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Substandard rentals: are Australian families living the dream?

Introduction by Croakey: The recent Federal Budget did little to address Australia’s housing crisis, even though the Government called it a cost-of-living budget.

“This budget fails to deliver the investment in social housing needed to put a roof over the heads of people on low incomes,” Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said in response to the Budget.

In addition to shorter-term pressures on living costs, children are faced with longer-term health and wellbeing concerns when families are forced to live in suboptimal housing.

Below, Associate Professor Yvonne Parry from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University discusses the links between substandard living conditions and health and wellbeing risks for children, and highlights the urgent need to address them.

“Housing is a basic human need and foundational for children’s health,” Parry wrote, and should be front and centre in the 2022 Federal Election.

At an ACOSS webinar this week, Kate Colvin from the Everybody’s Home campaign presented a series of slides highlighting key housing policy concerns, as well as related calls to action for the federal election campaign (see these beneath Parry’s article).

Meanwhile, a forum next Tuesday hosted by Change the Record and Everybody’s Home will ask candidates about their plans to address the chronic housing affordability and lack of appropriate housing for First Nations peoples in the Federal electorate of Leichhardt and Queensland more generally.


Yvonne Parry writes:

Since the 1960s, the incontestable link between the type and quality of housing on the health of infants and children has been well documented (here and here, for example).

Currently more than 22 percent of infants and children in Australia spend time in, or at risk of, homelessness.

These infants and children know what it is like to live in a car, couch surf with friends and relatives, or live in cramped motel rooms with their families for months and in some cases, years or rebound from one homelessness service to another. Their parents are desperate for accommodation.

With rental vacancy rates at less than one percent this means that the rental market is tight. More families are facing homelessness which is forcing parents and children to live in substandard accommodation.

Through our research work with families, and innovative health delivery model, we have seen families living in converted sheds infested with mice, pigeons, and cockroaches, or cramped into motel rooms for months on end. These families are grateful for this accommodation and feel ‘lucky’ to have it, as the alternative is living in a car.

While the nearly 10 percent of Australians who negative gear properties bask in their rental returns (in some cases up by 40 percent since 2020), for some families, this situation creates lifelong disadvantage, marginalisation, and ill health for their children.

Substandard housing

Living in substandard or suboptimal conditions places children and infants at 25 percent higher risk of detrimental mental and physical health, when compared to children who have not experienced homelessness or housing stress. There are increased rates of asthma, chest infection and skin conditions, such as scabies.

In addition, children who experience homelessness or housing stress are five-times more likely to experience developmental delay than the national average.

We do know that childhood homelessness has multiple long-lasting impacts on children’s physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing. These impacts also last well into adulthood.

Bridging the gap

Our research identified and investigated the health needs of children living with the risk of being, or who were, homeless.

This was accomplished by embedding a Nurse Practitioner (NP) within a specialist homeless service who reviewed, treated, and referred children to the appropriate health supports.

Many of the families (89 percent) we have worked with are disconnected from health services. Our work and model of health care bridges this gap by providing a NP, community embedded service, focusing on the children.

Of the children living with their families in homelessness that were assessed and triaged by the NP, 51 percent had a severe health condition that required an immediate health intervention.

Nearly one-quarter had less severe conditions requiring a moderate health response and 18 percent were healthy.

These levels of ill-health can have long term impacts on children’s development, ability to learn and to grow.

While the pandemic worsened the situation, this was a waiting catastrophe that has now come to fruition.

Mixed market models needed

Neoliberal housing market models have created a situation where housing is no longer a basic human need and the increasing population growth means working Australians cannot afford to buy or rent homes.

While successive governments want population growth there is no thought as to where this population will live, and the current market does not provide homes at the same rate of growth. This exacerbates the problem.

There is an immediate need for robust mixed markets models for housing provisions. Mixed market models including private, public, public supported (rent to buy) and community housing.

This assists the market by placing a downward pressure on rental costs and creates an upward pressure on the standards of housing available. Subsequently, this pushes substandard accommodation out of the rental market and creates adequate and secure housing for families.

Our ongoing failure as a nation to meet the need for substantial expansions of housing stock creates the conditions where infants, children and families are left renting substandard housing, sheds or living in cars.

Children’s health at risk

Current housing market models creates large disparities within the population and has detrimental impacts on children’s health and development.

Previous housing policies have done very little to address continued population growth and the lack of places for people to live.

Along with current election promises (here and here) there is a marked need to increase housing stock to support low- and middle-income families with a range of options for families with infants, and children.

In recent months, rents have increased in some areas by 40 percent placing more stress on struggling families pushing them into acute stress with more than 30 percent of their income going to rent.

This household situation impacts on the children and their development with higher stress levels associated with trauma responses in children subsequently impacting their immune functions and exposing them to increased risks of infections.

Research shows the economic benefits of providing mixed models of housing not only creates jobs by building houses, but also saves governments hundreds of millions in rent subsidies (currently $676.5 million in social and economic spending). This cost will be $1.3 billion by 2036.

Mixed housing models provide a mixture of local, state and/or federal government supported housing and private development housing with rent to buy, enhancing the ability of Australians to own their own homes, along with bridging rental properties where rent is set at a portion of the families’ income, enabling them to save to buy.

Providing liveable housing options creates the standards of housing that decrease illness in children and families especially at a time when the health system is under stress.

Housing is a basic human need and foundational for children’s health.

With more than 22 percent of Australian infants and children spending part of their short lives in or at risk of homelessness why providing liveable housing options is not front and centre in the minds of politicians and the Australian public?

Associate Professor Yvonne Parry is recognised for her work as a paediatric nurse, before researching the gaps in the provisions of health care to children. She is the chair of the Australian College of Children and Young People’s Nurses. Her research has won national awards (NAPCAN) for addressing the needs of children underserviced by the health care system. She is internationally recognised for her evidence-based teaching and research. Dr Parry works internationally to improve the life circumstances of children and their access to health.


Tweets from ACOSS webinar

Kate Colvin from Everybody’s Home presented the following data on housing policy concerns and solutions to the 12 April webinar (see more in this Twitter thread).


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