Opinion / Rental figures reveal ‘heartbreak’ for Canberra

THIS week Anglicare released its annual “Rental Affordability Snapshot” showing the availability of private rental accommodation for low-income Australians. Across Australia the statistics are shocking, but for the ACT the worsening trend over recent years can only be described as heart breaking.

Jeremy Halcrow.

The report, now in its ninth year, shows increasingly unaffordable private rental properties in the ACT with no properties available across almost all household types surveyed.

These included people relying on the Disability Support Pension, as well as those on the Youth Allowance and Newstart.

The exceptions included couple families where both parents were on a minimum wage and those on the aged pension. However, in these categories less than 2 per cent of properties were within reach, down from 6.7 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively in 2015.

With media attention firmly fixed on housing prices in Sydney and Melbourne, it’s easy for the Canberra market to slip under the radar of national scrutiny. But for organisations such as Anglicare and other crisis services in our community working directly with people in our region, we see the reality every day in the faces of people accessing our support. Our staff and volunteers hand out food parcels and emergency assistance to increasing numbers of families who have reached a point no-one should have to be at of choosing between paying rent or putting dinner on the table.

While each story presents its unique challenges, one theme runs through most of them – a deep reluctance to ask for help. This is a far cry from the misguided assumption that families in crisis have somehow brought this on themselves. A relationship breakdown, loss of employment, illness or injury is sometimes all it takes for people to find themselves in a crisis situation.

Sometimes the only recourse for these individuals and families is to hope that their time on a public housing waiting list doesn’t drag on too long as they couch surf, sleep in their car, or sleep rough while watching prices in the private rental market slip further out of reach.

And the numbers of people struggling are growing. Our services report an increasing number of people seeking food help and rent assistance. This is increasingly including more and more people in the low-paid workforce. Our research shows that financial stress caused by the private rental market is a key driver of food insecurity in Canberra. Likewise, a report released by ACTCOSS late last year, showed that there were around 40,000 people in Canberra living below the poverty line.

A home is a sanctuary where people can feel safe, develop relationships, rest, study, create, find privacy, build memories and find relief from the daily grind. Safe, affordable and appropriate housing is a foundational block to build a career or a thriving family. It is very difficult to gain a permanent job when you have no contact address to give a prospective employer.

Tackling the issue of affordable housing is complex and needs to be addressed across many areas. Affordable housing needs to be located near public transport links to give struggling families a way of getting their children to school and accessing services and employment opportunities.

There needs to be improved security for renters. The low level of welfare payments for families on low incomes needs to be addressed and there needs to be a winding back of negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions with saved funds redirected back into community and public housing.

Without changes, unaffordable housing trends in the ACT look set to continue with no relief in sight for those who are already at housing risk. Our hope is that Canberra social workers can look into the eyes of the people they are assisting – people who are facing homelessness and wracked with shame, panic, anxiety, depression, isolation and despair- and honestly assure them that things are going to get better.

Jeremy Halcrow is the CEO of Anglicare NSW South/ACT

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