is spent on housing. It's possible that without amendments to include a capped amount, the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme outlined in this bill could apply a higher percentage than 30 per cent to people who are already doing it tough—people who are already experiencing disadvantage. Without a limit on the amount of deductions there is the potential for people to be left with nothing to live on—absolutely nothing to live on.

Key organisations in Australia's welfare sector are opposed to this current version of the bill. They argue that most income recipients are quite capable of managing their limited finances without outside help and intervention. The one-size-fits-all approach outlined in the bill could have negative consequences for people, including undermining their responsibility for managing their finances and their ability to do so. And they argue the fact that the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme is punitive and likely to do more damage than good.

In their submissions to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee's consideration of the bill, a majority of welfare organisations argued that the proposed Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme is unnecessary and unjustified when the national rent collection rates for social housing and the low number of evictions due to rental arrears are taken into account. Over the five years leading to the committee's review of the bill from 2011-2012 to 2015-2016, the national rent collection rates averaged 99.4 per cent for public housing, 99.2 per cent for community housing and 99.2 per cent for state owned and managed Indigenous housing. Fewer than three in every 1,000 social housing tenants are evicted in any one year.

With rent collection rates averaging these kinds of returns, it looks like the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme is a solution looking for a problem. The problem the government appears to address is the social housing system's bottom line. According to the government, the solution is having certainty of rental income that can then be reinvested in social housing stock. But there's a hitch to this plan: there is no guarantee that state and territory governments would choose to invest the increased rental revenue in social housing rather than allocating it towards some other purpose. If the government were serious about addressing homelessness, it would take action to improve mental health services, provide more assistance for women leaving situations of domestic violence and ensure that vulnerable Australians had affordable housing options. Labor takes a holistic approach to the issue of homelessness, ensuring all causes of homelessness and housing insecurity are addressed, not just the rental arrears of a small number of social housing tenants. We're talking about average national rent collection rates of 99.4 percent for public housing, 99.2 percent for community housing and 99.2 percent for state owned and managed Indigenous housing.

In 2008, the Labor Government consulted widely on the issue of homelessness to identify ways to address and reduce homelessness in the longer term. After an extensive consultation process, the Labor Government developed a new, whole-of-government approach that would demonstrate national leadership; focus strongly on prevention and early intervention; provide support for homeless Australians, leading to increased social and economic participation; encourage closer collaboration between services used by people vulnerable to homelessness; increase access to safe, affordable housing linked to appropriate support services; and, recognising the complexity of homelessness, address the needs of different groups within the homeless population, including families with children, young people, Indigenous people, older adults, and women and children leaving domestic or family violence. Labor's White Paper, The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness, set out Labor's vision at the time: an ambitious target to halve homelessness by 2020 and offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who needed it. Interim targets were set for 2013 to ensure the government stayed on track. But, since the coalition has been in government, all movement to reduce homelessness has absolutely stalled. On any given night in Australia, one in 200 people are homeless. Homelessness in Australia increased by 14 percent from 2011 to 2016, outpacing population growth and outstripping housing supply. In the same period, rough sleeping increased by 20 percent, the number of people living in overcrowded accommodation increased by 23 percent, demand for homelessness services increased by 22 percent and there was a 28 percent increase in the number of Australians aged 55 and over who experience homelessness.

Despite having one of Australia's most affluent populations and being the seat of federal government, the ACT is not immune to housing shortages and homelessness. In 2016, the ACT Council of Social Service produced a book that highlighted the issues of housing affordability and homelessness in our city. It included the stories of 12 Canberrans who have experienced housing stress or homelessness. There's Gary's story. He went from a happy home on a property to sleeping in cars around the lake following a relationship breakdown. He said:

I don't think anyone wants to be living or sleeping on a concrete floor. It's hard getting housing in Canberra. Because there are many public servants and university students there is a lot of competition. All of the small houses are taken up by students. None of it is affordable to someone like me that only gets $500 a fortnight on Newstart.

And we heard about those challenges in the speech by the member for Whitlam.

There's also Trish's experience. After escaping family violence, she was told not to bother with real estate agents, and she now lives in a house without heating or room for her son to play. She said:

If I could speak to a politician I'd say "wake up, you probably have never experienced problems with housing but a lot of us have and it's just getting worse. Something needs to get started".

The issue of older women in our community facing housing stress and homelessness is really brought home by Penny, whose experiences have led her to advocate and fight for older women in public housing. This, as I said, is a significant issue. Every time I speak about family violence, about domestic violence, about the issue of homelessness, about the inequity that women face in Australia today, I always have older women come up to me at the end of the speech, as I mentioned before, in tears. They say to me: 'You are talking about me when you talk about homelessness. That is me staring down that bleak retirement future. I've got very little super. I'm in the private rental market. I'm between 55 and 65 and I'm still working, but I'm on a modest income. I'm divorced and I brought up the kids on my own, and here I am facing a very bleak future on the pension.' They are terrified. They are terrified about their future prospects. This is really brought home by these words of Penny:

A tragedy of commons has led me to where I am now. No secure, affordable, appropriate place to call home, now or in the foreseeable future. Housing as far as I'm concerned is a basic human right. As a person with a disability I am unable to obtain full-time employment. Part-time employment is possible, however this requires willingness on the part of employers to employ me. Therefore I rely on part-pensions to financially survive. In combination with an inequitable financial settlement in my mid 40s I am now relegated to one of the growing number of OWLS (Older Women Lost in Housing).

The housing situation here is at crisis point. I couldn't afford private rent, and real estate agents are unwilling to rent to someone on a pension. High rents and short-term tenancies prohibit my access to private rentals.

The lack of public housing is an impediment to my right to secure, affordable, appropriate housing. So I have rented rooms and moved from a friend's place to where I am now. At one point I had nowhere to go. It was overwhelming and embarrassing for me. I didn't have the financial ability to pay private rent in combination with the lack of places available. I had applied for affordable housing but didn't earn enough to be eligible.

I was shocked to realise that I was actually homeless. I was almost dazed thinking, how did I get to this point?

I now rent a room at an acquaintance's rented house. The house is not suitable for the nature of my disability. It is a tenuous and precarious living arrangement.

I don't think of the future—without secure housing, that is a luxury. The uncertainty of my housing situation is overwhelming, so I don't think about it.

I have established OWLs as an advocacy effort to raise awareness of the extent and the issues that contribute to older women being lost in housing. My story is not unique—

and I know that, Penny—

I have spoken to many women who are in a similar circumstance regarding housing.

These women are hidden and underrepresented. It is my hope that government, community, businesses and organisations collaborate in finding housing options that are secure, affordable and appropriate for OWLs.

Home is the key to a safe place. From where we can as individuals continue to build and strengthen Australian communities with our skills, experience, knowledge and connections.

These experiences of people in my community are tragic and they fill me with absolute anger. The failure of this government to treat housing and homelessness with the importance it deserves has only served to widen intergenerational inequality and disadvantage. This government doesn't have a housing minister. It doesn't have a housing strategy. The member for Sydney was the housing minister and released the national strategy to reduce homelessness—our white paper—in 2008 and showed her commitment, Labor's commitment, to the strategy when Labor was last in government. Our commitment to addressing housing affordability and homelessness has not wavered.

Just last week, Labor committed to a number of recommendations from the Community Housing Industry Association's National Plan for Affordable Housing, including the appointment of a federal housing minister and development of a long-term housing strategy if we were elected. It's clear that only Labor will address the housing and homelessness crisis, created by this government's policy vacuum and inaction, to ensure all Australians have access to stable and long-term housing.

Before I finish, I just want to welcome Ella Ezergailis, who is a year 6 student at Gowrie Primary School. She is here for the Girls Take Over Parliament program. She is on her SRC. She is deputy house captain. She is a very active girl guider. She is looking forward to going to Carolyn Chisholm School next year. I hope that, as a future leader, should she get to this place, that she is not discussing this tragic issue of homelessness in years to come.