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Recognising and responding to the unique homelessness and housing challenges in regional and rural Victoria

Bendigo

Haven Home Safe is a homelessness organisation specialising in housing solutions throughout regional and rural Victoria, including the vibrant communities of Mildura, Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong and smaller towns like Echuca, Swan Hill, Horsham, Castlemaine and Kyneton. We’ve operated throughout regional Victoria before incentives to do so were introduced, and that history and commitment adds to our deep understanding of these communities. We recognise they are diverse in nature and therefore require tailored thinking and approaches to effectively respond to their housing and homelessness challenges.

The social and affordable housing crisis has deeply impacted regional and rural areas in ways we haven’t seen before. During the pandemic there was a 200 per cent increase in net migration from capital cities to regional areas. With work from home policies or no work at all, more people ditched the stressful and busy city living for the fresh air, relatively affordable properties and the more tolerable commute that came with regional and rural lifestyles. This migration of people into small townships made houses hard to come by, which pushed up the house prices. Landlords seized the opportunity to raise rentals in a competitive market and combined with increasing cost of living pressures, our organisation saw significant increases in people who had never needed our help before – 1,580 new clients in regional Victoria last year, over 2,000 people placed into emergency accommodation and just shy of 4000 food vouchers handed out.

Our teams also reported an increase in single people seeking support, largely made up of women, as their private rents increased dramatically. More single mothers receiving Centrelink incomes but paying increasing rent and now needing support with their rent and living expenses. More women over the age of 50, living in their cars and presenting to Emergency Relief to get support to pay their car registration. Often these women shared heartbreaking stories about how their savings had been exhausted and they were simply unable to compete for whatever social, community or private rentals were available. They had no option but to give up and live in their cars. Anyone receiving support payments or experiencing insecure employment were simply unable to afford the skyrocketing rentals in what were once more stable regional and rural markets.

Over the last 12 months we established meaningful partnerships that reinforced our commitment to look at housing solutions across regional and rural Victoria. This included with Mt Alexander Shire Council to explore solutions suited to Castlemaine as well as with the Wimmera Development Association and Yarriambiack Council. Working with our partners in these regional and rural communities we also heard stories that were unique to these regional and more remote parts of Victoria:

We discovered the challenge of an abundance of unoccupied houses in towns you wouldn’t expect like Yarriambiack, where 680 dwellings were unoccupied but also not for sale or rent.

In the Wimmera Southern Mallee, the percentage of rented houses where the landlord was also the tenant’s employer was more than triple the state average.

In Geelong, Victoria’s second largest city, they’re experiencing a population growth rate higher than Australia’s five largest capital cities and with median housing prices reaching $1 million this year, the housing situation is also dire for many. In the Corio ward in the Geelong region, over 60 per cent of households are in rental stress.

In particular the link between unaffordable housing in regional and rural Victoria and the inability for local businesses to attract staff has become painfully clear during and since the pandemic. The Impact Economics and Policy report1 on housing and skill shortages found that the biggest impediment to finding workers is the high cost of housing and rents, which is restricting the ability of workers to move between regions. Our housing system that’s received little to no attention over the last few decades is now coming back to bite by crippling the economic potential of our regions. We’re seeing and hearing stories to back this up:

A successful food production business contemplating building their own accommodation in order to attract workers to their factory who were keen to work there but just couldn’t find a place nearby to live.

Tourist hot spots down the scenic Surf Coast and Colac-Otway Shire looked at issuing special camping permits over summer so the wine bars and restaurants could maintain staff over the busy holiday period. Not only were the vacancy rates in these beach side areas at all-time lows, but the abundance of holiday homes, unoccupied for much of the year meant particularly limited options, and rising rents made it impossible for staff on hospitality incomes to find and keep a place to stay.

Some other unique challenges we’ve encountered and are working to solve as we look to expand our social and affordable housing portfolio in rural Victoria include:

  • Finding trades that are able and willing to build in more rural locations. This has prompted us to look at more innovative solutions like modular builds, that can still deliver the 7-star ratings required.
  • We’re seeing people living on larger blocks of land, often a bit further out of town, which they struggle to maintain as they age. Often the homes are run down, they don’t have the funds to maintain the home 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. A solution here would be more flexibility with the eligibility requirements in regional and rural areas that consider these unique circumstances. Right now, the system is actually pushing these people into homelessness because there isn’t a solution that caters for their situation.
  • Numbers on the Victorian Housing Register (VHR) are typically lower in rural areas, giving the perception that there mustn’t be much demand for social and affordable housing, but this is simply not the case. Many people we talk to in these communities are either unaware of the VHR, or if they know about it, don’t want to add their name to the list because they believe the waiting list is so long, they’ll never get a home anyway.
  • Lack of housing diversity and the right type of housing is a key issue for regional and rural Victoria. There’s a growing demand for smaller homes of one or two bedrooms.  Planning to build smaller sized homes is challenging in regional and rural communities as there is apprehension that they will be high or even medium-density living which is considered less desirable in these smaller communities. For example, we’ve got over 900 single clients at Haven Home Safe, but they are not all in one-bedroom homes, because they simply don’t exist in the quantity needed.

With the growing disparity between housing demand and housing supply, there is an increasing proportion of society who are facing greater barriers to home ownership. There will always be people who will never own a home and people who need a safety net to ensure they have access to a safe, secure and affordable home, in order to not just survive, but thrive in society. Ensuring an adequate supply of housing across the entire housing continuum – from crisis accommodation through transitional housing to affordable rentals, is essential for a well-functioning and equitable society.

It’s worth acknowledging that the Victorian Government has made the largest single investment to social housing across any State or Territory, through their Big Housing Build. However, even this significant commitment won’t resolve the years of underinvestment. When delivery is complete we will still be below the Australian average of social and affordable homes in Victoria. What’s needed is continuity to deliver this critical social infrastructure. The argument that is applied to hospitals and schools, also needs to apply to housing – it is essential social infrastructure that must be prioritised to ensure a vibrant and thriving Victoria.

Shifting from transactional funding to strategic portfolio funding, would enable Community Housing Providers to plan for staged developments and create solutions across the whole housing continuum. By investing in an approach that supports strategic partnerships between Community Housing Providers and local governments, we can also ensure housing is informed by and led by local communities that know better than anyone, what is needed to keep their communities vibrant and thriving.

At Haven Home Safe, we’ve recognised that we need to work differently. We know the provision of safe, secure and affordable housing with wrap-around supports, can change life trajectories, break the cycle of homelessness and improve intergenerational outcomes. We welcome the partnership with the Victorian State Government and the Big Housing Build, but we also recognise the pressing need to invest differently by accessing non-government funding. We are also exploring non-traditional investment from a range of sources including the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, superannuation firms, banks, private capital partners and so on. By building a new blended revenue mix and mobilising future partnerships of consequence and scale, we can have greater impact for the people that need us most, particularly in our regional and rural communities.


1 Impact Economics and Policy (August 2022) Housing Critical: The role of housing in solving critical skill shortages across the regions, Housing+Critical+report+.pdf (squarespace.com)

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Connect News September 2022

As we say goodbye to winter and welcome spring (the season of new beginnings) it feels timely to let you know that at Haven Home Safe we have welcomed Trudi Ray into the role of CEO while our incumbent CEO Andrew Cairns moves into the role of Group Chief Executive Officer.

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