Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

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

Recommendations

In addition to highlighting challenges facing humanitarian entrants in the housing market and sharing strategies to address these challenges, many consultation participants put forward ideas and recommendations to further enhance access to housing or address wider structural and systemic issues. Some of these recommendations focused on supporting or expanding existing programs and strategies which had proven to be successful. Others related to issues which require more significant government action, being beyond the capacity of communities and (primarily not-for-profit) service providers to address on their own. These recommendations are summarised below.

Development of the housing sector

A number of consultation participants spoke of the need for government-supported initiatives to increase housing stock (both private and social), with a view to alleviating the related challenges of affordability and availability. For example, one Iraqi community member suggested: “The government should release more low cost land. People from the Iraqi community are motivated to buy land and build their own houses but there needs to be more cheap land made available.”

Other ideas included providing incentives to property owners to offer low-cost housing, reviewing policies and regulations which may inhibit housing development and developing a coordinated national approach to housing. Examples of positive initiatives mentioned by participants included the National Affordable Housing Agreement, which was signed by the Council of Australian Governments and began in 2009, and the National Rental Affordability Scheme which encourages the involvement of the private market in the sector while subsidising rental costs. Some participants also saw a need to explore different models of social, community and transitional housing, with a view to increasing the availability of affordable and supported housing options to people facing barriers to accessing the housing market.

In a 2011 national Settlement Policy Network meeting focusing on housing, the discussion highlighted the lack of affordable housing to go around for everyone that needs it and the complexity of distributing the resources available for housing in society more fairly. In terms of addressing the issue of housing stock, it was suggested that the 2009 Economic Stimulus package initiated by the Federal Government during the global financial crisis was significant in creating new housing stock and stimulating the housing sector. At the same time it was noted that this was a one-off initiative and funding such as that offered by the Economic Stimulus should be part of the yearly budget as it was in the past. In the words of one participant, “that type of funding should be for at least 10 years to make a significant ‘dent’ in the housing issue”.

Recommendation 1

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government work with state, territory and local governments explore strategies to increase the availability of affordable housing stock, such as direct housing development, financial incentives, community and private sector partnerships and alternative social housing models.

Addressing affordability

As noted earlier, financial assistance and small loans schemes which enable people experiencing financial hardship to meet housing costs were seen to be an effective strategy for addressing affordability barriers. Such programs, however, were seen to have limitations in terms of both the capacity of individual programs and general availability of such programs. Several participants suggested increasing the availability of small loans schemes and offering further rental subsidies and rebates to low income earners as a means of facilitating access to housing.

A number of consultation participants also noted that the level of income support typically available to humanitarian entrants, such as the Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance or ASAS, was not sufficient to cover basic living costs in the current housing market. While financial support programs may go some way to alleviating affordability challenges, participants also highlighted a need to increase the overall level of income support available under these programs in order to ensure low income earners are able to avoid housing stress.

Limited income support was seen to be a particularly significant challenge for people seeking asylum living in the community given that most are not eligible to work, with several consultation participants highlighting the relationship between access to work rights and access to sustainable housing. Providing people seeking asylum with an opportunity to supplement their very limited incomes through paid work was viewed as a means of making the housing market more accessible – in the words of one service provider, “it would open the market up for them a little bit more”. Another participant noted that merely having the right to work could on its own enhance people seeking asylum’ prospects of securing housing: “From a housing point of view, if the real estate agents know that these clients have the right to work, it gives them more reassurance that the clients will be able to afford their rent.”

Recommendation 2

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government and state/territory governments establish additional financial support programs (such as rental subsidies and bond loans) for people on low incomes.

Recommendation 3

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government revise the payment rates under relevant government income support programs, in particular the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, to a level which more accurately reflects the cost of living.
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government restore work rights to people seeking asylum living in the community on bridging visas.

Capacity-building with housing providers

Many consultation participants highlighted the lack of knowledge and expertise among housing providers (including real estate agents, property owners and mainstream housing and homelessness services) in working with people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds. While a number of organisations had developed effective strategies for building the capacity of housing providers to work with these groups, consultation participants also saw a need to address knowledge gap in a more systematic way.

Moreover, the successful capacity-building strategies highlighted in this report were often initiated by organisations which had received funding to employ specialist housing workers. These strategies may not be viable for organisations which have not received targeted funding for specialist housing workers, which lose their targeted funding or which deliver programs that do not have a specific housing component (such as ASAS). As such, there is a need for additional support to ensure that these successful strategies can be more widely implemented.

In addition to assisting housing providers to meet the specific needs of humanitarian entrants, capacity-building was also seen as an important mechanism for addressing misconceptions that housing providers may have about the risks of renting to humanitarian entrants. A service provider in Queensland, for example, suggested that providing forums through which housing providers could meet people seeking asylum would act as “risk management strategy”, in that “it would help real estate agents to see that it is not risky to rent to these clients”. Several participants also highlighted the importance of addressing broader community attitudes towards people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds, in light of the impact negative attitudes and racism could have on access to housing.

Recommendation 4

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, through the Department of Social Services, provide funding to support the delivery of professional development and training opportunities for real estate agents, specialist housing and homelessness services and other housing providers, to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds.

Service provision

The strategies profiled in Sections 6.1 and 6.2 of this report clearly illustrate the value of employing specialist housing workers to support humanitarian entrants to access and maintain suitable housing. For many of the organisations consulted, having a dedicated staff member to provide clients with one-on-one support to navigate the housing market, play an intermediary role between clients and housing providers and offer tenancy education programs could significantly enhance the prospects of clients securing and maintaining appropriate housing.

As well as highlighting effective models of service provision, the consultation process also identified a number of gaps in the service provision model for asylum seeker support programs. Participants identified three key areas in need of reform. Firstly, the six-week eligibility period for the CAS Transitional program was seen as an insufficient amount of time to secure housing, provide orientation and address other individual needs (such as health issues). Secondly, the high client-to-worker ratios under the ASAS and CAS programs were seen to militate against the provision of individualised support that would allow clients’ needs, including those related to housing, to be addressed holistically and sustainably.

Thirdly, the limited scope under the CAS Transitional and ASAS programs to provide support beyond basic orientation and financial assistance, despite the fact that many clients were clearly in need of additional support, was a source of frustration for many participants. A consultation participant in Queensland, for example, noted that there was no capacity within the ASAS program to hire a specialist housing worker, despite the fact that many ASAS clients faced ongoing difficulties with housing. Another participant in New South Wales reported that her organisation had felt compelled to provide orientation programs to people seeking asylum despite the fact that it received no funding to do so: “That’s not a contractual obligation to DIAC. That’s something that we’re just doing out of necessity off our own bat.”

With the large number of people seeking asylum currently living in the community expected to remain in these circumstances for months to come, there is a clear need to revise the current service provision model to ensure that the basic needs of people seeking asylum, including access to housing, can be effectively addressed by service providers.

Recommendation 5

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government provide additional funding under the SGP and ASAS/CAS programs for specialist housing workers to provide more intensive support with housing issues.

Recommendation 6

RCOA recommends that the eligibility period for the CAS Transitional program be extended to at least eight weeks.

Recommendation 7

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government provide funding under the CAS Transitional and ASAS programs for additional caseworkers to alleviate high client-to-worker caseloads.

Recommendation 8

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review the service delivery framework for asylum seeker support programs, in line with the recommendations made in RCOA’s submission on the 2014-15 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

Involvement of refugee communities

As noted earlier, links within refugee communities can play an important role in addressing housing challenges. At the same time, however, a number of refugee community representatives expressed frustration that this role had not been adequately acknowledged or supported by governments. In the words of a Tamil community representative:

The [Australian] Government takes responsibility for putting them into the community and we’re trying to find out how to look after them, how to find housing for them. It is actually the Government’s problem. When they put out people into the community, they should also try to provide housing or help those people who are providing housing… It’s not our job, we are volunteering to help the Government… The Government should realise that and take it as a priority.

While this frustration stemmed in part from the fact that small unfunded community groups were being stretched beyond their capacity, it also stemmed from disappointment that governments were not capitalising on the opportunity to involve communities more closely in service provision. The community representatives consulted were keen to be involved in providing support with housing issues and felt that community networks and knowledge could play an invaluable role in addressing barriers and challenges. At the same time, however, communities recognised their limited capacity and felt that it was inappropriate for governments to rely so heavily on the support of communities without providing support in return. Consultation participants saw a need for governments to develop more productive relationships with communities to ensure that they can continue to provide essential settlement support. As summed up by a representative from the Hazara community:

I think what needs to happen is greater support for community organisations to play a significant role. Bridging visa holders need more support and the government and service providers are overlooking the role and potential to work more closely with refugee community organisations that have the relationship and understand the community very well and also understand the system. For example, some of the workers in CAS don’t know the Dandenong area at all or the community. We know both but we are being ignored. We want more than to just be consulted, we want to work in partnership with services to help communities but we need some resources to do this. We can’t be expected to do it all voluntarily.

Recommendation 9

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government and state/territory governments develop partnerships with refugee communities to support their role in addressing settlement issues and challenges, including those related to housing.

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