Essential to wellbeing: Safe and affordable housing for women

Women’s access to safe and affordable housing matters

Appropriate, affordable and stable housing is essential to the wellbeing of both individuals and the community. However, for low and moderate income earners in the ACT, there are high levels of unmet demand for housing that is affordable and appropriate.

A shortage of affordable supply, and various factors fuelling demand for housing, has contributed to record high house prices and private rents. Canberra’s higher than average level of income not only masks the extent of housing stress, but exacerbates it by pushing up the cost of housing and creating upward pressure on rental prices. The lack of affordable housing in the ACT is reflected in a number of key measures:

  • ACT households have the second highest expenditure on housing compared with other jurisdictions, with average housing costs $65 per week above the national average[1];
  • Low-income households in the ACT spend, on average more than double the proportion of their weekly household income on housing costs than households in the highest income quintile[2];
  • Over the past five years, Anglicare’s annual rental affordability snapshot has consistently shown Canberra to be one of the least affordable rental markets for people on low incomes; in 2015, the only affordable option for a person on Newstart was renting someone’s lounge room[3];
  • An estimated 20,000 Canberra households are experiencing housing stress, with housing costs exceeding 30 percent of household income[4].

For women there are added housing pressures. Domestic violence is the number one cause of homelessness among women and children in Australia [5], [6]. The shortage of transitional housing options for families escaping violence is of profound concern. Lack of affordable accommodation is the leading reason women return to abusive relationships. Without a significant increase in the supply of transitional housing for those escaping family violence, many women will leave abusive partners only to find they have nowhere to go.

Single women comprise a growing segment of those experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness. Women are more likely than men to be renting, and they are more likely to lose home ownership as a result of divorce or relationship breakdown. In the most recent ABS census of population and housing, women accounted for over half the homeless population in the ACT[7]. Women are overrepresented in key poverty indicators, comprising 53 percent of adults in low-income households, and 59 percent of those accessing homeless services. Specialist homelessness services that provide support to single women account for less than 10 percent of all homelessness services in Australia[8].

Single older women comprise a rapidly growing cohort facing housing insecurity and the risk of homelessness. A constellation of factors has contributed to emergence of older single women as a group at heightened risk of housing insecurity, including years of unpaid caring, wage inequities, less secure work tenure, insufficient superannuation, relationship breakdown and the rising costs of living[9], [10], [11], [12], [13].

A landmark research project undertaken by ACT Shelter explored older women’s housing vulnerability in the ACT[14]. They found that in 2011 there were 11,431 women in the ACT over the age of 45 on low to median outcomes who did not own their own home. In contrast, there were 7356 men living in the ACT in the same category. Older women facing homelessness tend to avoid seeking help and feel ashamed of their situation. As such, it is believed that statistics on this issue are conservative and do not reflect the extent of the problem.

The current policy environment

While the demand for services has increased in the ACT, funding cuts have reduced the level of transitional housing services available to families fleeing domestic violence. As a result of Australian Government funding cuts to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and the National Affordable Housing Agreement, funding to ACT homelessness services has been steadily eroded over the past three years, with $3.7 million cut in 2013-14, and a further $2.2 million in 2014-15.

In response to the reduction in funding, the ACT Government developed a revised costings model to determine the allocation of funding cuts across the ACT’s housing and homelessness sector. This has resulted in a reduction in overall funding across the ACT sector. In addition, the revised funding model neglects the complex nature of domestic violence and does not factor in the more intensive support that women fleeing domestic violence require. The freeze in indexation imposed in the ACT Government’s 2015-16 budget has further compounded the funding shortfall, reducing the capacity of services at time of unprecedented demand.

Looking forward, the Parliamentary Agreement for the 9th Legislative Assembly of the ACT includes a number of commitments to housing and homelessness including:

  • Develop a new Affordable Housing Strategy;
  • To ‘Grow and diversify the not for profit community housing sector, through a combination of capital investment, land transfer and other means’;
  • ‘Strengthen specialist homelessness and housing support services to make sure vulnerable groups’, with a particular mention of older women and women escaping domestic violence; and
  • Hold a homelessness summit in 2017.

These commitments provide an opportunity to address the significant barriers to accessing housing and homelessness services for women in the ACT.

Our role in housing

YWCA Canberra provides housing support to Canberrans through a number of programs. YWCA Canberra’s Housing Support Unit assisted 175 people in 2015-16, including 55 people seeking assistance due to domestic violence. We also operate three affordable housing properties: Lady Heydon House, two Eclipse Apartments, and Betty Searle House, amounting to a total of 15 tenancies for women in Canberra.

As part of a consortium with Woden Community Service and Belconnen Community Service, we also provide the Supportive Tenancy Service (STS). STS supports individuals and families to sustain their tenancies. In 2015-16 STS supported 333 people.

Policy roadmap for action

The specialist family violence housing sector provides a unique model of service delivery that cannot be replaced by generic housing and homelessness services. Gender-aware services provide tailored support that recognises the impact of trauma and violence, provides an environment that is safe and respectful, and includes case management that attends to the range of needs and issues that women and families face.

For women and children escaping family violence, mainstream service providers do not always provide the required level and type of engagement that is offered by specialist providers. Research has identified two types of assistance that are critical in order to support women affected by family violence: “safe, secure and affordable housing, and provision of a continuum of individualised and open-ended support including outreach services, that wraps around women and their children in a range of areas (therapy, health, life skills, housing assistance, etc) for as long as they need it”[15]. Preventing homelessness is more than beds: it includes support services that are responsive to the needs of clients. In this context, responsive service delivery that is gender-sensitive is essential in supporting women and children who have experienced domestic violence.

In developing more affordable housing options, consideration also needs to be given to ensuring accommodation is appropriate for single older women. The issue is more than simply one of supply, it’s about ensuring that housing options for older women cater to their specific needs, including managing a disability. Housing options also need to take into account proximity to transport, health facilities and other community services, and the ability for older women to have space for grandchildren or pets.

Policy recommendations

That the ACT Government acts to ensure that women are provided with access to housing and homelessness services by:

  • Preparing a comprehensive policy options paper on women’s access to housing and homelessness services to inform the 2017 Homelessness Summit and ensure that the Summit has a specific stream on women’s access to housing and homelessness services.
  • Ensuring that the new Affordable Housing Strategy considers women.
  • Investing in innovative housing models for women including options to provide appropriate and affordable single unit dwellings for older women.
  • Resourcing transitional housing support for women and children escaping domestic violence, and ensure that future funding models incorporate the full costs of providing intensive, specialist support for women and children who have experienced violence and trauma.

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  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), (2015). Housing Occupancy and Costs, 2013-14. Cat. No. 4130.0 ABS: Canberra.
  2. ACTCOSS and ACT Shelter, (2015). Analysis of Changes in the Cost of Housing in the ACT. Canberra: ACTCOSS.
  3. Anglicare Australia, (2015). Anglicare Australia Rental Affordability Snapshot. Anglicare Australia: Canberra.
  4. ACTCOSS & ACT Shelter, (2015). Safe + Well – Redefining the affordable housing crisis. ACTCOSS: Canberra.
  5. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), (2013). Specialist homelessness services:2012–2013. Cat. no. HOU 27. Canberra: AIHW.
  6. Tually, S., Faulkner, D., Cutler, C., & Slatter, M., (2008), Women, Domestic and Family Violence and Homelessness: A Synthesis Report. Report prepared for the Office for Women, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  7. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), (2012). Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2011. Cat. No. 2049.0. ABS: Canberra.
  8. Homelessness Australia Fact Sheet, (2013).
  9. Kliger, B., Sharam, A. & Essaber, F., (2010). Older women and homelessness, a literature review. City of Booroondara.
  10. McFerran, L., (2010). It could be you: Female, single, older and homeless. Homelessness NSW: Sydney.
  11. Batterham, D., Mallet, S., Yates, E., Kolar, V. & Westmore, T., (2013). Ageing out of place: The impact of gender and location on older Victorians in homelessness. Hanover Welfare Services: Melbourne.
  12. Tually, S., Faulkner, D., Cutler, C. & Slatter, M., (2008). Women, domestic and family violence and homelessness: A synthesis report. Flinders Institute for Housing Urban and Regional Research, Prepared for the Office for Women Department of Family, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  13. Sharam, A., (2011). A predictable crisis: older, single women as the new face of homelessness. Swinburne Institute for Social Research: Melbourne.
  14. Petheram, L, (2014). Home truths: Older women’s housing vulnerability in the ACT. ACT Shelter: Canberra.’s_housing_vulnerability_in_the_ACT
  15. Tually, S., Faulkner, D., Cutler, C., & Slatter, M., (2008), Women, Domestic and Family Violence and Homelessness: A Synthesis Report. Report prepared for the Office for Women, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.