Social housing crunch means life in limbo for those on waiting lists
People can spend years on waiting lists for social housing. A new research project will uncover what life is like for those left in limbo.
“Homelessness means being cold and never being comfortable,” says James. “You always have to be moving on. I feel drained.”
James has been homeless for the past two years and in contact with support agencies for five. “It gets exhausting,” he tells Parity, the national magazine of the Council to Homeless Persons. “I just want to go to TAFE, go to uni, and achieve something with my art.”
But there are more than 3,000 people waiting for public housing in his home state of Tasmania. The average time on the state’s waiting list even for those in greatest need – “category one” applicants – is nearly 18 months.
Nationally, there are just under 200,000 people on social housing waiting lists. In NSW, where more than 55,000 people want accommodation, there’s a 5-10 year “expected waiting time” for a studio apartment or one-bedder in Bankstown. That’s the good news. It’s 10-plus years for anything bigger in the south-western suburb. In Queensland, some of the nearly 16,000 people on the waiting list have been there for over 20 years.
Sky-high rents in the private market and a dearth of social housing construction since the mid-1990s – cutting it to 3% of housing stock from about 6% in 1995 – has caused a massive problem nationwide, says Professor Alan Morris, who is leading a new research project to learn more about the people stuck in what he calls “waithood”.
“We know very little about these people,” says Professor Morris, a prominent urban and housing studies scholar based in the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “I imagine what we’ll find is an enormous amount of desperation.”
With a $277,600 grant from the Australian Research Council, Professor Morris and other researchers from UTS, the University of Queensland and UNSW will work with partner organisations like Anglicare Tasmania, Shelter NSW and Q Shelter to reveal the experience of people on waiting lists nationally. The aim is to inform future policy on social housing, with benefits for individuals but also the economy and society.
Where and how do “waitees” live? How do they navigate their housing, employment, social relationships, children’s education, health and wellbeing while waiting? And how do their lives change when they finally secure social housing?
The research project will include:
- A national review of social housing waiting list assessment
- Profiling of the waitee population nationally
- A study of the process by which social housing offers are made
- An investigation of the impact of securing public housing
“For me, this project is about humanising what is an invisible experience,” says Dr Catherine Robinson, a Partner Investigator from Anglicare Tasmania.
“Waiting is usually conceptualised as a number,” Dr Robinson says. “But a number doesn’t tell the story of what happens each day – and each night, because a proportion of these people will be currently homeless, given the high threshold to be on a waiting list in the first place.”
There’s a misconception in parts of the wider community that people on public housing waiting lists just want cheap rent, she says. “But people who apply for social housing will be on the lowest of incomes. And to have any chance of being anywhere near a priority they’re going to be on income support, experiencing homelessness and perhaps have chronic mental or physical health issues.
“These are very vulnerable people who could never compete in the current private rental market,” she says. If not homeless they may be couch surfing or doubling up in accommodation with friends or family who are in a similar situation, adding to the pressure on already disadvantaged households.
This project is about humanising what is an invisible experience
Dr Catherine Robinson
Professor Morris says the project will also look at how the public housing bureaucracy works. “It seems to be very opaque,” he says. How do people find themselves on the priority list, for example?
And are some people better at navigating the process than others? Professor Morris says his earlier research has indicated that those who have an advocate, like a social worker, have greater success – yet bureaucracy is supposed to be fair and impartial.
Another question is the impact on the mental health of people who are waiting. “I should imagine when you're in that situation – where every day you are waiting, hoping – that this must be very debilitating,” he says.
The researchers will also interview people who have managed to access social housing to see how their lives changed as a result.
“My feeling is that social housing has an enormous role to play,” Professor Morris says. “Provide people with affordable housing, secure housing, and they can flourish.”
James, who is a client of Anglicare Tasmania, believes there should be greater funding for public housing. “Homeless people should be helped, not judged,” he says. He remains optimistic. “I’ll get there. I’ll get something. [Homeless people] are resilient.”