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Housing prices put the squeeze on women

Tuesday, 6 November 2007
Author: Flinders University News

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The report, Too Big Too Ignore: Future Issues for Australian Women's Housing 2006-2025, was prepared by Flinders researchers Dr Selina Tually (left), Professor Andrew Beer and Dr Debbie Faulkner.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) Southern Research Centre report was commissioned by the SA Women's Housing Caucus and funded by the SA Government and other housing related NGOs. It was launched in October by SA Minister for Housing the Hon. Jay Weatherill.

As well as identifying current trends in housing for women, the report makes several recommendations including the creation of an adequate supply of social housing, the assistance of low income women and their families into sustainable home ownership, and the introduction of Universal Design principles into new buildings and renovations.

Affordability is a crucial issue: as housing prices and mortgage interest rates have climbed, so too have rents, leaving women especially at risk, Dr Tually said.

"This is because women earn less - there is a still a persistent gender wage gap - and women still shoulder the majority of the responsibility for caring, for their own children, for ageing parents, and for people with disabilities as the option for living in the community increases," she said.

"It is affecting their wealth, it is affecting their superannuation, and it is affecting their housing options."

Soaring rates of marriage and relationship breakdown also play a significant role: while domestic violence has a strong impact on a small group of women, Dr Tually said divorce has a much wider effect.

"Women usually end up with care responsibility for their children, and if the children are young the women can't work as many hours as their former partner this affects their income. A lot of women fall out of home ownership because of it," she said.

While some women are fortunate to be able to re-mortgage the family home, many are plunged into poverty in the wake of a divorce. At the same time, high house prices and nation-wide policies of reducing public housing and/or tightly targeting stock to people in most need are reducing alternatives for many women.

"They are left with private rental, in which rents are not controlled. And Adelaide has one of the tightest rental markets in Australia, with about 0.5 per cent vacancy rate," Dr Tually said.

With competition for rental accommodation so intense, she said there is also a strong possibility that women with children find themselves discriminated against.

"It's very hard to measure, but there is some anecdotal evidence. It stands to reason: landlords are going to favour the least risky option. If you are, say, a woman who is the victim of domestic violence with three kids in tow, it isn't looking too good for you in a tight market."

Dr Tually said the Federal election presents a good chance to address the affordability of housing, with the issue on the agenda of both major political parties.

"Hopefully, they'll come up with some low income, affordable housing options that go across the tenures; we want them in the private rental market as well as in home ownership," she said.

Attempting to sustain house ownership is not a sensible approach for all women, but Dr Tually said there are many women who could retain the family home in the wake of a divorce with the aid of programs or assistance.

"And home ownership is generally the healthiest form of housing to be in, in terms of well being and physical health," she said.

Because many statistics relating to housing are not gender disaggregated, Dr Tually said there are still areas of uncertainty.

"But we do know that about two thirds of public housing tenants are women and that about two thirds of private rental assistance recipients are women. Changes in the provision of public housing and in the cost of private rental properties are therefore likely to affect women most".

Various groups of Australian women are potentially at still greater disadvantage, particularly women with disabilities. In an ageing population, the prevalence of disability is rising rapidly, Dr Tually said.

"Into the future, I can't see how we're going to get around the issue of accessible housing for women and men with disabilities unless we adopt Universal Design principles and start incorporating them into the national building code. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect everyone to have life-time housing, which they can live in right across their lives."

The ageing Baby Boomers will also have a marked effect.

"ABS projections suggest 1.15 million more women over 65 by 2025, and many of those women are going to want smaller houses because they won't want the dwelling or property maintenance," Dr Tually said. The increasing numbers of women who don't have children will add to the trend, and there would have to be a shift in the housing market to accommodate the demand, Dr Tually said.

Security is a key issue for women with children, as it is for older women. Since the reduction of public housing in many jurisdictions is unlikely to be reversed, medium or higher-density community housing may be one way of meeting their needs, Dr Tually said. This could make public space 'the new backyard'

"One of the points we make in the report is that when shifting people into higher density housing, their children are going to play in open public spaces, and we need to make sure that these spaces are safe for kids."

In the end, housing is all about security, Dr Tually said.

"It would be nice if public and private rental tenants could be offered some security through longer term leases, and that we could make provision for physical security for women living with children and for women escaping domestic violence," she said.

"Women who fall out of home ownership through divorce and enter retirement as private rental tenants are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the market. There are going to be lots of women living without men at various times of their lives - we need to make sure they are resourced well enough to cope with their housing costs."


Ms. Selina Tually (email)
School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management