Why Do Tenants Leave Social Housing? Exploring Residential and Social Mobility at the Lowest Rungs of Australia's Socioeconomic Ladder

By Wiesel, Ilan; Pawson, Hal | Australian Journal of Social Issues, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Why Do Tenants Leave Social Housing? Exploring Residential and Social Mobility at the Lowest Rungs of Australia's Socioeconomic Ladder


Wiesel, Ilan, Pawson, Hal, Australian Journal of Social Issues


Introduction

Longstanding Government disinvestment (Productivity Commission 2009) has seen social housing declining such that the proportion of social renters in Australia fell from 5.8 per cent of households in 1998 to 3.9 per cent in 2010 (NHSC 2013). Proliferating waiting lists are one indication of the growing gap between affordable housing supply and levels of need (NHSC 2013). In recent years, Australian Commonwealth and state governments have looked to managerial measures to mitigate this problem. This has been reflected in a growing policy interest in tenant exits from social housing (Arbib 2011; Victorian Government 2012: 5; Queensland Government 2013: 6; WA Government 2014). Since Australia lacks any significant ongoing program of new social housing construction, virtually all social housing lettings arise when existing homes are vacated by tenants. With public housing lettings falling sharply (for example, down by a third in the period 2003/04 to 2009/10: (1) AIHW 2005; 2011) policymakers reason that a greater volume of departures by tenants capable of sustaining market housing will maximise vacancies for applicants in greater need.

Despite its small and diminishing size, Australia's social rental sector remains a crucial policy concern because it continues to accommodate over 800,000 of the country's most disadvantaged people. As used here, the term 'social housing' refers to rental accommodation provided outside the market system and allocated on the basis of administratively assessed 'housing need'. In Australia, most social housing continues to be provided by state and territory governments ('public housing'), although a growing proportion is managed by not-for-profit community housing providers (CHPs) (Pawson et al. 2013). Individual tenants' rents are set by reference to their (usually very low) household income. For the vast majority, therefore, the rental charge is substantially discounted, and only about nine per cent are charged the full market rent assigned to their dwelling (AIHW 2013: 108).

For a period during the 1950s and 1960s, social housing played an important role as a springboard to home purchase for low-income households (Wulff & Newton 1995). More recently, changes in the sector's socioeconomic profile, and the gradual elimination of low-income homeownership purchase programs (Hulse et al. 2010) have virtually ended this function. Especially since the 1970s, the profile of social housing tenants has changed substantially with increasingly narrow targeting of highly disadvantaged applicants--mostly income support recipients outside the labour force. For example, in the 1960s wages were the primary income source for 85 per cent of NSW public housing tenants; by 2014 the proportion has dropped strikingly to only 5 per cent (NSW Government 2014: 60). Australia-wide, whereas in 1991 the median income of the household head in public housing was $773 per week (in 2011 dollars), by 2011 this had nearly halved to $477 (Groenhart & Burke 2014: 41).

State Housing Authorities (SHAs) across Australia continue to explore strategies to encourage or compel exits of tenants deemed as no longer in high need of social housing (Arbib 2011; Victorian Government 2012: 5; Queensland Government 2013: 6; WA Government 2014). Such discourses and policies are underpinned by assumptions that there are disincentives for social housing tenants who are in paid employment to move out into private housing, as well as disincentives for social housing tenants to enter paid employment in the first place. Expressing such concerns, Mark Arbib, Australia's former Housing Minister, commented:

Unfortunately now, the public housing system has become a trap rather than a springboard for some Australians, who are capable of working and bouncing out of poverty but face big disincentives to leave public housing. (Arbib 2011)

The notion of a 'trap' suggests tenants are somehow 'held back' by their occupancy of social housing--an idea, in turn, linked with theories of the 'dependency culture' allegedly associated with renting from the state (Robinson 2013). …

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