DEBBIE Georgopoulos offers a three-word recommendation to solve homelessness
“More Affordable Housing.”If only it was that simple.
The issue of homelessness and its myriad causes is a subject the chief executive of the not-for-profit housing group, the Women’s Housing Company, knows all too well, having spent decades working in government and not-for-profits.
“Sydney has grown,” Debbie notes about the period since 1982 when the Women’s Housing Company was founded with “four run down shared houses, a van and a small grant”. That, plus a mission to find safe and secure housing for single women.
The range of women the company helps is enormous, not least when their age is considered with the oldest born in the 1920s and the youngest in the 1990s.
Yet it seems the issues haven’t changed with the times.
“Sydney has been an economically vibrant city where people who were in the housing market have really secured their future,” she says.
“If they were outside the housing market they’ve really been left behind.
“The growth of the Women’s Housing Company follows that trajectory where, if women found themselves out of the housing market they have found themselves really locked out of home ownership and more and more locked out of private rental.”
Fast forward 35 years since its humble beginnings and the Women’s Housing Company is a key partner to the NSW Government, helping alleviate the homelessness crisis with some 850 properties under management, soon to grow to more than 1000. In addition, it directly owns another 110 properties and plans to acquire another 40.
But this, as Debbie explains without embellishment or hyperbole, is nowhere near enough housing supply to be meaningful.
And, as is becoming clearer almost by the day, it’s not going to be enough for one of the key emerging groups vulnerable to homelessness: older, single women.
The lack of housing affordability for this group is critical, and especially in property obsessed Sydney rated amongst the least affordable cities anywhere in the world.
According to research consumer group CHOICE, National Shelter and the National Association of Tenant Organisations released on December 5 which highlights the vulnerability of older women in private rentals, “renting is no longer a stepping stone to home ownership”. Debbie notes that “for a single pensioner in Greater Sydney, including single older women, research released in November 2018 shows private rents are categorised as Extremely Unaffordable, accounting for 90% of total income”.
“The situation is dire. This is a tsunami that is about to hit us.”
The causes for the fast-rising numbers amongst our older women are complex.
“It’s an intersection of a lot of things, “Debbie says.
Take, for example, the too-many women fleeing domestic and family violence.
“They find that their main focus is on providing a home for their children. Once children leave they find themselves with a single income and without an asset.”
Violence in the home. That’s one cause. Others abound.
“It’s also to do with the fact women have a pay gap and are concentrated in lower paid work and that affects their ability to purchase their own home. It’s also to do with the superannuation system and the fact that women have largely gone in and out of continuous work because of their family responsibilities. And when they finally retire their superannuation earnings are not enough for them to meet their housing costs. For the first time in their life women come to us and say ‘I never expected to be at risk of homelessness and seeking assistance’.”
Even when someone arrives at this point, as desperate a situation as can be, they may not make the cut.
“The policy context is unless they are actually homeless or at risk of homelessness, it’s very hard for them to be prioritised for social housing and the waiting times for social housing in Sydney are very high.”
And so is the quantity of people. In fact, according to Debbie, it’s about 60,000 high.
“The capacity of the system to respond is very low.”
Initiatives like FutureSteps can help, Debbie says.
“Lendlease has an enormous amount of expertise in the housing industry and any partnership with the not-for-profit sector is potentially a bonus for both organisations.
“I think there are advantages for Lendlease in partnering with the not-for-profit sector in terms of giving back.”
For Debbie, the long-term solution all comes back to three words: More Affordable Housing.
“However we get that, through more public-private partnerships, increased government subsidies, through donations and philanthropy, we will take it all.
“What we need is more affordable housing and that’s small ‘a’ affordable.
“We need it all and we can then take it from there.”