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 (pt 3)

Homelessness

While RCOA fortunately did not receive reports of widespread homelessness among humanitarian entrants, consultation participants cited cases of both primary homelessness (people sleeping rough) and secondary homelessness (such as people “couch surfing” or living under informal arrangements with friends or relatives) resulting from difficulties in securing housing. One service provider in Western Australia reported that many humanitarian entrants were now “floor surfing”: “In western language, you call ‘couch surfing’ but it’s one level further than that.” Some participants also noted that family conflict or breakdown (influenced by the stressors of settling in a new country) could also lead to homelessness among people from refugee backgrounds.

A number of participants raised concerns that some mainstream housing and homelessness services are ill-equipped to meet the needs of people from refugee backgrounds. It was noted, for example, that mainstream services often lack expertise in working with people from different cultural backgrounds in general and with humanitarian entrants in particular. One provider also pointed out that mainstream homelessness services often focus on addressing primary homelessness whereas secondary homelessness tends to predominate among humanitarian entrants.

Others similarly noted that referring humanitarian entrants to mainstream emergency accommodation may not be appropriate, as these services often cater primarily for individuals experiencing drug- or alcohol-related issues. Several participants also commented that the capacity of mainstream housing and homelessness services to respond to the needs of humanitarian entrants was constrained by limited resources. A participant in Queensland, for example, recalled being told by a housing service provider that “we are so stretched as it is, we don’t go out looking for clients”.

Some participants cited specific difficulties in sourcing support for homeless people seeking asylum. There appeared to be considerable confusion regarding whether or not people seeking asylum are eligible for homelessness services. The following example was provided by a consultation participant in New South Wales:

We have problems getting people into [name of service provider] hostels [because of] the fact that they’re an asylum seeker… Even when we say that we could cover the cost of the accommodation, they’re often very reluctant about it… I think sometimes it’s possibly just a lack of knowledge by the person’s who’s on intake. One of my colleagues made a referral last week and she could hear a conversation going on in the background – ‘Oh yeah, do we take people seeking asylum?’ It was very much ‘we don’t know who these people are and what the relationship is’.”

Issues and challenges for specific groups

While there are many common challenges faced by humanitarian entrants in finding accommodation, experiences in the Australian housing market also differ depending on factors such as family composition, gender, cultural background, age and the length of time a person has been in Australia.

Family composition

Humanitarian entrants arrive in all variations of family groupings, from singles through to large extended families. Some services consulted felt that real estate agents looked most favourably on couples as more “trustworthy” than singles which made finding a house easier.

At the same time, couples without children were also identified as financially disadvantaged if they were dependent on Centrelink, as they did not receive family tax benefits that would increase their combined income and enable them to afford more choice in the private rental market. As one service provider in New South Wales described: “Single clients are probably the hardest. The second hardest would be couples. Those would be the two groups that are disadvantaged the most… It’s because their income is so low. If you have children, family tax benefits start pushing up your income.”

While families with children may benefit from a slightly higher income, larger families struggle to find suitably-sized housing. Services consulted around the country spoke of the challenges of housing families that are increasingly arriving with eight or nine people. For example, in Darwin it was reported that there is a two to three year wait for four-bedroom houses. One service in Tasmania said:

We are pushing it to try to fit [families with five or six children] into a three-bedroom house. Many are happy to live in a two-bedroom house but we have to explain the expectations of landlords and real estate agents in Australia. They are used to living in smaller accommodation. People don’t want to live in what they see as a giant house and they would rather save money by renting a smaller house.

Some consultation participants felt that families with children were also viewed less favourably by landlords and real estate agents because of a perception that children are more likely to damage the property. Others spoke of the lack of housing affordability for larger families. Where larger families are forced or choose to live in smaller houses, overcrowding becomes an issue. As one service provider in New South Wales described:

If you are thinking of anything with three bedrooms or four bedrooms [in that area], you’re looking at $500 per week. There’s no way they can afford that. What most of them do is they rent a two-bedroom unit, they put bunks in the second room for the children, you find one room with four children sharing it or even five. [This] is normal in some circumstances but people are doing it because they don’t have a choice… It’s a struggle. One client said: ‘I’m doing it because it’s the only option I have. I don’t have $450 to rent a three-bedroom unit or a house. This is what I have.’

In recent years, a larger proportion of people seeking asylum and humanitarian entrants (mostly onshore protection visa holders) have arrived alone. While many have partners and children overseas, the lack of immediate family reunion prospects require new arrivals to seek suitable accommodation by themselves.

As many service providers across the country commented, finding affordable accommodation for singles on Centrelink incomes is extremely difficult and the most common solution is to group singles together in shared accommodation. For many, this is desirable as it allows them to spend less on housing and have more for other priorities (such as supporting their families and saving to pay for visa applications). In the words of a service provider in Western Australia, single clients “are extremely resilient and tend to do it on their own”.

On the other hand, there were multiple risks and challenges identified with housing groups of single men together, including:

  • challenges leasing a property as a group of single men who can be seen less favourably (as “risky”) by landlords and property managers;
  • risk of overcrowding as more people on very low incomes seek accommodation through community links in share houses;
  • risk of problems arising with the landlord or property manager where there are transient tenants living at a rental property (i.e. people not on the lease); and
  • risk of conflict within shared accommodation, particularly in the context of the enormous pressures these individuals are under, their past (trauma) experiences and the fact that many do not know each other before moving in.

As one refugee community member in Victoria described: “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.”

For single parents or singles who do not wish to live in shared accommodation, the issue of affordability is particularly acute. Service providers in South Australia and Queensland, for example, identified particular challenges in securing housing for single mothers with large numbers of children. This included lack of affordable and appropriately-sized housing, lack of transport to be able to inspect properties before applying, lack of affordable housing close to services and schools and discrimination.

Age

A number of consultation participants spoke about particular challenges facing younger people in finding suitable accommodation. Many young people are forced to find somewhere independently to live either because they arrived in Australia as an unaccompanied minor or because of intergenerational conflict and family breakdown. For young people, securing a property in the first place can be a challenge both in terms of getting to inspections with limited access to transport and in successfully applying.

Young people are often seen as “risky” by landlords and estate agents and people under the age of 18 cannot sign a lease. Affordability is an issue for young people on a low income (particularly those on the Youth Allowance) and this includes not only being able to cover rent but also being able to budget for utility bills and afford peripheral costs such as furniture and removalists.

A number of services also spoke about the challenges for young people in maintaining a tenancy, such as understanding their rights and responsibilities (one service provider commented that “they go into a lease ‘blind’”); being able to negotiate with either an estate agent or private landlord and knowing how to maintain a property (due to limited independent living skills).

For older people, issues identified included lack of English to negotiate the rental market, low income and lack of appropriate housing for people with accessibility needs.

Gender

As touched on earlier, single men face a number of challenges in securing accommodation, particularly where they are perceived by landlords and property managers as more “risky”.

Conversely, consultation participants spoke about the challenges facing women more in relation to their personal safety or lack thereof. A number of participants spoke about the comparatively higher success rates for female-headed households in accessing social or government housing but that this in itself presented problems where women felt unsafe and where property was of particularly poor quality.

One service provider in the Northern Territory spoke about women who had issues with harassment from neighbours, saying: “One way of dealing with this has been for them to spend their time during the day at a friend’s house, only returning at night to sleep there.” Another example given by an agency in New South Wales was of a widow with six children who was living in a ground floor apartment that was infested with cockroaches and where the door didn’t lock.

Other issues for women mentioned in consultations included the lack of available housing close to public transport and schools and the impact of housing scarcity on women suffering domestic violence, as it makes it “even harder for women in this situation to leave”.

Cultural background

The influence of cultural background on housing outcomes was spoken about in consultations mostly as a factor in client expectations or on the attitudes (and decisions) of property managers. With regards to client expectations, this tended to be less about cultural, religious or other belief-systems and more related to socio-economic status and pre-arrival experiences.

For example, a number of service providers around the country identified difficulties meeting client expectations where they came from more affluent backgrounds and where they were used to a comparatively high standard of living (for example, many new arrivals from Iran and Iraq). Other groups were able to find accommodation more easily because of a willingness to accept poorer quality housing.

For example, one service provider felt that “Tamil clients have been for years, decades, persecuted and downtrodden, so they’ll take whatever they can get”. A member from the Rohingya community said: “The Rohingya are managing much better than the others because the situation they are coming from is much worse than this. They are not very fussy about living conditions because Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh were worse.” A notable difference in expectations and outcomes was also identified between those from rural backgrounds compared to those who come from metropolitan areas and who are more familiar with styles of housing found in Australia.

Cultural background was also identified as a potential asset in the search for housing, particularly for those communities that are well connected and able to assist newer arrivals to find housing through intra-community links (the Burmese, Tamil and Afghan communities were all mentioned). Another factor noted was different cultural communication styles resulting in different housing outcomes – for example, that those more likely to voice their opinions and advocate strongly are likely to secure property quicker than those who are more reserved.

Discrimination by property managers based on ethnicity or cultural background was identified by consultation participants as problematic in many places across Australia. For example, a number of people identified African and Iranian communities as particularly susceptible to discrimination in the rental market. One consultation participant said: “If you’re accessing a room for someone and they ask about their language group or their culture or nationality, as soon as you say Iran, they get selective.”

Disability

A number of consultation participants spoke about housing challenges being compounded where refugee and humanitarian entrants have complex health issues or a disability. Some service providers identified an increase in recent referrals of people with a disability and that the housing options for these families were extremely limited.

As one provider in New South Wales lamented: “You can go on the priority housing list and it can take years still in that process. It’s hard.” One service provider in Queensland spoke about the recent challenge of finding housing for two clients in wheelchairs and a 93-year-old where affordable housing stock tended to be older properties with stairs.

Length of time in Australia

Unsurprisingly, many consultation participants suggested that negotiating the rental market becomes easier the longer someone is in Australia. As one participant in South Australia noted: “It is easier to house refugees who have been here longer as they have better understanding of their rights and responsibilities, plus will have some rental history.” However, a number did comment that very new arrivals (offshore entrants) receive targeted assistance to find housing through Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) agencies and that a service gap is evident where a family has to move after they have exited the HSS and are no longer eligible for intensive case management support.

In addition, people (mainly onshore Protection Visa holders) who have been in the country for a year or two and then reunite with family members may struggle to secure accommodation for their family if they have been living in share housing and do not have any official rental record. As one consultation participant explained:

When they want to rent on their own, perhaps because their wife has come over to join them, they don’t have a rental history there because they have been sleeping at other people’s homes. There’s no record of them having had a previous tenancy… Sometimes they might have been here for a couple of years without ever having had to go through that process.

Again, the lack of services to support refugee and humanitarian entrants with housing issues who have been in the country for a number of years was spoken about by several consultation participants. That is, while refugee and humanitarian entrants may be eligible for housing support through the Settlement Grants Program (SGP) if they have been in the country less than five years, settlement-related issues still arise after this time. As one SGP worker in Victoria described:

We have clients who have been here five years and they come to move house [because they get notices to vacate or because they want to find somewhere in better condition] and they find it very difficult. They have to go through inspections and it is sometimes hard because they don’t know the location of properties or how to get there. Once they have inspected, they don’t know how to fill in forms.

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