Calling Australia home: ideas for an equitable housing market

With rental vacancy rates in Australia sitting at just 1.3%, it’s become increasingly common to see queues for rental open-for-inspections spilling out onto the street as competition for private rentals grows tighter. So how do landlords decide who gets the privilege of a home in a system that treats housing as a commodity rather than a right? Unsurprisingly, it’s a race to the bottom.

With so much competition, rental agencies and landlords increasingly employing discriminatory tactics to choose between the many tenants vying for a home. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner noted that the tight market has shone a light on name-based discrimination against migrants and refugees. Similarly, a recent study published in Housing Studies, noted that in Australia, refugees are viewed as 'riskier' tenants and are increasingly passed over for private rentals due to discriminatory stereotypes. One landlord expressed fears that refugee tenants would create ‘chaos’ as they came from ‘damaged countries’, despite having had good experiences in the past with tenants of refugee backgrounds. As an agent put it, ‘Probably 80 per cent of landlords refuse to rent to anyone that (is) black’.

But it’s not just competition and direct discrimination that creates barriers to housing for migrants and refugees. Back in 2021 when rental competition was at its lowest in the last ten years, the ABC reported that migrants and refugees were still facing administrative barriers to housing. Unnecessarily onerous rental application processes bar many refugees and migrants from housing due to requests for Australian references, rental history and forms of identification documents that many new arrivals do not have. These combined barriers have led to an overrepresentation of migrants and refugees in the homeless population, with recent arrivals being 3 times more likely to experience homelessness.

Even where homelessness does not occur, the suitability of housing that is available to many migrants and refugees remains poor. Research in NSW on overcrowding shows that migrants and families make up the bulk of those living in severely overcrowded conditions with 72% of those in severely overcrowded dwellings were born overseas. Similarly, a pattern of landlords refusing to rent their ‘nice properties’ to larger refugee families limits many refugee families to low quality, poorly maintained houses.

These precarious conditions make it harder for migrant and refugee women to create a safe and secure home for themselves and their families. In situations of family violence, migrant and refugee women without permanent residency are often excluded from social security or the right to work due to their visa status, preventing women from being able to find independent housing away from perpetrators.

Similarly, while there is very little data being collected on pregnancy status amongst those seeking housing support services, it is well established that stable, secure housing where women can prepare for birth is essential for psychological and practical wellbeing. The recent establishment of the Cornelia Project which provides housing and antenatal care to pregnant women at risk of homelessness shows that there is a greater need for housing solutions that take into account sexual and reproductive health.

The Federal government’s commitment to improving the supply of both social and private housing is a step in the right direction to correcting a market failure. But in any system which doles out fundamental rights on the basis of market competition, those who receive the most aren’t likely to be those who need the most. If we want to make sure everyone has a safe home in Australia, we need to look at eradicating gender and race discrimination in both the private and public systems. That means providing affordable housing, work rights and welfare rights to everyone regardless of visa, reducing the administrative burden tenants face in the private rental market, centring the role of public housing in the successful settlement of refugees and taking real action to treat housing more like a right, and less like a commodity.

First published in edition #124 of The WRAP on 30 August 2023.