Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

The home stretch: Challenges and alternatives in sustainable housing for refugees and people seeking asylum

Strategies by communities

Community connections and initiatives

The previous sections have focused on strategies used by service providers to support people seeking asylum and refugee and humanitarian entrants to find housing. The following explores some of the community-driven initiatives that were highlighted in consultations – of how refugees and people seeking asylum utilise intra- and inter-community connections to secure housing, enter into cooperative arrangements and share housing.

Links within refugee communities

Many consultation participants spoke about the important role played by communities themselves in helping new arrivals find somewhere to live. Most frequently, this was referred to in relation to intra-community connections, with more established community members from a particular cultural, religious or nationality group offering newer arrivals somewhere to live or providing them with support to access the housing market.

For example, a member of the Iranian community spoke about utilising ethnic and social media to advertise among the broader Iranian community for families or individuals seeking accommodation and that this had resulted in a good community response. A representative from the Rohingya community spoke about a senior community member who had taken leases on several houses, saying: “He signs the lease but the second person on the lease agreement is one of the people seeking asylum staying there.”

The Tamil community in one city had established an informal “Meet and Greet” service which provided minimal support (food, clothes etc) for Tamil people seeking asylum. Participants from the Hazara and Karen communities likewise identified practices of more established community members offering rooms to rent to those whom they knew (friends or family), spoke the same language or were simply from the same place of origin.

For some communities where there have been longer settlement patterns resulting in higher rates of home ownership, community members may offer investment properties as rental properties for people from a shared background. In the words of one consultation participant: “In the Iraqi community, some people own two or three houses, so when a new family arrives they often are found a house by a relative, neighbour or friend.”

At the same time, some risks were identified in community-sourced rental arrangements as many are informal and there are no contracts or leases. Many arrangements are based on trust and community relationships. As one community worker said: “The client says: ‘I’m not going to ask my brother for a lease!’ This is fair enough. We help them with contracts if they want them but we can’t force them if they don’t”. The risk of these informal arrangements is that if the relationship breaks down, the person or people renting face ongoing challenges obtaining a rental reference when applying to lease a property in the private housing market.

Despite these risks, the effectiveness of community links in terms of housing outcomes can be illustrated in the following example given by an asylum seeker living in Brisbane:

I didn’t face any problems because my friends who came two years back had a nice house. They had reserved a room for me, so it was very easy for me to come over here. I was sent to Melbourne first but I transferred to Brisbane. I asked to come here because my friends were here. I feel happy. They also took me all the time for shopping by their car, so there are no transport expenses for me. They take me always for outings and to other places too. I feel very confident and they are really helpful and I feel so grateful.

Although not all people seeking asylum, refugee and humanitarian entrants arrive with established community links, many consultation participants acknowledged the difference it makes for those who are well connected. As one participant said:

The situations that seem to work the best are where people have some links already, either through their church or mosque or family networks or friends. They seem to be much better supported and able to find their own accommodation with minimal help from any other service. But if you don’t have that, they’re the people who really struggle.

Broader community connections

Of course, the benefits of community connections extend beyond intra-community links, with many consultation participants acknowledging the important and sometimes hidden contribution of the broader Australian community and of people who are willing to reach out and support new arrivals.

A number of service providers, for example, spoke positively about members of the broader community contacting them to offer support, including offering their houses for exclusive use of recent humanitarian arrivals or people seeking asylum. One participant in Victoria provided an example of an asylum seeker, Alan[35], who found somewhere to live through the generosity of a fellow church member:

A church member assisted Alan by setting him up in a two-bedroom apartment (completely free) with bills and food paid for indefinitely. Alan felt uncomfortable living in the accommodation without paying so he now makes an effort to contribute. He is now charged rent on a “pay when you can” basis. Alan believes the church member’s generosity is born from his Christian values – because he believes ‘God will bless him’. He has lived in this accommodation for four months and feels that it is a safe and quiet location.

Consultation participants in other locations shared similar stories of individuals and small networks – such as church groups and volunteers from home tutoring or mentoring programs – providing significant “hidden assistance” such as helping people to move house, advocating with real estate agents, taking people to look for properties and providing other informal support.

Other more established community groups were also active in supporting new arrivals. In South Australia, for example, one service had formed a partnership with a local Rotary Club that was providing use of their vans and helping clients move house. There were also examples of staff members from organisations drawing on their own personal community connections to help clients: “We have started our own material aid group that’s all from in-kind donations from our friends and family.”

Housing cooperatives

Housing cooperatives and collective home-ownership were identified as effective community-driven strategies to assist new arrivals find somewhere secure and sustainable to live. Whether through formal arrangements or informally through extended family and community networks, these cooperatives provide a way for people to combine their resources for the benefit of individual community members or families.

Examples given of collective home-ownership included extended families pooling money to purchase property to live in together or for one family to live in and groups of families from a particular ethnic community setting up a collective arrangement. In the latter case, examples were given whereby money is pooled by a group of families to purchase a large house which they all share. When this house is paid off, another property is purchased (using the first house as collateral) and the families then live in one of the two properties. The ultimate aim is for all of the participating families to own and live in their own property.

Although this process takes many years, it allows people on lower incomes to enter the property market as home owners. As some refugee community members said, many see the advantages of living together for mutual support in early years anyway (even in what some would consider overcrowded housing). Indeed, the experiences of previous waves of refugees (for example, communities from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) have proven the effectiveness of these types of collective and cooperative home-owning strategies.

Shared accommodation

For many recent arrivals, pursuing shared accommodation has been the most effective way of finding somewhere to live in the context of a competitive and tight private rental market. Shared housing not only offers the benefit of greater affordability but also creates potential for groups of people to offer mutual support. As one service provider said: “We have encouraged people to share accommodation who otherwise would not have… Small families have shared a larger house and ended up paying proportionally much less rent.”

The risks of share-housing, however, were also identified by consultation participants. For example, one asylum seeker explained that he lived in a share house with 10 or 11 other people and, while his housemates “are good people” he sometimes encounters problems: “Somebody drinks and then it’s changed.” This was echoed by a community member from Afghanistan who spoke about his first experience of living in share-housing in Australia:

But probably the biggest issue I see is that these people come from different backgrounds and views, they sometimes don’t know each other and they are going through a lot of stress. It often does not work out and there can be conflict. But they are desperate, so what choice do they have? In 2001 when I was living in Brisbane [on a Temporary Protection Visa] we had similar issues. There were six of us living in a house and we didn’t even have any support. Even though the house was quite big, we did not all get along.

Some new arrivals were also finding shared accommodation with people outside their social networks or cultural community, either through websites such as Gumtree or through programs such as the Homestay Network, which housed over 550 people seeking asylum over a year through its Community Placement Network and received 4,000 applications from people willing to host people seeking asylum in their homes.

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