There is growing group of women at risk of homelessness in Australia. A group which has increased by 63% over the past five years. Most of these mums, sisters and grandmothers have lived conventional lives. They have held jobs, worked hard, raised children, paid taxes. In their wildest dreams, they probably never thought they’d be at risk of homelessness yet they are part of the ‘missing middle’: too much money to qualify for social housing or rental assistance, too little to buy a house outright and too old to qualify for a bank loan.
1 in 5 Australian women over 55 do not own their home and 1 in 3 are approaching retirement with no superannuation. This is no fleeting trend: 48% of women aged 45-64 have less than $40,000 in superannuation. For indigenous women and disabled women it’s far less. Needless to say, the numbers for men are much better.
These women must live lease to lease, as rent escalates faster than their income, in housing that rapidly becomes more insecure and less fit-for-purpose as they age. Once they have used what savings they have to subsidise their rent, they will join the wait list for social housing and then they will, because wait lists can be as long as 10 years, become homeless. Once a woman falls into homelessness, she will struggle to hold down her job and she will rely on hospital and social services more often to deal with the heightened risks of homelessness (safety, mental health etc)that she must now contend with.
As with so many social issues, the social and economic costs of allowing our ‘missing middle’ to fall into homelessness far outweigh the costs of intervention, in this case, by providing secure, permanent accommodation.
This is a wicked problem and there is no silver bullet. However, as with all wicked problems, a holistic solution is required and government cannot solve this on its own. Marie-Louse MacDonald, President of the Retirement Living Council says that the retirement living sector plays an important role in supporting older single women in safe and secure purpose-built affordable age friendly communities and that the sector can play a role here:
We have a large number of single bedroom units in retirement communities that were built in the 60s and 70s. They are no longer attractive to the more affluent groups, but they would be perfect for offering secure accommodation options to single older women, whether it's through a rental model or a purchase model.
What is required is however are the conditions from government to nurture the solution. The Retirement Living Council has recently released a report outlining practical, cost effective housing solutions which can immediately support older women at risk of homelessness. The recommendations are designed to raise awareness, increase accessibility and lower financial barriers for older women at risk of homelessness who need more than what governments are offering right now. Recommendations include extending access to Commonwealth Rent Assistance to women at risk in retirement villages, providing a GST equivalent rebate for retirement living communities that supply a component of affordable dwellings, grants to support innovative affordable housing solutions, government backed loans for women with equity, expansion of the shared equity model to over 55’s in retirement communities and early access to superannuation for qualifying women without penalty.
The recommendations are simple, cheap and quick to implement. What’s more, the impact will be almost immediate:
The infrastructure to provide secure homes to women at risk of homeless already exists because retirement communities are ‘resident ready’. This is a problem where we know what part of the solution can be. The research has been done, the reports have been written and the recommendations are there (Marie-Louise MacDonald)
All that is needed now is the political will to make the change happen.
Amber Crosthwaite would like to thank Adam Flynn, Seniors Living Lawyer, and Marie-Louise Macdonald, President of the Retirement Living Council, for their contributions to this column.