Renters stress hits the Blackwood - time for a renters alliance Australia-wide
We have all heard about mortgage stress however renters' stress has received comparatively little mention according to Lea Keenan, coordinator of the WA Renters Alliance. Ms Keenan said that rising rents are not confined to Perth and the north west however "are just as out of control in the south west."
Bridgetown renter, Louise Fleay said that she relocated two years ago from Perth for the promise of less financial pressures in terms of cost of living including "cheaper and fairer rents". She was paying $350 in rent in Perth and two years ago was paying $220 in Bridgetown however this has risen to $270 per week.
"When we put things in context, landlords are hitting us up hard for rent trying to make as much out of their investment however it is at the expense of our quality of life and it is stressful because as I say in context there is less income down here, less jobs, and proportionately I'm paying just as much if not more of my total income in rent. There are not many full time jobs down here and I have two part time jobs to make ends meet," said Ms Fleay.
"Bridgetown should not just be a place to be afforded by well off retirees, it should be a healthy community for everyone."
"I love Bridgetown, I love the Blackwood, I love the South West, and the people are great but they need to know, those who are investors that we (tenants) are doing it real tough and all the more so with every increase in rent."
One Bridgetown real estate salesperson who did not want to be named said the problem is endemic and that it is underlied by the lack of adequate regulatory protocols in keeping rents to any bona fide guideline - including rent increases. "The market is the investors unfortunately, and often we in realty are troubled by their asking prices however in the end it is their decision," she said.
Ms Keenan is the founder of the fledgling Renters Alliance and is working on raising rental stress as a major issue with next year's state election pending. She is writing to all the political parties.
"Half of West Australians receiving rent assistance remain in financial stress, the rental medians in Perth are now ridiculous and induce poverty, and when it comes to towns like Bridgetown and Donnybrook, well the median increases are too high and not consistent and may actually be a higher quotient out of total income for renters there than in Perth," she said.
"Well if home property values are declining in Bridgetown and Donnybrook why are rents going up?"
"Most three by one homes in the Blackwood region should only be around $200 and not at $260 to $320 - landlords need to have a good look at their moral compass," said Ms Keenan.
Australians for Affordable Housing (AAH) has asked the federal government to increase Commonwealth Rental Assistance by 30%, and which would amount to between $16 to $25 extra a week for households.
Housing stress, which includes mortgage and renters stress, refers to residents in the lower 30% of income earners who spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
"I spend over 40% of my income on rent to live in Bridgetown," said Ms Fleay.
According to AAH the steep rental market has seen the number of WA residents receiving housing-stress rent assistance rise to 43 per cent however AAH spokeswoman Sarah Toohey said there were thousands of West Australians struggling to keep a roof over their head.
Ms Toohey said people who need a financial break the most are single parents and those on disability support pensions.
"The worst case scenario is that families can no longer make their rent and they will end up homeless. That really is what happens when people can't afford to keep the roof over their head."
Ms Keenan said that WA may be considered a real estate investors boom however it comes on the back of the renters and familial meltdowns. "It is an unfair market however we've got to work hard to make people see that they are more than landlords and wealth-creators, you should not do this at the expense of others - be fair."
"The south west should not be driving up rents when property values are declining, it's not a good look, it's exploitation, sheer greed. If we get the rents fair and respect people, then we'll get the house prices right, and then the banks can get their act together on interest rates, and Consumer Price Index and inflation will come good. It's time renters have rights, get a fair go, they are renting their home, and it should be their home with some financial security and quality of life for them, and the investors make a fair return on their property, which while rented is not their home, however someone else's, and not push for maximum returns, this is not the fair go and it is not common decency," said Ms Keenan.
"We only have one life, let us make it a good one for everyone, including the poorer among us, and those never able to afford to buy but who can only at best rent," said Ms Fleay.
"I want to stay in Bridgetown and not have to move to the Central Desert."
IS THERE A RENTERS REVOLUTION NEARING?
A renters rights movement is gathering momentum in Western Australia with its first impetus surprisingly from the state's South West, and in particular from the Blackwood Valley.
Many tenants are tired of being hit every six months with hefty rent increases which outstrip consumer price index rises and wage rises. Bridgetown renter, Louise Fleay had a $50 rise in rent over 18 months, from $220 to $270 while she had no wage increase nor distinguishable benefits from commonwealth and state assistance. Another Bridgetown renter, who does not want to be named, had a $50 rise in one hit, from $270 to $320.
WA Renters Alliance coordinator, Lea Keenan said renters stress is worse than mortgage stress. "Not only are renters worse off financially, without equity and therefore without security, however in terms of renters rights they are negligible."
"There have been increasing complaints that many renters are only able to secure six month rents, and this is abominable - it erodes any sense of home security," said Ms Keenan.
Realtors in Bridgetown, Donnybrook and other nearby towns have confirmed that have become increasingly prone to pursing six month leases rather than one or two year rental leases in order to ensure "good clientele for the owners". Ms Keenan said that there should be legislation against this practice.
"40% of Australians who are in private rentals, and I am not described social housing, should not be discriminated against and should be assisted to feel a sense of home for themselves and their families. Having to relocate comes with great stress, it is accepted as traumatic by a number of studies, and it comes at great financial cost especially for families who are in the bottom 30% of income," she said.
Associate Professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, Steve Keen, said Australia has created "one of the biggest housing bubbles on the planet." The renter is carrying a disproportionate burden, and when the bubble bursts the renters will be left worn out.
Australian Council of Social Service chief executive officer Clare Martin said housing stress must become the priority social policy challenge. "Some 850,000 Australians are in housing stress, with rental costs gobbling up a high proportion of their income," Ms Martin said.
"A third are low-income households. Add to that the 105,000 Australians who are homeless and you start to get a real idea of how big the problem is."
Individuals who all of a sudden are not able to afford their rentals in towns like Bridgetown and Donnybrook have finished up at $20-a-night sharing a two or four bed room at the Kirup Lodge or for $25-a-night at the Donnybrook Hotel. The Donnybrook-Bridgetown Mail has spoken with some folk who are no longer able to afford rents and who are now itinerant.
In last week's edition Ms Fleay said, "When we put things in context, landlords are hitting us up hard for rent trying to make as much out of their investment however it is at the expense of our quality of life and it is stressful because as I say in context there is less income down here, less jobs, and proportionately I'm paying just as much if not more of my total income in rent. There are not many full time jobs down here and I have two part time jobs to make ends meet."
"Bridgetown should not just be a place to be afforded by well off retirees, it should be a healthy community for everyone."
The Renters Alliance is working on a schedule of rights, and various policies, for renters. "We must ensure reasonable security in terms of tenure for families, without diminishing the rights of investors in terms of the proper care of their property, however it must be recognised that where a house is rented it becomes someones home. We will be pushing that someone should only be moved out if the investor wants to move in themselves and make it their home. In some European countries this is the case, you can't move out people unless you will live there, and if you sell the house the tenancy is protected. Renters do have to take care of a property, however inspections should be six monthly or yearly or there needs to be clear evidence why a landlord or agent needs to access the property any more regularly than say once a year. Rent should be guidelined by CPI and by the size of the home, not by the rapacious greed of investors," said Ms Keenan.
The Renters Alliance will liaise with all political parties however their numbers are swelling since they came to light a couple of months ago, and they will highlight renters rights with a state parliament rally in August however the Blackwood region may experience the first renters rights rally in the state come July.
"It may surprise many that the first rally to highlight the issues is not in the north west where rents are just insane, or in Perth where rents have toppled the $400 a week mark, however in the south west. The south west has less income for each person per capita than the metropolitan and the north west, and a significantly high population - and this is a good start in gathering momentum, and in not making this issue predominantly city-centric," said Ms Keenan.
"We will soon decide whether our first effort will be in the Blackwood, maybe Bridgetown or Donnybrook or in Bunbury or Margaret River where we have the same issues. In the end this is an Australia-wide issue and unless I'm stupid it will become a hot topic in all coming elections, state and federal."
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Housing Assistance Unit's David Wilson said, "The stresses are showing up even after assistance has been provided. For example, 35% of households receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance are still, after assistance, paying more than 30% of their household incomes on their rent, which is a common measure for housing stress."
Australians for Affordable Housing (AAH) have asked the federal government to increase Commonwealth Rental Assistance by 30%, and which would amount to between $16 to $25 extra a week for households.
South West, Blackwood-Stirling MLA, Terry Redman said he readily acknowledged that housing affordability, whether for renters or buyers, is the biggest cost of living issue for most Australians.
“Pressure on the Perth rental market is clearly having a flow-on effect in country areas including the Warren Blackwood region."
“The Liberal-National Government’s Affordable Housing Strategy released last year is aimed at increasing the affordability of affordable housing in Western Australia and delivering 3,500 more social housing dwellings by 2013," said Mr Redman.
“Increasing the supply of public housing is important but as housing stress is more evident in areas where incomes are low, it’s also important to focus on job creation to lift incomes in regional areas. This is why a major focus of the Royalties for Regions program is on stimulating regional economies to create more opportunities for both full and part time employment."
“Royalties for Regions is also funding the Country Age Pension Fuel card and has put major funding into the Patient Assisted Travel Scheme to help offset some of the additional costs that regional residents face,” Mr Redman said.
Greens MLA Giz Watson, who will be challenging for a seat in the south west in the coming state election said that housing stress is one of the negative effects of WA's mining boom and has been compounded by the Global Financial Crisis. "A housing market traditionally supplied a family house on a large block," said Ms Watson.
"One of the reasons for rents rising is the lack of diversity of housing, forcing all types of household to compete for the same houses. Young singles are competing with families for the four bedroom, two bath homes."
Ms Watson said the number of renters increasing are because of the high price of buying a first home.
"Housing diversity is critical to meeting the need for accommodation."
"The Greens would like to see a better tax system to increase the availability of a diversity of housing supply, including small rentals."
Ms Watson said providing more options for high density living is critical to meeting housing needs and reducing pressures on the environment. "This increased density in existing towns has to be achieved with community support and good discussion about how to deliver liveable towns."
Collie's Labor parliamentarian Mick Murray said housing needs are a main concern of his constituents, including rental prices and house prices. He said there was a demand for more social housing.
"Homeswest and affording housing needs are not being met in Collie. At one stage there were 70 family groups waiting public housing in Collie," said Mr Murray.
Mr Murray's office is contacted on a daily basis by people seeking affordable accommodation.
"Last month, housing minister Troy Buswell admitted in state parliament there were more than 24,000 outstanding maintenance requests lodged with Homeswest."
"The problem lies in that there are Homeswest properties sitting vacant because contractors are not being used because of the funding crisis," said Mr Murray.
Mr Murray believes many private renters who are doing it tough have been forced out of their right to social housing. "The waiting lists are so long, four years or more, so they are taking the affordable housing that low to middle income earners who are not eligible for Homeswest housing would normally rent."
Ms Keenan said what needs to be understood is that rents are too high for all types of homes, and they need to be brought down, and this in effect will go a long way to remedying the renters crisis and most housing stress issues.
Curtin University's social studies researcher, Colin Penter has long considered the housing crisis and he said that the Renters Alliance, Ms Keenan, and Australians for Affordable Housing are right on the mark and that the political parties need to do more, however all ways forward must be underlain with policies and guidelines.
"This is a huge issue that has been neglected and marginalised by all sides of politics and by the housing industry, and by non-government organisations who supposedly advocate for affordable housing," said Mr Penter.
"The Renters Alliance can grow into something big."
It is growing according to Ms Keenan, and rallies in the Blackwood and the south west in July will evidence the crises and the "call for a renters revolution and the making of housing affordable to everyone, and a home for everyone as natural rights."
RENTERS ALLIANCE COMING TO THE BLACKWOOD TO MEET THE PEOPLE
The renters’ rights movement that recently started in the Blackwood region has spread Australia-wide with the Renters Alliance swamped with emails and calls from distressed renters, said Lea Keenan, WA Renters Alliance co-ordinator.
As a result of the burgeoning movement other organisations have also begun highlighting the plight of renters, and rent stress, and of those in social housing, and the increasing hardship most face.
Ms Keenan said a rally in the Blackwood region in July would launch the movement and would then be followed by a rally on the steps of the WA parliament in August before a Renters’ Rights National Day of Action Australia-wide in October.
The Renters Alliance will organise a schedule of meetings throughout the South West for June in the lead up to the first rally, and will meet with concerned South West renters to both involve them in the movement and to highlight their stories to politicians and to the news media.
Ms Keenan said that the June visits would include Bunbury, Busselton, Donnybrook, Bridgetown, Collie, Margaret River and Albany. “We may visit other towns too however we are listening to everyone wherever they may live,” she said.
“Enough is enough with what renters go through and the hardship is only getting worse and not better with political parties geared to inherently supporting the interests of landlords and investors, who are actually fewer than the renters who are on the rise. Renters are the majority of the population.”
The Renters Alliance said that nearly 70% of Australians live in rent or in social housing and that proportionate to population less Australians than ever before are able to step into home ownership, and that mortgaging was beyond most Australians.
Social researcher and Secretary of the Multicultural Union of Australia Reveli Affleck said that it is only going to get worse for renters unless politicians stop neglecting them.
“We are being hurt badly by rent rises and both Liberal and Labor have not shown any inclination to (push for) reducing rents,” said Mr Affleck.
“Policies for reducing rents would win the support of 67% of the people.”
67% of Australians currently live in rent whereas in 1975 67% of Australian lived in a home they owned outright or had mortgaged.
“Less than 33% of Australians are in the home ownership struggle, and 90% of those 33% are mortgaged, with most of them heavily mortgaged and requiring near a lifetime to pay off their home, however ten per cent of Australians are investors with more than one property with most of them bleeding renters to pay off or maximise their investment,” said Ms Keenan.
“Whereas forty and fifty years ago you could save hard and pay off your home in several years this is now impossible for the majority of Australians, and most renters have no hope of saving a quid and therefore a deposit to even pull on a mortgage.”
“In the South West, in the Blackwood the property prices are still ridiculously high despite a declining market, despite less properties selling, and rent prices are on average, in our view, $100 per week too much, and in Perth $200 per week too much,” said Ms Keenan.
“Landlords and realtors in the South West should be looking at the regional social conditions, the local wages, the job market when considering what a fair rent should be. Many South West property owners are investors who do not live in the South West and live for instance in Perth, in the eastern states or overseas and are after maximum returns and do not have the mindset that their investment is someone’s home.”
“Life and society are a two-way street you know, its got to stop being about 'me' only.”
Mr Affleck said nearly one and half million West Australians are renters, and nearly 15 million Australians live in rent.
“We’ve got politicians worried about a looming renters’ rights movement, and so they should be, and when we get to the Blackwood and the South West come June it would be great to have the local politicians from all sides at the meetings. If they want to win the respect of the people they need to rock up, and of course we will contact their offices to meet with them nevertheless,” said Ms Keenan.
"Next week we will release the schedule of the Renters Alliance visits to the South West - the dates, times, venues."
WA is in the midst of a homeless crisis, with an increasing number of families turned away from emergency shelters every night, according to a charity organiser.
They say they had no choice but to hire a tiny caravan and set up a temporary home with their four children at an eastern suburbs caravan park in February, paying almost $400 a week while desperately trying to find a permanent home.
'The stresses are showing up even after assistance has been provided. For example, 35% of households receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance are still, after assistance, paying more than 30% of their household incomes on their rent, which is a common measure for housing stress,' Mr Wilson said.
In Australia in 2007–08, 47.5% of low‐income households in the private rental
market were in rental stress.
This fuelled a big jump in house prices, creating what some have described as a housing bubble. Steve Keen, Associate Professor of economics and finance at the University of Western Sydney, says the jump in house prices created "one of the biggest housing bubbles on the planet".
"Some 850,000 Australians are in housing stress, with rental costs gobbling up a high proportion of their income," Ms Martin said.
More than half of those are having to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, which is the highest proportion in the country.
Fifty-four per cent of Canberrans receiving some form of federal rent assistance are suffering housing stress, meaning they spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs.
A TIGHT housing market combined with low income has hit Bundaberg tenants hard, with about 44% in the region experiencing rental stress.
The Australians for Affordable Housing campaign went to Canberra last week to call for an immediate increase in the maximum rate of rent assistance and an Affordable Housing Growth Fund in the upcoming Budget. Renters need both and we think the Federal Government has to walk and chew gum at the same time on housing policy.
“With 30 percent of Australians renting and around 600,000 people already in rental stress, Australian Governments must increase supply of affordable housing. It must be a budget priority.
“An increase in Rent Assistance of just $25 per week would lift more than 700 ACT residents out of housing stress completely.
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