For a short time recently I was classified as homeless. It was a safer experience of it than the stereotypical kind, in that I wasn’t on the streets. My living situation was ‘unstable’. I couch-surfed between the homes of people who love me, shared rooms, and though none of the places open to me could give me the space to actually live my life and be a fully realised and autonomous individual, it was still breathing room which I was lucky to have. But it’s a position which comes with a lot of introspection, self-doubt, and a lot of hard questions. One of the key underlying factors to my situation was mental illness, in which I am not alone, but the point which is most relevant to why I spent three months and 22 lease applications to end up without a home is the fact that I am unemployed and survive on Newstart.
I could talk a lot about the whys and the hows of that, but that’s getting beyond the discussion. It was a hard time, though, and I keenly felt all of the rejections I got and it felt a lot like being kicked when I was down. And while searching for solutions, and for sympathetic voices in the media, there seemed to be a distinct lack of conversations about what the reality of housing is like for people on income support. Most tips I found (and advice from well-meaning family) included some variation of the advice, “have more money“. I could find article after article about housing from business perspectives, from the perspectives of people with salaries allowing for mortgages, discussions dominated by people who can be classified as nothing other than middle or upper class. People whose only advice seemed to be along the lines of ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it’. Society seems happy to tell individuals that the problem is theirs to solve alone. But the problems facing individuals in these circumstances go beyond any one person’s capacity to solve, and beyond any individual’s temporary situations. There are no bootstraps to pull, no savings to pull on or financial cuts to make that would make overpriced rentals any less unreachable. Eventually, I got out of that situation and returned to sharehouse living, but it remains a vividly alienating experience, and one that I know other Australians are still caught in right now.
The reality is that there are some rather big problems within Australian culture and our understanding of the right to a home throughout periods of unemployment. There are two important elements laying down the baseline values and expectations of our society, on which my own expectations are built:
- According to the Australian Human Rights Commission: “Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to adequate housing.” Adequate housing is defined as more than just shelter from the elements. It’s not just about survival, but dignity. This statement is also supported by Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights, set by the United Nations General Assembly, of which Australia is a part.
- The Australian Government National Commission Audit states that; “The primary purpose of income support to the unemployed is to provide a minimum adequate standard of living to people who are temporarily out of work and unable to support themselves through their savings or other means.”
So, we have a welfare system that is specifically designed to provide housing, laws regarding housing as a right rather than a privilege. So, by nature we have demand, and laws requiring that supply meet the demand in quality as well as quantity. But what do we rely on for supply?
For most people seeking adequate housing, supply comes from the private market, a system based off profit and competitive sales and investments in which there are winners and losers. The housing industry is inflated, the cost of living rising every year above the low income markers. For many people stuck in the rental system who are being pushed around from suburb to suburb and further out from job opportunities by rising prices, home ownership is, according to a 2011 report on Gentrification and Displacement, “a borderline fantasy which has logical appeal but is nevertheless outside the bounds of their real or imagine resources.” This isn’t a system which can be boycotted and still have your rights met, like whether or not you buy bottled water. Public housing is only available to people the government decides are vulnerable enough, demographics which have been artificially tightened to allow the government to present prettier statistics without any real improvement. And the demand on public housing well outstrips supply, with tens of thousands of people Australia-wide stuck on waiting lists.
So, if our government can’t enforce our rights to adequate housing, what do the attitudes of the private sector look like, when it comes to understanding their part in providing an essential service for every Australian?
In response to this particular forum post, there were dozens of cries of illegal discrimination, but there were also a fair few agreeing with it to varying extents. And it’s tempting to respond to this screenshot with thinking that it’s just ‘a random on the internet’, an inconsequential outlier, and that a single voice does nothing in the face of our own anti-discrimination laws; but when you look at the wider trends of gentrification within Melbourne, it’s clear to see that these kinds of attitudes are having a very real effect on the situation. We may not be able to pinpoint and prosecute every case of discrimination, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; the wider spectrum points to very real and common discrimination practice.
And I’m sure it’s tempting for many people approaching it from the business side to explain these practices away as ‘just common sense’. Unfortunately, what might make sense for a business is rather senseless when it comes to matters of human rights. Demand outstripping supply is, for luxury goods, an extremely beneficial thing. It allows business owners to raise prices, put more value on their resources and employees and expand on profits. But for an essential service with little to no alternatives, this is one of the worst things that could happen.
Besides the risk of homelessness, many people are faced with constantly having to move house to find affordable rent. This has a very real health cost to add to the pressures of low-income earners. Moving house is counted as one of the top five most stressful events in life, ranking above divorce. This article claims that “the average Briton will move five times during their lifetime” and the stress of that event will last more than three months. But for people in the rental market the number of moves is likely much higher, as the majority of Australian renters are on a fixed-term residency for under 12 months. 40% of renters also have children, adding to the stresses to deal with in moving; besides possible job relocation, lowered job opportunities and/or added commuting times, school relocation becomes another factor. All of these have massive impacts on the emotional stability of a child’s growth, with far-reaching consequences well into adulthood. The dark footnote of the Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality study linked above is that there may even be an increased mortality rate for people who move frequently as children, an impact that could be seen within the decade of the study. That is a link which requires further research to corroborate, may be correlated rather than causal, but is beyond grim to contemplate even as a possibility.
But even for people without dependants, the prospects of having to move once every year for an undetermined amount of time still has negative impacts. Stress is incredibly well-known as a factor in lowered life expectancy through ways such as increasing the risk of heart disease, which is known as one of Australia’s largest health problems and a big burden on our economy. Not to mention the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts in young people facing homelessness. Bad quality housing also has noted effects on health and life expectancy that disproportionately affects people on low incomes, people who can’t afford to refuse bad housing in favour of something on par with basic standards.
I know that some of this is the kind of thing people might respond to as being off-topic or picking at irrelevant or less important details, but when it comes to analysing the links between experience and consequence on a systematic scale, this stuff is important. Overcoming nuanced problems means understanding the nuances. These kinds of consequences are why we have philosophies such as human rights, and Maslow’s hierarchy. If we ever want to create a society in which each individual has the opportunity to reach our fullest potential, we must create a society in which our needs and rights can be met. Otherwise, we should acknowledge the fact that we do not, in fact, live in a merit-based society, however popular that idea is when it comes to job applications and problems of discrimination. If you are willing to deny someone the right to a home based off employment status, willing to drive out your tenants with price hikes while knowing that you are contributing to a trend of gentrification, you are actively promoting homelessness and poverty and class divides. Real estate agents and landlords making decisions on rising rental prices are an active, driving force putting pressure on the income support system. Considering the outcry the government makes on the way the welfare system contributes to the “Budget Crisis”, one would think that holding property investors responsible for rising housing costs would be a major priority.
We are facing a genuine cultural problem. This is something we should be talking about–in mainstream media, not just on specialised/niche websites and organisations–and actually addressing on all the levels on which it affects us. Gentrification tears apart communities, and undermines family systems. It damages and impedes our attempts to create an equal society. I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the uneven spread of consequences in regards to oppressed minorities; LGBTQ+ youth often leave home and enter the rental system years earlier than their straight/cisgendered peers, and attitudes against leasing to young people quite likely contributes to the higher rates of homelessness for LGBTQ+ demographics–an estimated 1 in 4 homeless people in NSW are LGBTQ+, which is shockingly disproportionate. If homelessness affected the population evenly, that number would be closer to 1 in 10.
It’s an LGBTQ+ issue. It’s ableism, as disability is so often a reason for unemployment and lower incomes. It’s relatable to racial and cultural issues within Australia, since something as simple as a name on an application can affect housing accessibility, since gentrification can remove people who require language assistance from the communities and areas which share their language and ethnic backgrounds, and create social isolation through distance. It’s a women’s issue, relating to the struggle to reduce violence against women–families fleeing domestic violence are at big risk when looking at that gap between public and private housing accessibility, especially in a rental market which discriminates against leasing to people with kids. I could go on, but the fact is, it’s incredible that something which affects so many different demographics unfairly can continue without much outcry, or even for it to be actively encouraged by governmental policy.
This is a problem that our government should be concerned with, if it is in any way committed to Australia’s long-term future, to eradicating racism and class divides and lifting our own citizens out of poverty. If the government is really concerned with taking the pressure off the national budget in regards to the income support system, they shouldn’t be shunting vulnerable people onto the streets by removing support: they should be concerned with housing prices. They should be extremely concerned with a housing market which prioritises profit over rights, and with the large gap of available housing between low-income earners, job-seekers and the perpetually unemployed. So long as disabilities exist, decreasing unemployment and homelessness by creating jobs is only ever going to be a measure of limited effectiveness. If the government doesn’t want to raise income support to actually meet the price of living costs in Australia, then they must initiate restrictions on the private housing market, or else increase the emergency and long-term public housing systems.
Everyone has the right to a home. Our society needs to acknowledge the human rights that aren’t being met and have more conversations about how to change that, instead of just giving everyone the unrealistic and hopelessly ineffectual and ableist advice to climb the class ladder and get over it. Those attitudes are ones which–amongst everything else–tolerate homelessness as a punishment for being low-class, homelessness as punishment for being queer (or disabled, or otherwise othered by society). If we are to realistically battle these problems in Australian culture, we must battle homelessness, too.
The displacement from homes that gentrification causes is an active sign that our anti-discrimination laws aren’t being enforced, and aren’t effective. And the gap between public and private housing availabilities to people on low incomes is a gaping wound in our social system.
If we care about a fair Australia and a bright future for everyone, if we care about eradicating class inequality, these are problems which we need to solve.