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In my foolish youth, I once told my parents property was theft and I could live in a tent. I was 38 before I made my father happy and bought a flat. I was 43 before I bought a house, having joined forces with my partner who’d been more sensible. I feel like a woman saved from the gallows. Who would want to be entering their retirement years a renter in Australia? In particular, who would want to be a single, aging renter; or worse still, a female, single, an ageing renter who on average is poorer than a man?
Yet plenty of women find themselves in this situation, some of them educated and middle-class. They’ve never married or they’ve divorced; they’ve been single parents. Some waited for the white knight to whisk them off to a palace but he never came. Some have been in abusive relationships and lost their job in mid-life. These women never managed to save the deposit for a house in over-priced Australian cities because of low wages and broken work histories as carers of children or aged parents. Even the single women on reasonable salaries, say $60,000 to $80,000, have assumed, correctly, they can’t save enough on their own for a property unless, maybe, they pull up stakes for the country.
Other women have owned a house and lost it, like a friend of mine whose marriage broke up. She got saddled with her ex-husband’s big debts and now moves with her teenage children from one rental house to another. For whatever reason, these women find themselves in their 50s or 60s terrified about the future. How will they pay rent from a pension that’s based on an assumption of homeownership, or from a woman’s typically meagre superannuation pay-out? How did it come to this?
The queue of older women seeking help from homeless services is growing and the problem is not going to disappear any time soon. But some women have thought hard about possible solutions.
One is Kaye Healey, a retired counselor, and publisher, who has founded the Women’s Communal Living Project. She believes more women over 50 should consider communal living. Just over a year ago she established Eden Farm, a permaculture property in the Southern Highlands of NSW that’s designed to give women a taste of co-operative living. Women stay for a night or a couple of months, help on the farm, enjoy the arts and crafts workshop, and re-assess their lives – and their housing future – around the communal table. A lot of us baby boomer women lived communally in our 20s. For some these were halcyon days, housemates were our best friends and life felt like a non-stop party. Others just want to forget it: the dirty dishes, the toilet cleaning wars, the post-it notes on the yogurt ordering “hands-off.”
“Communal living is not for everyone,” Kaye tells me. “The people I’ve found who do best are nurses, teachers, librarians….people who’ve been used to working cooperatively in groups.”
Kaye is wary of women pooling their savings to buy a house together. The complications hardly need elucidating: if one of the women wants to sell her share can the others afford to buy her out, and if not, who might buy-in? Rather she favors the “benefactor” model where a woman who’s rattling around in too much space, but with too little money to maintain it, shares with friends who pay rent. Many women in the country live alone in big houses that could be shared. With compatible values, creative interests, and a co-operative bent, the women could make it work to mutual benefit, Kaye believes.
Could the model work in the city? There’s no reason mature-age urban renters couldn’t band together and give it a go providing the house is big enough. About 50 percent of people who live alone occupy properties with three or more bedrooms, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. So there’s room to share.
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But many women won’t want to revisit communal living. On my recent trip around Nimbin in NSW, I was told of people going in the opposite direction in their 60s, leaving the communes after 40 years for more private life. The idea of a home of one’s own dies hard. So Andrea Sharam, of the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, has another idea. She surveyed 111 single women over 40 about their housing future. It was dire even for those now on reasonable salaries. A property of around $150,000 might be in their reach and a way to make that dream a reality would be to separate who owns the land from who owns the dwelling on it. The concept is known as a land trust and in the US and UK, it’s a common way to provide affordable housing. Government or philanthropic organizations “donate” the land to allow people to buy or build on it cheaply. But there are rules to future-proof it as a source of low-cost housing: people who sold could not capture the capital gain and they could bequeath their property only to someone in similar circumstances.
The housing market is failing the young; everyone knows that. But the hidden problem is the rising number of mature-age women at risk of being left out in the cold. We need more good ideas and more affordable housing.