As a for-purpose organisation connecting people with housing and support services, Haven Home Safe is focused on strengthening communities. We provide homelessness intake entry points in metropolitan Preston, Bendigo and Mildura, and emergency relief and outreach services offered in the regional centres of Geelong, Kyabram, Swan Hill and Echuca. We have a housing portfolio of 2,235 homes across Victoria and a development pipeline of over $120 million in projects. Our work over the last 40 years has given us unique insights into the challenges facing Victorians with a significant lack of affordable housing in rural and regional Victoria.
There is an epidemic of hidden homelessness in regional and rural Victoria. As a result of poverty, the people we see are experiencing financial difficulties, family violence and/or housing crisis. We see people sleeping in cars, in urban locations, in overcrowded dwellings and forced to stay in unsafe lodging arrangements. We’re also seeing more people in these circumstances than ever before and a cohort that has never needed to engage with homelessness services now coming to us for housing – housing we do not have.
Right now, the system is actually pushing people into homelessness because there aren’t solutions that cater for their situations. For example, people living on larger blocks of land, often in farming communities, are struggling to maintain their properties as they age. Often the homes are run-down, they don’t have the funds to maintain them and staying put isn’t sustainable. The challenge here is the asset puts them over the eligibility requirements, but the home isn’t worth enough for them to be able to sell and buy or build something suitable closer to local amenities and services where they live. The asset is a liability that skews their ability to fit within the eligibility. There is a uniqueness in regional and rural areas and blanket policy does not reflect or consider these circumstances.
When supply fails to meet demand
The clogged housing continuum prevents people moving from transitional housing into long-term housing. A lack of government funding, no long-term planning or focus on building community housing in regional and rural areas means often the timeliest way for someone to move from homelessness into a house is through the private rental market – however supply is minimal and financially this is increasingly unobtainable for so many with rental prices in regional and rural areas skyrocketing – regional Victorians faced a 10 per cent increase in rental prices last year and the average rental currently sits at $440 per week.
In addition to this, people in rural areas are likely to face additional housing challenges such as limited access to services, supports, transport and appropriate employment which has resulted in a diminished pool for ‘suitable housing’ in general.
Beyond the challenges of finding ‘suitable housing’, providers such as Haven Home Safe are facing the same housing issues (affordability and supply) as the rest of the nation but with additional exacerbations: a lack of alternative options and an increased need to rely on the private rental market through ‘head leasing’ and Private Rental Assistance Program (PRAP) funding to support clients.
Supply of private rentals
The COVID-19 pandemic saw increased migration to rural and regional Victoria as people sought an escape from metropolitan lock downs and the way we worked changed. Insights by SGS Economics & Planning showed that in 2018/19 9,900 people moved from Melbourne to Regional Victoria. In 2020/21 this increased to 15,200.
In addition to this, domestic regional tourism increased. With tourism comes a demand for tourist accommodation, whether this be personal holiday homes or Airbnb properties. These properties, which would have traditionally been available in the private rental market have been lured into the high profit category of holiday rentals.
This has led us to a situation where we have more people living in rural and regional Victoria but fewer homes for them to live in. 2021 Census data showed that on Census night there were 298,029 unoccupied private dwellings in Victoria. This can also be attributed to how the pandemic has changed the way we work. We are seeing a trend of people with two properties choosing to live in them half the time to accommodate working in an office in one location and then working from home somewhere else.
Real Estate Investor data shows Bendigo vacancies currently sitting at 1.81 per cent while Kyabram is 0.17 per cent, Echuca is 0.44 per cent, Mildura is 0.65 per cent and Geelong is 1.82 per cent. Rural and regional Victoria is facing a severe shortage of rental properties overall.
Unique supply factors for regional areas
Regional areas differ greatly in their economic and key industry profiles. That means that, in addition to medical professionals, emergency service personnel, education providers and retail staff, their key worker profiles may also extend to include hospitality staff or seasonal agricultural employees. All of whom need a home (ideally) close to their workplace.
For example, the Surf Coast (Torquay, Anglesea, Lorne etc.) depends greatly on tourism, yet the workforce that make those places thrive cannot secure a home let alone sustain one. By contrast, the Mallee region (Mildura, Swan Hill etc.) is dependent upon seasonal harvesting workers. Finding suitable accommodation for such transient workforces has always been problematic, but reduced access to housing options has greatly intensified the issue.
The lack of housing in our regional and rural areas should command more attention from policy makers as the flow-on effects are stymieing the economic room of growth and development that is regional Australia. Jobs are unable to be filled because there is nowhere for workers to live – latest data shows a record 74,000 job vacancies across regional Australia.
Building more medium density housing is also critical if we are to address supply issues. Currently, detached housing is the most common in regional Australia, however diversity of supply is required even in the smallest and most remote communities, to meet the different needs and preferences of people. State and local government policy makers have an important role to play here, especially in regional Victoria which has a very low share of approvals for non-detached housing compared with other states.
The increasing regularity of natural disasters and the impact this has on housing also needs to be contended with. The recent flooding through the Loddon Mallee has left a number of homes legally inhabitable without serious repairs. Almost every home in Rochester, with a population of just over 3000 people, was reported to have been impacted by the flooding in one way or another. Natural disasters result in an influx of people needing a temporary rental property and place further pressures on rental supply and prices. In Loddon Mallee’s instance, some people who lost their homes to the flood have had to join the Victorian Housing Register, further extending wait times for community housing in these regions. Many people displaced by these floods are still not in housing. This invisible homelessness perpetuated by natural disasters is lost in people’s consciousness as soon as the news cycle is over.
Supply of appropriate houses
When we look at the lack of supply in housing, it is also important to note that in this context we’re also talking about ‘appropriate housing’. For people who rely on access to services, have mobility impairments and require public transportation there will be only a small number of properties within rural and regional areas which meet their needs. However, the likelihood that they are community housing is rare.
This leads to people in regional and rural Victoria being forced to make difficult choices. Do they live in places they know are not in their best interests, for example in an isolated location just to get a roof over their heads or do they continue to be part of the hidden homeless population?
The lack of appropriate community housing supply in rural and regional Victoria is a driver for Haven Home Safe’s development team. Building high-quality, energy efficient homes in appropriate locations (close to towns, education centers and employment opportunities) is key to our development considerations.
The upcoming opportunity to turn Commonwealth Games to turn athletes’ villages into social and affordable housing in the regional areas of Ballarat, Geelong, Bendigo and Gippsland needs government commitment, ensuring at least 30 per cent of the accommodation is made into permanent social housing and that 10 per cent should be managed by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. It is important to recognise that housing fit for athletes for two weeks of competition will need to be refit for purpose for longer-term housing and it is imperative the state ensure the legacy can be one that is fit for the future not just for a sporting competition.
Our energy and focus also needs to be on the planning processes. In regional Victoria councils are struggling with workforce pressures and planning applications. The diversity of planning schemes and government department requirements and inputs means that getting housing underway is difficult and open to much scrutiny. The appetite for housing is not supported by the instruments in place and if housing is a human right, we need to rethink planning policy to better allow for ease of growth and we need to review the consultation process. If housing is a human right, then it should not be open to objection particularly when based on housing typology.
The Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot shows that,t in the last 12 months alone, rental prices in regional Victoria have risen 10 per cent. The report also found that across regional Victoria, 42 (2.3 per cent) out of 1,835 individual properties were suitable for at least one household type living on income support payments without placing them in housing stress.
Increases in the cost of owning a home, renting and general costs of living are pushing more people to lean on supports from community housing providers and specialist homeless services to help them keep a roof over their heads. During the pandemic the moratorium on evictions and rent rises was honourable, but the impact is still being felt by CHPs as we work through the large amount of rental arrears whilst doing all we can to help clients sustain their tenancies during this housing crisis.
Even targeted programs to support and sustain private rentals (such as the Private Rental Assistance Program, or PRAP) are struggling to have a meaningful and sustained impact. For a person or family unit to be eligible, weekly rent must be no-more than 55 per cent of their weekly income. This has seen individuals forced into rethinking their family units, such as grandparents and grandparents moving back in with their children, to ensure their combined incomes meet these limits.
As the government grapples with policy reform, we are exploring innovative ways to address the issues facing the provision of housing in rural and regional Victoria and having greater impact for the people we serve. By exploring alternative models of funding, we can focus on outcomes for people, rather than the outputs focus that comes with government funding.
Additionally, we must act locally to achieve outcomes that meet the needs of our regional and rural communities. When housing is informed and led by local communities that know what is needed to keep their communities vibrant and thriving, we can change life trajectories and improve intergenerational outcomes.
Rural and regional communities throughout Australia make a marked contribution to the wellbeing of the entire country. It is time we collectively value their contributions and achieve greater housing access.
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