“This is bigger than us” – the state of Housing Stress

1 December 2022

Kellie* has called Byron Bay home her entire life.

Getting by with work at a local supermarket before a turn of ill health left her unable to perform her job, Kellie turned to the St Vincent de Paul Society for assistance following a six-week wait to access support from Centrelink.

Receiving $680 per fortnight in income support, by the time her weekly rent of $300 is accounted for she is left with a meagre $80 to last 14 days.

What’s more, her ‘home’ is a converted garage.

Continuing to receive assistance from conference members with food and fuel to attend specialist medical appointments – Kellie was temporarily able to pick up a few shifts at a local club before her health issues worsened – her situation is distressingly all too familiar.

“If she is unable to work, how does she survive – and how long will it be before her rent goes up,” asks Gail Gaudron, St Vincent de Paul Society Lismore Central Council President.

***

Over 34,000 people sought assistance from members of the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW in the past year. More than half were experiencing chronic housing stress.

The Society has long held the position that everyone – irrespective of circumstances – needs a secure, safe, stable and affordable place to call home.

This belief is borne out in the assistance our people provide in communities across the state every day.

Across NSW, 55% of the people we assist experience housing stress. In the Metropolitan, North West, South and West regions just over 50% of people are affected by housing stress. However, in the North East, spanning the Lismore and Maitland / Newcastle Central Councils, the cost of housing is most profoundly felt with 63% of people spending upwards of 30% of their income on the essential need of having a roof over their head.

With the North East copping a barrage through bushfires, COVID-19, and, most recently, floods, the prohibitive cost of rents and shortage of properties overall has led to the mythologised Australian Dream fast becoming a fantasy for a growing number of people.

“These are coastal areas, so there already was housing stress because of the holidaying side of it,” says Clare Van Doorn, St Vincent de Paul Society North East Regional Director.

“You put a big flood in place and you’ve got all these people displaced – and they’re still displaced six months after the fact – even the natural cycle of rentals becoming available, we’re not seeing that at all because all the displaced people are still over there.”

Where, previously, housing stress was primarily limited to metropolitan areas, the trend of people moving to regional areas means that the issue is being felt across the board.

“When COVID came, people wanted to get out of the cities, they’ve come and purchased up a lot of the properties, pushing property prices and rents up because they can work from home now and fly to and from Sydney,” says Gail.

“A house in Lismore – just out of where the recent flood was – is going for one million. It’s not brand new.”

St Vincent de Paul Society members have shown tireless commitment in assisting people facing complex housing situations which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and floods.

Members are able to assist with immediate relief in the form of food vouchers and parcels, while in response to the surging demand experienced on the ground the amount of assistance for transport expenses, such as fuel and car repairs, has increased.

Furthermore, drop-in services, providing cleaning facilities and meals, operated by the Society throughout the north coast in Coffs Harbour, Ballina and Tweed Heads have experienced a 36% increase in service usage over the past financial year as a result of the growing number of people left to fend with no fixed address.

In spite of housing prices easing slightly in recent months, the soaring cost of rents – which show no signs of slowing down for some time – has led to a growing number of people reaching out for help.

Consequently, stories of people facing homelessness in cars, camping in tents and unsustainable stays in motels – all of which offer restricted stability and result in poorer health outcomes – are going from outliers to trends.

While Clare and Gail see the scope of the crisis beyond the Society’s individual capacity to resolve, targeted policy measures designed to improve material conditions such as increasing the rate of income support payments and building more social and affordable housing would make definite differences to people experiencing hardship.

At a time when reports of record property prices are presented in an aspirational light, the cost of failing to ensure everyone has access to the fundamental need of housing has created an environment where, from one day to the next, people are unsure what the future holds.

“This is every day for what we do and the people we support,” says Clare.