The hidden housing problem: older and still renting

November 16, 2014
woman at window

I never knew the elderly couple who rented a flat in the building next to our house. But I’ve never forgotten them. They kept to themselves and lived there less than two years. The owner of the block decided to renovate, and sold off the four apartments. All the renters had to go. The working couples would survive. But I worried about the couple in their 70s, probably pensioners, cast into the jungle of Sydney’s private rental market. What’s become of them?

Increasing numbers of people in their 50s and 60s are renting. In Australia, we’re not meant to be renters in retirement. Our age pension system is built on the assumption we’ll own our homes outright. That’s why our age pension is low relative to other countries’ – because housing costs in older age are assumed to be low, too. “We need to dispel the myth that all older people own their own home and are comfortable in retirement,” Jeff Fiedler, of Housing for the Aged Action Group, told me.

The number of people aged over 55 in the private rental market has grown from 235,000 in 2006 to 336,000 in 2011. About 11 per cent of older people are renting up from 8 per cent five years ago. That doesn’t include the nearly 15,000 people aged 55 and over who are homeless. Outright home ownership, at the same time, has been falling for people aged 55-plus, meaning more are still paying off mortgages in retirement.

National concern about housing has focused on young people, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. I can understand that.  I have two such young people living at home with me, and I wonder if they’ll ever break into home ownership. Older people’s housing problems have slipped under the radar. In an April survey by Anglicare of 13,000 advertised rental properties only 30 in Greater Sydney and 28 in the Illawarra were deemed affordable for people on the pension. If older people have not been able to buy and struggle to pay rent, they can’t go home to Mum and Dad. Sometimes they move in with their grown-up children. But over-crowding, tensions, even elder abuse can put paid to that solution after a while.

The academic and housing specialist Maree Petersen, of Queensland University, told a recent conference about a couple in their 60s who could not maintain the mortgage payments on their house. Their daughter took the payments over, moved into the house, and started pressuring her parents to move out. Her mother had Parkinson’s disease: “The situation has become very difficult, bordering on abuse.” Another woman who was nearly 70 was forced to leave home due to her husband’s violence. She moved in with a couple and their three teenagers, and slept on a couch in the kitchen. Some elderly renters put up with terrible conditions, afraid to make waves lest they be evicted.

The Council on the Ageing NSW, in a study of housing and older people, to be released tomorrow, draws particular attention to the situation of women. It calls the findings alarming. The women in the COTA survey were highly educated compared to the general population but many had low incomes and a precarious housing situation. “More and more women are reaching older age as single people who have never enjoyed any prospect of owning a home,” the report says, “and there is a growing body of research to indicate they are at high risk of homelessness.”

The people Jeff Fiedler and his team help in Melbourne are predominantly older women. They’ve been divorced, suffered ill health; they’ve worked in low-paid or casual jobs all their life. They’ve been carers, raised families. Many have been long-term renters, some have been home owners. They’re not the “traditional” homeless. They’re facing homelessness for the first time. “They have modest super and if they’re paying rent in the private market they use it up rapidly,” he said. “With older renters it’s a matter of when, not if a problem will arise.”

One of the women he’s helped is Alma Diri who at 68 found herself staring into the abyss of homelessness. “I never thought this would happen to me,” she said. “I had owned my own home and had to sell when my marriage broke down. After the mortgage I didn’t have much left.” She lived with her daughter and her family for three years but that ended.  She rented a house with two men and started to feel scared and vulnerable for the first time in her life.

Renting in Australia is under-regulated. Traditionally renting has been a stepping stone; now it leads nowhere for growing numbers. We’re becoming a bit more like Europe without Europe’s safeguards of secure tenancy and rent control. For young couples or group households that’s less problematic. But 30 per cent of long-term renters are aged 45-64. If such large numbers are still renting in retirement they’ll present “a potentially large policy problem for future years,” says Wendy Stone, of Swinburne University of Technology, who’s written on longterm renting.

Maree Petersen says we need more government money for social housing – public and community-run. “We’re asking the private market to provide,” she says. “We have people without enough superannuation, they don’t have pathological issues. They’ve been renters and they’re getting left behind.”  Governments don’t like investing in housing. But with the number of older, disadvantaged renters set to grow, more investment in public housing is essential to keep older age poverty at bay.

What do you think? Could it happen to you or someone you know? Please comment.

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