Cheryl Hawkett applied to access public housing in 2015. She was living in the rural Victorian town of Moe, in a bedsit so small and cramped “you couldn’t really swing a cat in it”.
Her doctor wrote a letter to accompany the application, arguing that her housing situation was detrimental to her health. She was grappling with serious anxiety and depression at the time, which culminated in a hospital stay under the care of a psychiatrist.
Hawkett was 68 when she put in the application. She’s now 75, and only just this month moved into a public housing unit in Lang Lang.
In the interim seven years, Hawkett subsisted on the aged pension, hopping from private rental to private rental, “just wherever I could get something cheap”, moving to Queensland after a few years and, when her health deteriorated, trying to share with a friend – “but that didn’t work out”.
Hawkett had received assistance with the housing application process from the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG), and it was HAAG who eventually tracked her down to the isolated caravan park in the Gold Coast hinterland where she was living to let her know she had been offered a house.
“Because I moved and changed my phone number and everything, I never thought to ring the department and update everything. It had been going on for so long I thought I’d never get anything, so why bother?” Hawkett told Guardian Australia.
Hawkett is far from alone in enduring a multiyear wait for housing. The waitlist for public and community housing in Victoria has ballooned in the past five years, from 35,392 in June 2017 to 54,945 in March this year – an increase of 55%.
The increase has been almost entirely in the area of priority need, with 18,574 households added to the priority list in that time.
Of those on the priority list, 6,663 households, or 22%, joined since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Analysis by Duncan Rouch, a researcher affiliated with the Victorian Greens’ housing and homelessness working group, suggests the current total waitlist equates to approximately 119,350 people at a conservative estimate.
Housing insecurity has been a key issue for voters in the lead-up to the federal election, but policy responses from the major parties on a federal level have been mixed.
The federal Labor party has pledged to build 30,000 new social and affordable housing properties nationally over five years, if elected, and to develop a national housing and homelessness plan. A federal strategy on housing to guide the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which governs how the states and territories spend the $1.6bn in federal funds set aside for housing, has been a key ask from housing advocates for years.
The federal Liberal party’s housing policies have focused on home ownership, including its New Home Guarantee scheme and HomeBuilder programs, and its recent controversial proposal to allow first homebuyers to access their superannuation for a housing deposit. Liberal party ministers, including the prime minister, Scott Morrison, have frequently said social housing is a matter for state and local governments.
In 2020, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced an ambitious infrastructure program to increase state housing stock, committing to providing 12,000 social and affordable homes as part of a “big build” to help address the housing crisis and revitalise the economy.
Elements of the big build have been thrown into uncertainty this week, though, with Metricon, one of the companies contracted to deliver and maintain the housing, fending off rumours of impending collapse amid inflationary pressures in the construction industry.
In a statement to Guardian Australia, the Victorian treasurer, Tim Pallas, said Metricon was one of several partners in the housing program “and this unprecedented program of work is on track”.
Samantha Ratnam, the leader of the Victorian Greens, said the housing build was “an important and welcome first step” but it didn’t go far enough.
“The crisis is just getting worse,” Ratnam said. “The answer to this is to build more public housing urgently, and it has to go much faster and to a much bigger scale than what the government has already committed to.”
Ratnam said she was concerned the state government had shifted towards an essentially privatised model.
“Community housing has an important place in affordable housing, particularly with groups within the population,” Ratnam said.
“But if the state government puts all its stock in the community housing model, and then abandons public housing, it won’t go anywhere near building the number of houses, as soon as we need them to be built, to address the crisis.”
A Victorian Government spokesperson said in a statement: “The Big Housing Build is on track and continuing to ramp up, with more than 6,000 homes already started, and 1,300 of those already complete.”
To Hawkett, though, it hasn’t felt like politicians have been looking out for people like her at all.
“I don’t think they live up to all their promises once they get elected. The government just doesn’t seem to care about people like us that can’t work and rely on the pension which, really, when you think about it, it’s not very much at all,” she said.
“You meet a lot of people my age and they’ve been on the waiting list for so long, they think they’re never going to get anything. I’m so grateful that I finally got a call and they tracked me down somehow and said that I was offered a unit. But I just feel sorry that there’s so many people out there that have just got nothing.”
Do you have a story? Stephanie.Convery@theguardian.com