There is a crisis within crisis accommodation. Homelessness providers struggle to meet women’s requests for accommodation under usual circumstances. During COVID-19 lockdowns the dramatic increase in domestic abuse has put an already stretched system under greater pressure.
Crisis accommodation providers were interviewed for an ongoing research project. One of them reported a six-fold increase in demand for their homelessness services from a wider range of people, “people who would not normally access the system”. Another said: “Adding the lens of COVID-19 has exacerbated this as a public health issue.”
Many crisis accommodation providers have turned to low-end motels, but these have proven to be expensive, unhygienic, unsafe and harmful for women’s health. Women stuck in this substandard crisis accommodation are often unable to find long-term, stable and affordable housing due to lack of supply. This compromises their ability to recover from trauma and increases their risk of returning to perpetrators.
We can do better.
Opportunities in a crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to distinct shifts in the supply of short-term accommodation in our cities. The number of vacant properties has increased, particularly in Australia’s two largest housing markets, Sydney and Melbourne, while rents have fallen. This has been attributed to drops in demand from international students and from travellers in the short-term Airbnb rental market.
These demand and supply trends, taken together, offer an opportunity. The two short-term housing tenures might provide an alternative to poor quality and unsafe motels and better meet the housing, social and emotional needs of women seeking crisis accommodation.
The use of vacant land and buildings for temporary housing in Australia is increasingly being tested. There are projects using government land and commercial or institutional buildings for pop-up shelters for temporary housing. It follows that crisis accommodation and community housing services might broker a marriage of convenience, taking advantage of increasing vacancies in the short-term rental market.
Potential and pitfalls
Some of the interviews with crisis accommodation and community housing providers highlighted the potential to use short-term rental housing for their service users. One interviewee observed:
[…] the benefit is that it is a home. It has a kitchen, facilities and people have independence, which can help facilitate them finding something more permanent.
In the face of COVID-19, the relationship between commercial accommodation services and community housing providers has already began to shift.
All lot of these [commercial] providers have never been open to us as homeless services […] Some of the hotels prior to COVID-19 would never have taken our money […] now we are their main source of survival".
Anecdotally, Airbnb is already providing an informal stopgap for people in need of emergency accommodation. Some community housing providers reported Airbnb property owners contacting them about leasing their properties short-term for crisis accommodation.
Frustratingly, the moratorium on evictions was a complication. One provider noted:
We can’t take it because we can’t serve a notice to vacate. Even if it’s a three-month lease you’ve still got to serve a notice to vacate. How do we get the tenants out for somebody new to come? I can’t guarantee that you’re going to get your property back. Especially when it’s crisis accommodation.
Housing providers who are able to offer property management services have cited benefits for landlords such as a guaranteed income, no management fees, and maintenance services.
In turn, providers could offer better quality accommodation that can realistically support a longer stay – with wrap-around services depending on need – while they try to find more stable affordable housing in a scarce market.
One interviewee mused:
Thinking about coercive control and thinking about not just housing women and children because they’re in immediate risk of death or serious harm, it’s because they need a break from being trapped. Can you imagine six weeks in a place where they get a chance, literally, from a trauma reform perspective?
While crisis accommodation could be expanded in this way, providers need to carefully consider some real and perceived risks. Above all, they must ensure women remained safe. One provider said:
I’ve got a reservation about using [short-term rentals] for crisis accommodation. I think that’s hard. It’s possible but it’s hard because crisis accommodation is the most difficult to manage because people are at their most vulnerable.
A need to ‘reframe’ how we see housing
In anticipation of increased demand, the Victorian government announced a A$40.2 million emergency funding package for crisis accommodation. This will not be enough in the longer term.
There needs to be greater focus on the role housing can play, both in reducing COVID-19 transmission and as a broader social cure for the ills that are soon to follow. Subsidies to help crisis accommodation providers access new markets and a dramatic increase in social housing, as most housing services advocate, seem the most reasonable steps to take.
As one crisis accommodation frontline worker lamented, the current crisis system needed to be more agile to support COVID-19 adaptation and social entrepreneurship:
It’s just about doing a reframe. What’s the reframe here for people to see that this [existing infrastructure] is all transferable?
Gender-based housing inequality is hidden from view in Australia. That’s partly due to policy and practices that continue to partition family violence from broader discussions on housing affordability.
In the face of a projected need to house many more older, marginalised women, Australia needs to increase the available housing options. It could be through crisis accommodation or more ideally through increased long-term affordable and social housing.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT for help at any time. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.