Renters stuck in ‘poverty trap’

THE homelessness crisis in Gippsland is worsening, as rental vacancies plummet and public housing waiting lists soar.

The Victorian peak body for homelessness, the Council to Homeless Persons, said more regional residents were being pushed to the brink of homelessness, and that the only solution was to boost social housing.

New data from the Department of Health and Human Services backed reports from Wellington Shire real estate agents that regional renters faced a tighter rental market than their urban counterparts, with the regional rental vacancy rate at a six-year low.

Heart Property managing director David Wheeler said his agency had 30 to 40 enquiries for rental properties each month, but not enough properties to accommodate them.

“It’s very hard for people to find affordable rentals at the moment, with the rental list as low as its been in years,” he said.

Mr Wheeler said his agency tried to support young people who lacked rental histories or references, but the only option left to many was to try the local caravan park or emergency housing.

The department’s rent report shows that in the March 2018 quarter, just one in 10 one-bedroom rentals in the Wellington Shire area were affordable to a low income earner, or less than half of a Newstart recipient’s total weekly income ($265 per week). The median rent for a two-bedroom flat in Wellington Shire during the March quarter was $230 per week.

Mr Wheeler said rents for a lower-end, one or two-bedroom rental in the shire started at about $150 per week.

Throughout the shire, just 1.7 per cent of regional rentals were available to rent during the period of January to March 2018, compared to the Melbourne vacancy rate of 1.9 per cent for the same quarter.

To add to the housing woes of Gippsland residents, there are currently 844 people in the Outer Gippsland region, which includes Wellington Shire, waiting for social housing.

Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith said that number was estimated to be far greater, as behind many people’s applications were children and partners.

“In the shire of Wellington rents have jumped over the past year, particularly for smaller sized properties like one and two-bedroom flats,” she said.

“As competition for rentals heats up, people are forced to pay more rent than they can afford, or else find themselves with no roof at all.”

A low income household is considered to be in housing stress if they are paying more than one third of their weekly income on housing.

“Low-income earners are increasingly being overlooked in favour of people on higher incomes, pushing thousands of Victorians out of the private rental market and to the doors of homelessness services,” Ms Smith said.

“Others find themselves stuck in a poverty trap, paying exorbitant rent, but with no option to move somewhere cheaper,” she said.

Eastern Victoria MLC Melina Bath has called on the state government to address the shortage of public housing across Gippsland.

Following the release of a parliamentary committee report into the Victorian government’s Public Housing Renewal program, Ms Bath said the issue of lengthy wait times posed quite a challenge for many vulnerable people.

“The wait time for public housing can take anywhere between three months to several years, which is too long,” Ms Bath said.​

The report also revealed the number of people on the Victorian Housing Register increased by about 1500 people in the first three months of this year.

According to the report, there are now over 82,000 people, including 24,622 children seeking public housing.

Ms Bath said it was concerning that public housing tenants were being relocated to rural and regional areas without the provision of adequate support.

“Additional support services in the areas of mental health, drug rehabilitation and domestic violence are vital in supporting local communities at risk. We need more wrap around services that work towards positive outcomes,” Ms Bath said.

“Funding for long term programs that provide real solutions are essential for people with complex needs”.

Housing Minister Martin Foley said the government wouldn’t be lectured on social housing “by those who vote against it in parliament, campaign against it when it’s built, and promise to kick public tenants out on the street”.

“They cut the public housing budget and sold it off last time they were in government, and they’ll do it again if ever given the chance,” he said.

Mr Foley said the state government was working to ensure social housing supported Victorians who needed it most by investing $2.1 billion in the Homes for Victorians initiative and $185 million in the Public Housing Renewal Program.