Speech in Parliament on the Rental Crisis

2.40pm | February 02, 2016

I rise to address Australia's rental crisis. 2.7 million Australian households rent. They are the forgotten face of Australia's housing affordability crisis. They are forgotten in our national conversation and, unhappily, they are forgotten by the Turnbull government. This is a government that has shown time and again that it does not care about the young people, families and older Australian who are being squeezed by insecure leases and high rents. This is a government that has abolished schemes for subsidising affordable rental housing, that has abolished the National Housing Supply Council and that has refused to appoint a housing minister. More and more Australians are finding themselves long-term renters, with high rents and few rights. In the face of their situation, this government's approach is simply not good enough.

There is a tendency to think of renters as being students or young people and to think of renting as being a temporary condition before settling down and buying a house. If that was ever true, it is not true now. More than 25 per cent of all households rent, in part a response to the very real hurdles of home ownership, and those who rent are doing so for longer. One-third of households who rent have been doing so for more than 10 years. More rental households are families with children than 30 years ago. In 1981 approximately 28.7 per cent of renters were families with children, with 40 per cent being singles. By 2011 those positions had been reversed—40 per cent of renters were families with children and 25 per cent were singles.

Many older Australians approaching retirement are renting rather than owning their own homes. People over 65 make up almost five per cent of private renters. We know that, for these people, housing costs place a great strain on those on fixed incomes.

Wage-earning households are being squeezed as rents climb faster than wages. Wages have risen 41 per cent in the past 10 years; rents have risen nationally by 54 per cent. In Sydney, my home town, rents jumped by 3.9 per cent in the 2015 financial year alone. At the same time, Australian renters face significant insecurity as, in general, our tenancy laws provide them with fewer protections than renters overseas. Leases are often for a year, unlike in Ireland where there is a minimum four-year fixed term. Even in global cities like Paris and New York there are limits on how much landlords can charge and how often they can increase the rent. In most Australian states, landlords can increase rent every six months. In New South Wales, there is no limit to how often rent can be increased during a lease. Renters can be, and often are, evicted when the property is sold, unlike in many European nations.

It is time for a national conversation about this. The combination of high rents and few protections leave Australian renters increasingly vulnerable. For families with children it can mean growing up without any real sense of a home and needing to change schools often and the difficulties that that causes for social integration and educational outcomes. It is challenging for a young family to find suitable accommodation as many rental properties simply are not designed for families with children.

The Senate Economic References Committee has been looking into economic security for women in retirement. That committee has heard firsthand accounts that rental insecurity leaves older Australians stranded and pushes them into care facilities. We have heard testimony that some older Australians are too scared of eviction to ask for shower seats, handrails or ramps to be installed in their rental homes.

Before I arrived in this place, that same committee undertook an inquiry into housing affordability. The committee found that this is not exclusively a supply or a demand problem. It is a problem that manifests itself differently in different locations across Australia, and it is a problem that is enormously challenging. Indeed, if there were a simple solution to this problem, it would have been solved already. What is clear, however, is that this is a problem that this government has absolutely no intention of addressing or solving, and it is my view that it is time for this to change.