It’s Saturday morning in West Brunswick, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner north. From my bedroom window I can see a crowd gathering across the road for a house inspection.
The crowd swells to 60 or so people – couples, couples with school-aged children, couples with small babies and then there are small groups of young people, clearly looking for share housing. Surveying the scene I feel like I can predict who my new neighbours might be.
Or, at least I am fairly sure who they won’t be. This semi-renovated three bedroom house has been up for rent three times in the past three years. At A$560 per week the rental price is steep, yet each house inspection has attracted crowds like this one. And each time my new neighbours have been couples with a small baby. Young single people did not get a look in.
This is hardly surprising. The scene played outside my bedroom window reflects broader trends. Landlords want safe bets – people who can pay the rent, withstand rent increases, won’t trash the property and may even improve it.
And in a tight housing market with national demand outstripping supply – especially at the low end of the affordability market – and rental vacancy rates between 1% and 4% in capital cities across Australia, most landlords can afford to be choosy.
Young people find it hard to compete, especially in some segments of the rental market. Recent evidence indicates that young people are more likely to be in precarious housing than other age cohorts. They are more likely to be in unaffordable housing, private rental or overcrowded households, and to have recently experienced a forced move. And compared with couples with children they are almost seven times more likely to dwell in housing that is in poor condition.
Preliminary evidence is also emerging that like other age groups, young people’s experience of precarious housing also impacts negatively on their health and well-being, especially their mental health.
It’s little wonder, then, that young people are leaving home later than previous generations, typically around 23 or 24, often returning to the family home multiple times following job loss, tenancy breakdown or other life crises, before they settle into fully independent adulthood.
This social trend has real consequences: for family finances, parent-child relationships and the way young people themselves imagine their place in the world, their rights and responsibilities, as well as their sense of capability, agency and autonomy.
This trend is only likely to increase if the proposed changes to the Youth Allowance and Newstart proceed as outlined in the recent federal budget. In a policy first, 30 is defined as the upper age of youth. And young people who finish their education and are looking for jobs – or those who get a job and lose it – will not be entitled to Youth Allowance (up to to the age of 25) or Newstart Allowance (25 years and older) for six months.
On $207 for Youth Allowance (living away from home) per week or $255 Newstart Allowance, combined with maximum payment of $63 in Commonwealth Rent Assistance, young people currently find it extremely difficult if not impossible to access and maintain affordable housing. This will quite simply be impossible if benefits are, as proposed, suspended for six months.
While difficult for those young people who enjoy the support of their families, it is almost impossible for those who lack such support. These are the 22,000 or more young people estimated to be homeless on census night – a figure recognised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as an underestimation of the actual population.
This lack of support extends to nearly 3000 young people nationally who are exiting out-of-home care services. A range of evidence suggests that anywhere between 40-60% of these young people will be homeless within a year of leaving care. Currently, it is estimated that 43,000 young people are receiving the youth allowance and living away from home.
These young people, who typically aspire to nothing less than their home-based peers (a house, job, sense of belonging and money to make a life), are multiply disadvantaged in the housing market. Without the safety net provided by the family they risk free-falling into long-term poverty and disadvantage. Most have low levels of education, with over half in some studies recording their highest level of education as Year 11 or below. Of those who find their way to services, nearly 90% are unemployed or not in the labour force.
We know that these young people are three times more likely to experience social exclusion. Also compared to full-time employees, unemployed people are around 15 times more likely to be in unaffordable housing.
Like other homeless populations, these young people have few other housing options. Most do not qualify for public housing, and when they do many languish on long waiting lists for a housing tenure that is widely recognised by policymakers and young people themselves as unsuitable.
Once homeless, some – depending on what area are living in, be it metropolitan, rural or remote – may find temporary refuge for six to 12 weeks in crisis accommodation. Some of these – if they are lucky – may go on to government-funded transitional accommodation for up to 12 months. A tiny number, and arguably the luckiest of all, end up in youth foyers: housing that is combined with tailored education and employment support.
The rest, however, continue to live rough, couchsurf, or try to make a go of it in rooming houses with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Increasingly, some find themselves in unregistered rooming houses: ordinary houses in the suburbs in which unscrupulous landlords sublet bedrooms at a premium price. Here, disadvantage is concentrated and a culture of violence and conflict is common. These are hardly the places to build sustainable, independent lives.
With a generation at risk of being locked out of the housing market and a significant minority of these falling through the gaps of the rental market, the need for a national youth housing policy has never been more pressing.
Oh, I almost forgot. We have new neighbours across the road: a couple with a small baby.
See the rest of the Another Country: Youth in Australia series here.