The true cost of the housing crisis

    Signs of people sleeping rough in Castlemaine. Photo courtesy of Ian Braybrook

    Jade Jungwirth

    “I can’t save money. I’m trapped paying way too much for rent and paying for rooms I don’t even need and I have no autonomy or agency over my own life. There’s no reason it should be this way. We’ve allowed economics to trump reality and people’s existence,” Steven said.

    The Express recently interviewed Steven*, a local man in his mid-40s who is currently housed through the federal government’s National Rental Assistance Scheme, which began in 2008.

    The program assists tenants in specific rental properties by providing 20 per cent of the rent for a period of up to 10 years. It will be concluding in 2026.

    “I’m not homeless, but I am in a precarious situation,” Steven said.

    “I worked as an engineer until 2016 and have been receiving the Disability Support Pension since 2017 due to suffering from major depression.

    “The property I’m in is a three-bedroom unit, which is way too big for me and costs 50 per cent of my income. This was the only property offered to me and there are no rentals in the area that are cheaper.

    “It’s said that if rent costs 25 per cent of your income it equals stress and if it costs 30 per cent it equals incredible stress. For me, my rent is 50 per cent of my income.”

    One of the conditions that Steven must abide by to maintain his NRAS eligibility is an annual review to prove his income, which significantly increases his stress and has an incredibly negative impact on his mental health.

    “As well as major depression, I also suffer from chronic anxiety,” Steven said.

    “That is one of the reasons housing is so crucial to me. Having a secure home is inexplicably entwined with my mental health and has been a core component of my existence for many years.

    “Housing is the most present and visceral component of my condition.”

    Steven describes the unit that he lives in as being ‘the cheapest they can get away with’ with very little energy efficiency, including large, unshaded glass doors and gas appliances that are expensive to operate.

    He struggles to heat and cool the house and despite trying to fill gaps in the building he is left paying about $100 a month on power bills, a number that increases in extreme heat.

    “Being poor is expensive,” Steven told the Express.

    Steven has attended several forums aimed at formulating solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

    “The people making decisions are never the ones being subjected to the decisions they are making,” Steven said.

    Steven has also become involved with My Home Network, which is trying to find viable and creative housing solutions for people living in the region.

    My Home Network is hearing that renters are increasingly being forced to leave their homes; away from family, support and community, to find affordable rentals elsewhere.

    Elders in the community are faced with a lack of appropriate retirement housing or the inability to afford to downsize and employers say they cannot find workers partly due to the affordable housing shortage.

    Statistics from May 2022 indicated there were 64 homeless people in the shire and more than 200 families seeking assistance with a shortfall of 100 safe and affordable rental homes, 589 social housing units, and much-needed crisis and transition housing, numbers that will have increased significantly over the past year.

    According to My Home Network, there are a range of factors driving the crisis, including; rents and housing prices increasing faster than wages, a mismatch between household size and dwelling types, and insufficient government investment in social and affordable housing over many years.

    “The median price for housing in Mount Alexander Shire is currently $720,000 and rental affordability is at 13 per cent, which means 87 per cent of tenants cannot afford a rental,” MHN’s Carolyn Neilson said.

    In response to his own situation and that of others like him, Steven has devised a simple solution to try to help people free themselves from the rental trap and the ensuing cycle of poverty.

    “I think people need to be on a pathway to removing themselves from renting, such as tiny houses or specifically designed shipping containers,” Steven said.

    “It’s time we start rethinking what is acceptable.”

    *Steven is a fictitious name in order to protect the interviewee’s anonymity.