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Not home safe and sound: Housing policy has forgotten our older generations

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Housing issues in Australia are not all about market fluctuations and interest rates. While politicians and the media remain preoccupied with the housing frustrations of millennials, the issues facing older Australians are becoming more urgent.

Old woman staring out at housing.

According to Dr Amity James, Australia is facing a massive challenge delivering suitable housing for an ageing population.

“Within 15 years, half the population will be older than 55, and many will want to move into a home that’s more appropriate for them. However, housing policy has stagnated in Australia, and the provision of affordable housing for older people needs to be a priority for reform,” she says.

In 2020, her research team at Curtin Business School completed two projects that explored the challenges of housing Australia’s ageing population. Both projects were collaborations with Swinburne University and funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

For the first project, the team surveyed 2,400 older Australians (aged over 55) to create an evidence base for policy reform in the areas of housing and housing assistance. The second project explored homeowners’ desire for and barriers to downsizing, also to inform policy.

“We found that housing aspirations are underpinned by a desire for safe and secure housing,” Dr James says.

“While a majority of respondents were in dwellings that met both their short- and long-term needs, it was those living in private or social rental properties who indicated the biggest aspiration gap between where they are living now and where they’d like to live in the future.”

Retirees in the private rental sector are more vulnerable to housing market conditions and need to relocate more often – due to the combination of fixed incomes, short leases and a lack of affordable housing options.

Notably, two-thirds of older private renters once owned their own home, but were forced into the rental market due to financial hardship or a relationship breakdown. While many aspire to again own their own home, Dr James believes that’s unlikely without the development of alternative home ownership options that offer security of tenure.

“Previous research has called for the need to incentivise landlords of older tenants to offer longer leases on high-quality dwellings, and for supporting or financing the modification of rental properties to enable older tenants to age in place,” she explains.

“If action isn’t taken to supply more housing stock for older low-income Australians, some households will be at risk of homelessness.”

Public housing needs a makeover

While retirees in public housing enjoy a greater sense of stability than private renters, they too have barriers to maintaining a high-quality lifestyle.

The survey revealed that older Australians value having a spare bedroom so that grandchildren or visitors can stay over, or to use as a work space. Those in community housing are no different; yet many dwellings seem designed to do little more than provide tenants with a roof over their heads, disregarding other lifestyle needs.

“Social housing tenants explained that living in one-bedroom apartments made it difficult for their children or grandchildren to sleep over and that kitchenettes made it hard to cook for and dine with family and friends at home,” Dr James says.

“The constrained choices of social housing tenants can result in a mismatch between their home and housing aspirations affecting their perceived quality of life, and their ability to age well.

“The solution is a combination of ensuring new supply meets aspirations, and enabling social housing tenants to move to other dwellings as their housing needs change over time.”

Downsizing or rightsizing?

While the survey revealed that a high proportion of older people were happy to age ‘in place’ in their current family home, some respondents cited health issues and the burden of home and garden maintenance as reasons they’d move in the future.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean downsizing to a house with fewer rooms – ‘rightsizing’ is a better concept,” Dr James explains.

However, there are financial barriers to moving house – the high rate of stamp duty on real-estate purchases, the lack of accessible capital to purchase, and the impact that a release of equity may have on a retiree’s pension, for example.

And naturally, people want to live somewhere they feel safe, with easy access to health services, shopping and recreation amenities – which presents another challenge.

“Two to three-bedroom houses in close proximity to these amenities are in relatively short supply – despite extensive local-government support for housing developments tailored to older Australians,” Dr James says.

“We need policies that will accelerate development of a new housing supply and the modification of existing homes. Another approach is to develop lending policies that enable downsizers to finance building without needing to sell their current home first.”

To learn more, listen to our podcast with Dr James.


Researcher profile

Dr Amity James is a senior lecturer in the School of Accounting, Economics and Finance. Her research contributes to collaborative projects funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, particularly in the areas of housing for older people, housing affordability and housing policy.

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