Hypothermia, collapsing rooves, and eating from dumpsters: what South Australia’s housing crisis means for low-income renters

Hypothermia, collapsing rooves, and eating from dumpsters: what South Australia’s housing crisis means for low-income renters

The South Australian Council of Social Service’s “Housing Affordability and Renters’ Rights Forum” on February 8 saw organisations, individuals and political candidates share stories of, and criticisms and solutions for, South Australia’s housing crisis ahead of March’s state election. (Image: AnglicareSA)

By Sarah Herrmann | @sarahherrmann_

Adelaide’s rent is the second least affordable in Australia.

South Australia’s public housing waitlist is at 17,000 with an estimated wait time of 10 years.

And while some are purchasing virtual land, many are unable to buy physical property of their own.      

The stories behind these statistics and the upcoming state election were the ignition for the online “Housing Affordability and Renters’ Rights Forum” held on February 8.

Presented by South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) CEO Ross Womersley, the event hosted representatives from SACOSS, Shelter SA, Better Renting, and Anti-Poverty Network SA; renters Lee Farley (West Torrens) and Rita Sacchetta (Playford); and politicians Member for West Torrens, the Hon Tom Koutsantonis MP, and Greens candidate for West Torrens, Peta-Anne Louth.

Despite being originally intended for a West Torrens audience, the panel discussed the relevance of the housing crisis for electorates across the state. A crisis that, as Shelter SA executive director Dr Alice Clark put it, had one third of South Australian households unable to afford their housing costs before the pandemic even hit.

“You can only imagine what’s happened to that number now,” Clark said.

Public housing 

In August 2021, Shelter SA lobbied for a policy requiring property developers to contribute four per cent of new housing as social housing due to a lack of vacancy and affordability in the private rental market.

Speaking at the forum, Clark bolstered this call, saying, “Our safety net, which really boils down to putting people in motels when there is nowhere else to go, must be improved. There are hundreds of families and people with children stuck in motels for months.”

And as for tenants that can access public housing, maintenance is “the number one issue” Clark said.

“I do remember having a bit of argy-bargy with Tom [Koutsantonis] a couple of years ago about [him saying], ‘Oh let’s put solar panels on all the public housing property rooves’ and I said, ‘They won’t hold the paddles up Tom; they’re falling down on people’s heads’”.

Playford resident Rita Sacchetta said there have been damaged public housing units vacant for over 12 months in Elizabeth Vale while “people are sleeping in Fremont Park”.

“What Housing SA are doing, if you go to the north, they are creating ghettos,” Sacchetta said.

“I just want Labor to commit to changing Housing SA. They do not even repair, or provide heating and cooling. It’s our responsibility.”

Renting

Quality of housing is an issue for renters both public and private, one that has consequences for their physical and mental wellbeing Better Renting representative Bernie Barrett said.

“I really want renting to be seen as a safe, healthy and reasonable long-term housing solution,” Barrett said.

“Renters are an often unheard population because we’re not in control of the environments that we live in and that’s making us sick.

“We should not have people in Australia getting hypothermia in their homes.”

Anti-Poverty Network SA secretary and West Torrens renter Lee Farley came across a multitude of homes with health risks when searching for rental properties in 2020.

“I looked at houses with mould problems; termites; salt damp; powerpoints hanging out of the wall; a lack of air conditioning, which is just my favourite because the house is made out of corrugated iron; one that was next to a train line, which they didn’t care to mention; and one lacking external windows,” Farley said.

“These were all unmentioned by the property agents.”

And while conditions aren’t changing, the cost of rent is still rising. When Farley rented her first home in 2009, the rent was $220 per week. With no improvements to the property and an air conditioner with an estimated age of 30, Farley said the rent in 2022 is $325 per week. 

These hikes are unsustainable for people on a low income with a 2021 Anti-Poverty Network SA survey showing that one quarter of low-income renters surveyed said they had less than $14 per day or $100 per week to spend on basic expenses like food, medicine, bills and transport.

When Rita Sacchetta was living in a Rental Affordability Scheme house, she received a fortnightly Centrelink payment of $640, and paid $540 per fortnight for rent.

“I was eating once a day,” Sacchetta said. 

“Three or four days I was going without food, and I was eating out of dumpsters.

“Going without food does not scare me … But being homeless, that was the fear that I had most.”

The political response

Panellists called for a private rental voucher scheme; amendments to rental laws and rights regarding eviction, lease length and maintenance; mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements including insulated ceilings, sealed openings, window coverings, heating and cooling; and funding for public housing.

Member for West Torrens, the Hon Tom Koutsantonis MP, showed support for ideas such as improving maintenance, renter rights and public housing stock – calling Labor’s previous selling off of Housing Trust land “a mistake” – as well as introducing energy concessions and a regional strategic plan, but said mandating minimum energy efficiency could pass more costs onto renters.

“One of the most exciting things we are going to be offering if we are elected is building a brand-new hydrogen power plant,” Koutsantonis said.

“Green hydrogen is one of the most exciting forms of energy … and what we’re attempting to do is build the first ever state-owned generator to dispatch into the national electricity market and offer tariffs.

“And we’ll be offering those tariffs to low-income earners, and we’ll be using that energy for renewable resources.”

Koutsantonis also committed to meeting with SACOSS regularly and “reinjecting poverty into the conversation and political discourse” if elected.

Koutsantonis also said, “While public housing is a good end, the ultimate end of course is affordable housing; people can actually own and have an asset”.

However, Greens candidate for West Torrens Peta-Anne Louth said buying a home is “just not achievable for a lot of people”.      

“My mum has long been in a housing trust since I was a teenager. I have also had to use housing trust for rental assistance,” Louth said.

“So I know very well that we both probably would have ended up homeless if it wasn’t for the support of the housing trust at that time [1980s].

“It gave us a firm future, a foundation we could actually build on.”

Louth recognised the plight of hospitality and arts workers during the pandemic, and showed support for increasing renters’ rights, prioritising Aboriginal health and housing, and creating a housing trust independent from government.

As part of its housing policy, the South Australian Greens have pledged to build 40,000 public houses over 4 years, cap rents, and invest $8.7 billion in renewable energy if elected.

The Liberal government was invited to participate in the forum, SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley said. 

In March 2021, the State Government offered a strategy of “a $400 million injection to build 1000 new affordable homes by 2025”. 

The 2022 South Australian state election will take place on March 19.

You can register, check, or update your enrolment here before February 25.

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