Social housing stock barely changes as waiting lists blow out and rental stress doubles across Australia

The number of social housing units in Australia rose by less than 1% last year and actually went backwards in some states, while waiting lists across the country blew out further and rental stress among jobseekers receiving rent assistance doubled.

As the new Albanese government seeks to increase social housing stock nationally, a report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on Wednesday showed demand for housing support continues to outstrip supply.

The data released with the AIHW report showed social housing – public housing and properties leased out by community housing providers – was stuck at 4.2% of overall housing stock.

That was steady from 2020 and down on the 2012 figure of 4.8%.

Overall, there was a net increase in social housing of less than 1% across Australia, from 436,333 to 440,192.

The public housing waiting list across all jurisdictions rose by more than 8,000 households last year, from 155,141 to 163,508. Most of the increase was among households considered “in greatest need”.

Advocates have argued New South Wales’ investment remains insufficient, including in the most recent budget, and its massive transfer of public housing to the non-profit sector has been controversial.

But it appears to be the only state making inroads, recording a 3,508 net increase in social housing units last year to 159,527, and an overall net increase since 2014 of 13,000 homes.

NSW’s public housing waiting list also fell in 2021 to 45,429 households, a reduction of 3,508 from 2020. The figure in 2014 figure was 57,791.

In Victoria, which is now embarking on an ambitious plan to build more than 12,000 homes after years of criticism, the waiting list ballooned out again last year, up 6,140 to 51,859 in 2021.

But the state had a total of 80,611 social housing dwellings in 2021, which, remarkably, was 95 fewer than in 2014.

Dr Michael Fotheringham, the managing director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (Ahuri), said the data showed “the benefits of very good work” in NSW over the past few years.

“What I would say, though, is that Victoria are doing the hard yards now. The Big Housing Build now is really leading the country … but there is a lag effect.”

Fotheringham also praised added investment in Queensland, where stock increased marginally last year.

Western Australia, which announced a social housing blitz in last year’s state budget, saw its total stock decline in 2021, as did South Australia.

Kate Colvin, the national spokesperson of the advocacy group Everybody’s Home, said the shortfall in properties across Australia was also a result of insufficient funding by the commonwealth.

“It’s not declined in number terms, but it’s certainly declined relative to population,” she said. “And it has declined in number terms, if you include the remote Indigenous housing.”

Colvin also suggested the end of the National Affordability Rental Scheme was a factor, given some of the subsidised homes had been picked up by non-profit housing providers.

The AIHW report also revealed the dramatic increase in rental stress among those on Centrelink payments after the end of the coronavirus supplement.

It found 45.7% of those receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance were in rental stress, defined as paying more than 30% of income on rent.

That was up from only 29.4% of rent assistance recipients being in housing stress in 2020, and 41.2% in 2016.

Among those on the sub-poverty-line jobseeker payment, the report found nearly two-thirds (64.6%) who received rental assistance were still in housing stress.

That was more than double the proportion in 2020 of 31.1%.

Pointing to the temporary boost to welfare payments in 2020, Colvin said the data showed “governments can reduce rent stress with increased income support payments”.

Commonwealth Rent Assistance has not been increased beyond inflation in more than 20 years. It is paid to those on pensions, student, parenting and unemployment payments who are renting in the private market or from a non-profit provider.

Toni Wren, the executive director at Anti-Poverty Week, said government data showed a single-parent family with one or two children was paying $222.50 a week rent in March 2022, but only receiving $69 a week in Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

She said a 50% boost to rent assistance in the October budget would “be a smart way to ensure people doing it toughest in this rental market have the chance to stay afloat”.

It came as separate census data, released on Tuesday, showed a large and surprising decline in the proportion of all renters in Australia paying more than 30% of household income on their rental costs.

The measure fell from 36% in 2016 to 32.2% in 2021.

But an Australian Bureau of Statistics spokesperson said the census “does not provide data on rental and housing stress” and the data should “not be used to indicate financial stress”.

Fotheringham noted the rental stress measure of 30% of income is intended to be applied to the bottom 40% of earners, because those on higher incomes could afford to pay more.

He suggested the data may be an anomaly that reflected temporary, Covid-related changes to the rental market, such as formerly housing-stressed renters moving back in with their parents.

He noted economic data had shown many people had accrued savings during lockdowns, and that the data was taken only a few months after the federal government had withdrawn a record economic stimulus.

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