Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rental affordability - are we there yet?

Today's release of Anglicare's latest annual Rental Affordability Snapshot tells us nothing new - rents are climbing, and the hard slog continues for low income households across Sydney and New South Wales. For poor people, simply trying to get on with it, there is no end in sight.

Low income renters are sacrificing food, medical treatment, social interactions and any number of things just to keep a roof over their heads. For some even that can't be sustained - as rent arrears mount up the prospect of life without a home looms large.

We know why this is, and we know how to make it stop. But we don't.

For seven long years Anglicare has run its rental affordability snapshot - checking rental listings over a single weekend and counting how many homes would be affordable for a low income household. That is, how many properties are available for a person in the lowest two-fifths of Australia's income scale to rent at a cost of less than a third of their income. For seven long years the answer has been "next to nothing", and it's gotten worse every time.

In the meantime, house prices have soared. We've looked on in awe as the value of our housing has increased more in a given year than many would earn on even a decent Sydney wage. As first homebuyers are excluded from the market, and more and more debt fuelled investors pile in, we're constantly looking for solutions to this crisis that won't diminish the prospect of capital gains.

We devise new ways to drag people across the widening divide between rich and poor, where they can land in relative comfort on the good side. That's the side with all the nice picket fences, and perhaps room for a pool out the back, where everyone can enjoy the richness and fullness of life. Nobody should ever have to go without. But that gap just keeps getting wider, and wider, and wider, and wider...

We know why this is, and we know how to make it stop. But we don't.

For now, it's just a sheer numbers game. Most of us are already on the side where hope lives, and we're doing our best to stay there. For those less fortunate, the ability to drag yourself across that divide, over that line - by the bootstraps, if it comes to that - has always seemed possible. Indeed, that's why most of us are already there. Work hard, save harder, get your foot on that ladder. Sacrifice will pay off and soon enough you can make a place your own, just how you like it. Knock out a wall, put in a new kitchen, upgrade, whatever you like.

But this is not working anymore. Not for everyone.

The divide keeps getting wider. The line keeps moving. It gets harder to reach out and pull yourself across. And if you do find yourself on the good side of this shifting line it gets harder and harder to stay there. You've got to be able to move with it or you'll fall. We don't want people to fall, so we devise new ways, and new ways again, to help people stay on the good side of the line. Every time we do, that line moves, just a little bit further. The divide gets wider. It becomes just a little bit harder to get across that line.

It's true, at some point we've accepted that not everyone can make it. Our income support system is built on the assumption that most of us will have crossed the line by the time we retire, so we've had to dig deeper. We've tinkered and tampered with social housing until it's become a system of welfare housing - an option of last resort for those who can never make it across the divide. We've held onto a belief that this is only for the poor few, as most of us will get there if only we try. Many have failed to notice, from that side of the divide, how many are falling into the deep, dark hole in the middle... how easy it is to become lost in there, how hard to be seen. For those in the hole it's difficult to find solid ground, as the line continues to pull away. It's hard enough to hold your ground, let alone climb out on the other side.

We know why this is, and we know how to make it stop, but we don't. Sooner or later, we're going to have to. Adding to the supply of "welfare housing" - which is pretty much what we're expecting in the Federal Budget - sounds like some kind of solution. If done right, it could even start to shift the line on the poor side of the divide, and that would be a good thing. But if there's nothing putting the brakes on the line at the other side, all we can ever do is play catch up.

If we are serious about tackling housing affordability - and affordable rental housing in particular - we need to do more. We need to close the divide. Bringing the line back to the middle from both sides of the divide will take more than just "supply side" solutions - it will take a comprehensive rethink about the way our housing system works. Otherwise more and more of us will find ourselves stuck in that hole forever, where rental stress is chronic and getting worse every year.

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