Marginal housing: substandard, insecure and increasingly normalised


by Jenny Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Council to Homeless Persons

This editorial originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Parity: Marginal Housing: Where to From Here?

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Overwhelmingly, people resort to marginal housing for two reasons. Firstly, because they do not have the financial means to access suitable forms of housing, and secondly because sufficient affordable private rental or accessible social housing is not available.

The viability of marginal housing is only made possible by structural poverty.

The first of these reasons results from the inadequacy of Australia’s social security payments, and changes in our labour market. These labour market changes have created a growing population of people who are ‘working poor’ and who receive inadequate and/or irregular wages. The viability of marginal housing is only made possible by structural poverty.

The second of these reasons is due to the failure of the housing market to provide sufficient affordable housing and the failure of government policy to provide adequate levels of accessible social housing.

Essentially the demand for marginal housing exists because of the failure of government policy. Unfortunately, however, people living in substandard housing with insecure tenancies has become a normalised and embedded part of the Australian housing landscape.

Equally unfortunately, Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) are forced to access marginal housing because much more often than not, they have nowhere else to refer people who are homeless or in housing crisis.

One symptom of this crisis is that more and more Australians are renting as the costs of home ownership escalate and for many, the great Australian dream of home ownership becomes increasingly unrealisable.

However, the fierce competition for the few affordable rentals that are available has meant that low-income households frequently miss out, as landlords tend to prefer those who earn more.

The net result is that those with the least resources are excluded and forced into homelessness and/or marginal housing. A perfect storm of increasing demand and limited affordable housing supply has fuelled the growth of sub-market housing – a mix of marginal options that range from people renting out garages or sheds, to the growth of bed rentals where people rent a bed in a shared room; to rooming houses and caravan parks.

We know that many people often cycle in and out of these marginal housing options, and when all else fails, resort to street homelessness or couch surfing.

The Council to Homeless Persons has long argued that fixing the problem of marginal housing requires a multi- pronged approach. This includes implementing policies that increase the supply of affordable housing and ensuring that there are stronger tenancy protections, including minimum standards – such as those recently introduced in Victoria.

Regulation in relation to marginal housing is needed to enable the prosecution of people who operate unregistered illegal rooming houses, as well as action by government to enforce compliance with existing regulations and standards.

Similarly, outreach legal support is required, to enable tenants in all forms of housing to exercise their rights without fear of retribution and further exclusion.

The recent and much-welcomed changes to the Victorian Residential Tenancies Act will go a long way to redressing the power imbalance between landlords and renters, and to providing greater security of tenure for renters.

When finalised and implemented, the establishment of a set of minimum standards for rental properties has the potential to prevent some of the worst excesses in marginal housing.

Finally, while making private rental fairer and more equitable is part of the solution to marginal housing, the larger housing crisis, of which the demand for marginal housing is an important consequence, can only be addressed through the commitment by all governments to the provision of much greater levels of social housing.

 

This editorial originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Parity: Marginal Housing: Where to From Here?

Subscribe or log in to read the full edition