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Making Social Housing Work for Young People


by Sebastian Antoine, Policy and Research Officer, Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) and Kirra-Alyssa Horley, Lived Experience Consultant, Y-Change, Berry Street

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.

Social housing in Victoria

The Victorian Government has announced a big spend on social housing, committing $5.3 billion to build 12,000 new homes over four years, and is also developing a 10‑Year Social and Affordable Housing Strategy. The initiatives are a big step towards ending homelessness and the biggest spend on social housing in Victoria in years. It shows the Government has listened to people experiencing homelessness and the sector, who have been calling for more social housing.

Currently, Victoria has the smallest proportion of social housing among all the states and territories in Australia and this initiative is a step towards addressing this disparity. The build will create a significant dent in — but not fully end — the waiting list for social housing, which is currently almost 50,000 applications long. However, without a commitment to building enough properties to fully end the waitlist, or specific systemic changes to the current social housing model, young people will  continue to miss out on social housing.

Young people and social housing

Young people are nearly twice as likely to experience homelessness as anyone else, yet are rarely supported with social housing. Across Australia, only 2.9 per cent of properties are leased to people aged 15 to 24. When applying for social housing, young people join the end of a lengthy waiting list. The waiting list is so long that many young people don’t even bother signing up because they know support is years away, while they are focused on how to survive the next few weeks or months. Further, young people on Youth Allowance are indirectly discriminated against in community housing because they are less financially lucrative for community housing providers than older tenants.

So, what would the Big Housing Build have to do for it to work for young people? What initiatives, systems and policies need to be implemented so that young people can actually benefit from the Big Build? What do social housing properties that work for young people look like? Finally, how can young people with lived experience be meaningfully involved?

A social housing system for young people

To start answering these questions, I speak with Kirra-Alyssa Horley (Kirra). She has lived experience of homelessness, is a youth homelessness advocate, and is part of the Y-Change initiative at Berry Street. She presented at the National Homelessness Conference 2020 on young people’s experiences of housing during COVID‑19 and has written about her experiences in Parity. We discuss what Victorian social housing needs to look like to properly work for young people. We present our discussion as a transcript, edited for clarity and length. This format combines the equal and complementary expertise of  lived experience and research, demonstrating the value of meaningful collaboration.

Kirra and I imagine what it takes to create a social housing system that works for young people. This is a thought experiment that has a practical application. Homes Victoria is developing a 10-Year Social and Affordable Housing Strategy which encompasses the Big Housing Build and beyond. Through the strategy and the Big Housing Build, Homes Victoria has an unmissable opportunity to make social housing work for young people.

Why social housing for young people?

Kirra: Creating social housing that’s accessible to young people will make a massive difference because it will be some sort of stability. The hardest thing for me has been constantly moving. It creates so much instability throughout all areas of my life and really disrupts study, work, my mental health and the ability to think of my future.

Having a stable place to live would have the biggest positive impact. It is like a ‘housing first’ model, where we provide young people with the most important thing first: a safe home. It makes sense  to do that because it makes focusing on the other stuff — mental health, studying, working — easier. Providing that kind of support would definitely help with breaking cycles of disadvantage and intergenerational trauma.

Sebastian: Young people experiencing homelessness told YACVic they can’t focus on study, work, or their caring responsibilities while they are stressed about their living situation. Supporting young people with social housing would provide that stability, support young people into independence, and save the Government money in the long run.

Improving on the lived experience of social housing

Kirra: Public housing isn’t always a safe environment for young people. There is also a lot of stigma attached to living there. Ideally, social housing is somewhere safe, an environment that you want to be in that is supportive so you can get to where you want to go in life. I always say, you can’t heal in the same environment that hurt you. What I mean by that is for young people who’ve experienced trauma or trying to break cycles of disadvantage, they need a safe space and time to process.

Good social housing is where you have what you need to survive and thrive. This includes things like furniture, a fridge, and a microwave. These are expensive, so it would be good to have some furnished options that are ready for young people to move into. Having shit that works and getting stuff fixed quickly is important. Having pets, a garden, some communal spaces, and maybe a shared outdoor barbeque would make it feel more  like a home.

Sebastian: I’ve heard about homes infested with rats and cockroaches, leaking roofs, and appliances that never  get fixed. Worst of all are homes that are not accessible for disabled young people where adjustments take months. The Big Housing Build will refurbish some existing properties, but these issues should really be fixed as soon as they occur.

Building enough homes to meet demand

Kirra: Over summer, I went to apply for social housing and the worker said I’d have a five to seven year wait — that’s fucked.

Sebastian: That’s disappointing, but also not surprising. The main reason why the wait is so  long is because there are simply not enough homes for people. Victoria is far below the national average and even this new  commitment will not bring us up to the average. Let’s imagine that the Victorian Government commits that the Big Housing Build will work for young people. How should they do it?

Kirra: Definitely build more houses, the waiting list is so long!

Sebastian: Absolutely. The acute lack of social housing is the main reason young people are locked out. By the time young people reach the top of the waitlist, they are no longer young people! Building enough properties to end the waitlist would mean that young people can get the support when they need it.

Youth participation in design

Kirra: They should also build houses specifically designed for young people and designed with young people. They could have a quota system so some of the houses are reserved specially for young people, so we will stop missing out.

Sebastian: Social housing designed with young people would be different because homes would be built near schools, TAFEs and universities, near public transport, and have a range of bedroom configurations. Young people have great ideas on how to reduce the stigma attached to social housing.

Kirra: Homes Victoria should involve young people in the process, from start to finish. They could have a youth advisory board, but sometimes they can be a bit tokenistic, even if the people running them have good intentions. There are heaps of different ways to involve young people, including employing them. Homes Victoria needs to work on how their staff perceive young people, to make sure they really want to hear from us and will act on what we say.

It’s about meaningfully working with young people as equals. Not putting us in a separate room, over there, where we don’t have any power to create change. Having lived experience doesn’t mean that we know everything, but our different perspective on the issue is very important.

Sebastian: Youth participation recognises that young people are the experts in their own lives. It will lead to better outcomes for young people, Homes Victoria, and the broader community. Sharing power can be scary, but it is vital to making a positive difference. Best practice would be involving young people as equal members of advisory groups, treating them as genuine stakeholders, taking their ideas seriously, and meaningfully involving young people in decision-making processes.

If Homes Victoria works with young people, makes changes to the social housing system and, most importantly, commits to building enough social housing to end the waitlist, the Big Housing Build will meaningfully support  young people and be a big a step towards ending youth homelessness.

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