Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

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

Housing challenges

Housing challenges for humanitarian entrants

The consultation process identified myriad challenges faced by people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds when attempting to secure housing. These challenges related to housing affordability and availability, difficulties in navigating the housing market, lack of understanding of tenancy rights and responsibilities, negative attitudes among real estate agents, landlords and other housing providers and the risks associated with shared accommodation arrangements. Different groups of humanitarian entrants face also additional issues and challenges related to their individual characteristics or circumstances.

Accessing affordable and suitable housing

The widespread lack of affordable housing stock is one of the primary challenges faced by people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds when attempting to secure housing. While this challenge is common to all low income earners in the current market, it has particular significance for humanitarian entrants given that they also face a range of additional barriers which hamper their capacity to find and maintain sustainable housing.

Affordability

Most consultation participants nominated affordability as a major barrier to accessing housing, both for those seeking to enter the rental market for the first time and those who have secured housing but are now struggling to keep up with rising rent. Participants in many areas across Australia reported significant increases in rental rates in recent times, with the result that most accommodation in many traditional settlement areas is now unaffordable to low income earners. In the words of a service provider in New South Wales:

If you look at the low-cost housing we had two or three years ago and what we have now, it’s a big difference. Two or three years ago, you could get two-bedroom unit in [suburb] for at least $220, $250, $270… Now the minimum you are looking at in those areas is $320 or $350 for a two-bedroom unit…which shows a big rise and, if you are trying to find low-cost housing, most of our clients are struggling to get in the market.

The majority of service providers consulted worked with clients who were reliant on Centrelink payments or other forms of income support as their primary source of income. These clients included people who were still in the early stages of settlement in Australia, people who were having difficulty finding employment and people seeking asylum who were not permitted to work.

There was a general feeling among service providers that the level of income support available through Centrelink and asylum seeker support programs was insufficient to keep their clients out of housing stress. In the words of one participant, “anybody on Centrelink benefits trying to survive in the private rental market is having difficulty”.

Many expressed concern that clients were spending an unsustainable proportion of their income on rent. A service provider in Victoria asserted that it is now “impossible” for clients who rely on Centrelink payments to spend less than 30% of their incomes on rent (the recommended threshold to avoid housing stress). Another consultation participant reported that some clients were spending between 60% and 80% of their income on housing costs. Other participants noted that peripheral costs (such as utilities and removalist services) were also impacting on the capacity of humanitarian entrants to access and maintain housing.

A number of participants highlighted the difficulties experienced by humanitarian entrants in raising sufficient funds to clear the “financial hurdle” of bond and advance rent when leasing a new property. Saving several thousand out of a low income was seen as a significant challenge for many. An asylum seeker living in Brisbane, for example, reported that he had found a property at an affordable weekly rate but had been unable to raise more than $2,000 needed to cover the bond and advance rent. It was also noted that those who were able to access rental assistance or bond loans but remained on a low income could face difficulties in replaying the loan. A service provider working with people seeking asylum, for example, noted that it could take two years for some clients to repay bond loans due to their very low incomes.

Several service providers in New South Wales noted that recent changes to state government policy relating to rental bonds had impacted on their clients’ ability to access housing. Issues raised included: long processing times for bond loan applications, which could result in clients missing out on properties; the fact that rent assistance does not cover the full cost of bond and advance rent; and the ineligibility of people seeking asylum for rent assistance.

Housing stock

The limited availability of housing stock, particularly low-cost housing of reasonable quality, was viewed as another major barrier to accessing housing. Many consultation participants reported that the housing market has become increasingly competitive, with large numbers of people vying for a limited number of properties. This competition was seen as a key factor influencing the rise in rental rates.

Limited housing stock was seen as a particularly significant problem in areas where there are additional pressures on housing. Several participants in Western Australia, for example, highlighted the enormous pressure on the housing market resulting from the resources sector boom. In the words of one service provider based in Perth: “At one point three months ago we had 1,400 moving here a week… You would go to a viewing and there would be 20 or 30 people looking at a house.” A service provider in Canberra noted that the combination of reduced housing stock resulting from the 2003 bushfires and the relatively high socio-economic profile of Canberra’s population had made housing costs prohibitive for low income earners.

Limited housing stock and the resulting competitiveness of the housing market were also seen to influence security of tenure in the form of short leases (as short as three months, according to one service provider), regular changes in property ownership and rising rental rates. Several service providers expressed concern about their clients having to move frequently due to these factors – a particularly difficult task for humanitarian entrants given that they face significant challenges in navigating the housing market in the first place (see Section 5.2). This lack of stability was viewed as a major barrier to not only securing sustainable housing but also to successful settlement more broadly. In the words of one service provider:

I mean, imagine having two or three kids going to the local school and then six months later they have to move to another school and another school. What kind of upbringing would you have? I link my memories of childhood to stability, the friends that I grew up with in primary school. I can’t imagine just being there for six months and then moving on to another school for six months… You can’t build lasting relationships based on six months contact only.

A number of participants reported that housing insecurity could have a significant impact on a person’s mental health and wellbeing, both in terms of its negative impact on recovery from pre-existing mental health issues and of the stress and anxiety caused by insecurity itself. Another participant noted that housing insecurity could hamper the capacity of people seeking asylum to engage with status resolution processes: “From my own experience, if they’re not in stable accommodation, if they don’t feel a sense of safety and security there, then it’s very hard for them to concentrate on what is the primary concern of getting that [visa] application submitted.”

With housing stock in many traditional settlement areas now limited or becoming increasingly unaffordable, several participants reported that humanitarian entrants were looking for housing in locations further away from city centres – but this approach was not without its shortcomings. A number of participants noted that areas in which housing is more readily available or less expensive also tend to be areas in which there are fewer employment opportunities, which are less accessible to and via public transport and where access to services (particularly specialist settlement and asylum seeker support services) and community support networks is more limited or difficult. One participant pointed out that this was a particularly significant issue for recently-arrived humanitarian entrants as they need to access support services regularly.

For some, the savings on rent gained by moving to non-traditional settlement areas were largely cancelled out by the additional transport costs they incurred when travelling to work or to access services – a particularly significant issue for people who are not eligible for public transport concessions. This conundrum was described as follows by a service provider in New South Wales:

There are two options here. One is that you get some sort of decent housing that’s close to public transport and close to work or you get cheap housing in an area where you need to use two buses and a train to get to your job. When you add all that, most clients are struggling.

There was general consensus among consultation participants that public or social housing was an unrealistic option for all but the most vulnerable and high-needs clients. Participants across the country reported long waiting lists for public housing and, while some humanitarian entrants chose to apply regardless, it was generally agreed that most applicants had no chance in the near future. Some noted that even people who were highly vulnerable, such as those who are homeless or have no source of income, still struggle to access public housing. Several participants also noted that it is becoming increasingly difficult to access emergency relief to allow people facing financial hardship to remain in housing.

Substandard accommodation

Many consultation participants expressed concern that the combination of affordability challenges and lack of adequate housing stock has led to many humanitarian entrants, in the words of a service provider in Victoria, living in “all kinds of unsavoury accommodation”. There were reports of people seeking asylum and humanitarian entrants living in boarding houses, carports, garages, sheds and caravan parks, as well as in severely overcrowded conditions. As described by a participant from a specialist housing service: “We’re seeing some refugees who are 15 people in a three-bedroom house. The conditions that they are living in are quite appalling. There’re sometimes five people in a bedroom or in a lounge room.”

There were also reports of people living in accommodation completely inappropriate to their needs. One service provider provided the example of an elderly single woman from a refugee background living in a property with a group of men who were dealing with drug addiction:

I couldn’t refer her to go there but she somehow found it herself, this place. She had no choice but to go and live there. And she couldn’t live in that situation. They were drunk, there was music going on all night and she was forced to live in one of the rooms there. She was terrified. I found alternative accommodation but it took a while. Since then that place has been shut down by the Council because it was not fit for habitation. You’ve got people who are quite desperately looking for anything.

Comments about humanitarian entrants having “no choice” and being “desperate” to find housing were echoed by many other consultation participants. One participant from a refugee community organisation, for example, asserted that some humanitarian entrants were accepting substandard accommodation “because they are at the end of their tether”. A service provider in Queensland expressed concern about clients making “desperate choices” in their search for housing. Another service provider in Western Australia raised concerns about humanitarian entrants living in “really unacceptable housing” but conceded that “they have no choice”.

Several participants also noted a decline in the quality of housing stock available to low income earners. In the words of one service provider working with people seeking asylum:

What I’ve picked up from talking to some other agencies … is that it’s getting harder and harder to find good housing… [The properties] may be accessible to schools but stuff’s falling off the walls and the furniture’s really crappy and the cupboard doors don’t shut. There seems to be this sense that it’s getting harder and harder to find decent housing so the quality of houses that they’re putting people into is decreasing.

Navigating the housing market

Feedback from consultation participants indicated that many people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds lack the knowledge, skills and documentation needed to successfully navigate the Australian housing market. In addition to general lack of understanding of processes for securing housing in Australia, consultation participants nominated a range of specific barriers which affected the capacity of humanitarian entrants to successfully navigate the housing market including language barriers, a lack of rental history and documentation, a misalignment of expectations and realities, mental health and mobility.

Lack of understanding of Australian rental systems

Several participants reported that people from refugee backgrounds often had limited understanding of private rental systems due to their experiences of forced displacement or because of different housing systems and expectations in their home countries. Service providers in two separate consultations, for example, noted that many people from refugee backgrounds have lived for extended periods in a camp situation where they were not required to negotiate leases or pay rent. Another service provider in New South Wales reported the following:

We are actually asking people, what would your experience be in your home country around looking for rentals? It’s usually either their employer who has provided housing or it’s the extended family network, just word of mouth. There is no experience of going through a rental agency or anything like the way the system is here. It’s clearly a massive gap in people’s knowledge and understanding.

One of the key concerns voiced by the people seeking asylum consulted for this project was that they did not know “how the system works”. Many expressed apprehension and uncertainty about navigating the housing market on their own or with minimal support from service providers and frustration at having inspected many properties and lodged numerous applications without success.

Language barriers

Many participants reported that people with limited or no English skills face significant challenges in communicating with real estate agents and landlords. In the words of one asylum seeker living in Sydney: “We are looking for a house but it is difficult without the language. Communication is very hard. We are just using gestures. It’s like a pantomime.” A number of participants reported that many real estate agents and landlords do not use interpreters when communicating with clients who have limited English language skills, due to lack of awareness of available services, insufficient knowledge and skills to use interpreters successfully or simple unwillingness. Some service providers who had made efforts to educate local real estate agents about interpreting services asserted that some agents still refused to use interpreters. A caseworker in Sydney reported that their clients “usually just hand us the phone” to communicate with real estate agents on their behalf.

Lack of English language skills presented a barrier not only when communicating directly with real estate agents and landlords but also when searching for properties, filling in application forms, understanding tenancy contracts and seeking redress in instances where their rights as tenants have not been upheld. An asylum seeker couple living in Brisbane, for example, had experienced difficulties in searching for properties online due to their inability to read the property descriptions. As a result, the only way they were able to tell whether or not the property would meet their needs was to inspect it in person. Some participants noted that filling in forms and other paperwork was more difficult and time-consuming for people without English language skills, which could have significant consequences for their prospects of securing a property. A service provider in South Australia reported that, in a highly competitive housing market, delays in completing paperwork could jeopardise a person’s chances of securing a property. An asylum seeker living in Brisbane reported that “some of our applications were rejected simply because we did not click on the proper section of the application or did not sign in the proper place”.

Rental history and documentation

Lack of rental history was seen by many consultation participants as one of the most significant barriers faced by humanitarian entrants attempting to secure housing. Many have no prior experience in the Australian housing market other than transitional housing provided upon release from detention or arrival in Australia and no references other than letters from a caseworker or service provider. In the words of one consultation participant from Western Australia: “When you apply for a house, the first questions they ask will be, ‘What was your previous address? Who was the landlord? Where is your tenancy reference?’ You’re going to draw a blank on all of them”. Another noted that “although they may get a reference from a migrant resource centre or something like that, real estate agents and owners are looking for a real reference from the previous owner or real estate agent, which is not there”.

Many participants observed that real estate agents and landlords are often reluctant to provide accommodation to people with no rental history or references due to perceptions of the risks associated with renting to such tenants. It was noted that this challenge is exacerbated by the competitiveness of the housing market, as real estate agents and landlords are often spoiled for choice when selecting tenants and typically shy away from renting to tenants who are perceived to be less reliable. As expressed by an asylum seeker living in Brisbane, “we are compared to Australians who have been working and who have been here for their whole life.” A service provider in New South Wales similarly noted: “You put them up against an Australian who has a complete application, who is working, who has a good job, a good rental history – I don’t blame them [i.e. real estate agents and landlords] for choosing the other person, I suppose.”

Several consultation participants also expressed concern that many people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds were not able to provide essential documentation, such as the 100 points of personal identification required to lodge a rental application and other supporting documents such as payslips and bank records.

Managing expectations

A significant number of service providers reported facing difficulties in managing the expectations of their clients with regards to housing. There was a perception among some service providers that many people seeking asylum and former refugees arrive in Australia with unrealistic expectations about the type of housing they would be able to access and the level of support they would receive to secure housing. Some participants noted that this could lead to some clients having unreasonably high expectations of service providers or of the kinds of accommodation they can expect to live in.

For some humanitarian entrants, these unrealistic expectations appeared to be based on erroneous preconceptions about the standard of living in a wealthy country such as Australia. For others, expectations were based on their own experiences of housing in their home country, where they had been able to afford higher quality or better located housing than was realistically accessible to them in Australia. Some service providers, for example, reported that certain types of housing (such as wooden or weatherboard houses) were perceived by their clients as being of “poor quality”. Others may have expectations that do not align with Australian expectations or regulations, such as multiple or larger families wishing to live together in smaller properties (to save on rent and also because they may be used to living in modest and communal houses). Another example was provided by a service provider in Western Australia, who noted that the reluctance of some clients to live outside metropolitan areas was based on perceptions about the accessibility of essential services and facilities:

The perception we’re finding is that people want to live in the city. They think of Perth City as being the place they want to live, when the Perth metropolitan area is around 120km by 40km… They’re more used to the Middle Eastern conception of a ‘main road’, where everything is on that main road… Often, people will travel for miles in their home country to get to the city and that will have all the resources, whereas in Australia there are satellite cities set up all over the place… You may be paying $100 less if you go further afield but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have a hospital, you won’t have public transport and you won’t have a shopping centre… That’s one of the preconceived ideas that some people have when they first arrive.

Still others noted that unrealistic expectations could be the result of changes in policy and service provision over time, with humanitarian entrants comparing their situation to that of family and friends who arrived years prior when the situation was very different. A service provider in New South Wales, for example, noted that recent change in state government rent assistance, whereby financial assistance is now provided in the form of a loan rather than a grant, had caused confusion among some clients: they did not understand that they were required to repay rent assistance given that friends who arrived a few years ago had not been expected to do so. A service provider in Victoria noted that perceptions among some clients about the accessibility of public housing were based on the experiences of family members and friends who arrived decades earlier, at a time when public housing was far more readily accessible.

Mental health

Several service providers noted that mental health could have a significant impact on the capacity of humanitarian entrants to secure housing. Pre-arrival experiences of torture and trauma and (for people who arrived as people seeking asylum) post-arrival experiences of immigration detention and of living in the community with minimal support, combined with the stress of living in an insecure housing situation, could erode capacity of humanitarian entrants to navigate the housing market successfully. In the words of a service provider in New South Wales:
A handful of clients have the capacity to take the initiative [to find housing] and come here to seek assistance only on initiatives they have already taken. But for the majority of clients, that resilience, that confidence, that capacity, it is not going to be built over weeks, months, even a few years. Don’t forget the trauma, the war-torn situation, the individual or personal suffering, plus the mental health issues. All those are really hindering factors towards an increased awareness and getting a positive outcome in the short term.

Mobility

Past research conducted by RCOA has indicated that some humanitarian entrants, particularly those who arrive in Australia on their own and are under pressure to financially support family members still living overseas, are often highly mobile during the early years of settlement in Australia. Several consultation participants expressed concern that this mobility could have a significant impact on their clients’ rental history – for example, should they break an existing lease to move to a new area – and, consequently, their capacity to secure housing in the future.

Others noted that mobility could have an impact on the attitudes of real estate agents towards this client group and, as a result, the willingness of real estate agents to work with other humanitarian entrants or cooperate with service providers in the future. In the words of a service provider in Queensland, “we don’t want to burn our hands with real estate agents”. Some also noted that humanitarian entrants could place themselves at risk of homeless by moving to a different area, as they may no longer be entitled to receive support to secure housing or other settlement services.

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