On the fringes: seniors struggling for accommodation

Service providers, peak bodies and independent experts are all warning of a looming crisis in the provision of accommodation for WA’s increasing older population.

Service providers, peak bodies and independent experts are all warning of a looming crisis in the provision of accommodation for WA’s increasing older population. 

By now, Rita and Tom* thought they would be enjoying their retirement. Instead the couple, aged 72 and 76, works part-time to supplement their age pension so they can afford to pay the rent on their apartment.

“We’ve looked into government affordable housing but they tell us we are not earning enough to qualify,” says Tom. “State housing won’t register us because we are currently earning too much. We’re in a catch 22 situation, in that we won’t be able to keep working for much longer.”

Tom says there doesn’t seem to be many options for couples like him and Rita. “What should we do?” he asks.

Rita and Tom are not alone.

Researchers at the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre say that retiree households needing to maintain an income in order to pay rent or a mortgage were a common scenario they encountered as they prepared their report Housing Affordability: The real costs of housing in WA, released in April 2014.

“Unless a retiree has minimal housing costs it is difficult to see a situation where they can afford housing costs without eating into any savings they may have or being forced to rely on state subsidised housing,” they noted.

What makes this scenario so precarious is that state subsidised housing is in dramatically short supply in Western Australia.

Service providers, peak bodies and independent experts all say the same thing – there is a looming crisis in the provision of suitable accommodation for WA’s increasing older population.

“One of the big problems we’ve had in Perth is that the cost of private rental has gone up so much, older people who were long-term renters have found themselves been priced out of the homes many of them have been in for decades,” says Eileen Webb, a professor of law at the University of Western Australia.

Professor Webb, who has researched the issue extensively and authored reports for Council on the Ageing WA, says older people in these situations find themselves moving further and further away from metropolitan areas in order to secure affordable rent. “And even that’s expensive,” she adds.

“It’s a concern,” Trevor Lovelle says of the accommodation shortage in WA.

Mr Lovelle, the CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia WA, says there is a “significant problem looming” in the state.

“Just look at the numbers. The baby boomer population is ageing; projections are that by 2050 the 65-plus year old cohort will be about 22 per cent of our population. Then look at other factors such as public housing; about 30 per cent of that is for 55-plus year old cohort, but there’s a wait list of more than 3,000 people for seniors housing. Clearly there’s an issue there. At the same time, we’re seeing affordability decrease, rental prices increase, which leads to insecurity,” Mr Lovelle says.

What happens when prices push older people out of the rental market altogether?

“They can apply to go on the public housing waiting list,” says Professor Webb, “but unless there is some kind of emergency or illness, they essentially have to get in line, and they could be waiting five years in some cases.”

During that wait older people often have to rely on friends or relatives – “there’s a bit of couch surfing going on with older people around Perth,” Professor Webb says.

“If you can’t afford a private rental and there’s no public accommodation available to you, well your choices are very limited.” Webb points out that traditional boarding or lodging facilities tend to be aimed at men: “Consequently if older couples or older singer women want to go to that form of accommodation it can be a very confronting thing.”

Upwardly mobile?

In a state characterised by rising land, property and rental prices, mobile homes or caravans have increasingly become a seemingly affordable accommodation solution for people in WA – particularly among retirees and older people.

According to State Government figures, 29,000 people currently live in ‘residential parks’ in WA. However, this form of accommodation is proving problematic for some, Professor Webb warns.

While an older person may own their mobile home, they have no claim to the site it sits on – which becomes an issue when the residential park is sold to make way for a more lucrative residential development.

“We’ve seen a lot of it in Perth where caravan parks have been sold and people are left with literally nowhere to go. They have this mobile home that can be very difficult to move. People think you just hook them up to the car and drive, but they take several days and a few thousand dollars to dismantle. And then you have to find somewhere else to put it back together again,” Professor Webb says.

The older person must also leave behind the network they had built up in the area – including relationships with regular doctors and healthcare services, she says. “They have to move to a new area where they don’t have those structures around them, they’re starting from scratch and that can be difficult.”

With land prices around metropolitan areas continually rising, mobile home owners are often forced to move further out, often to areas lacking adequate healthcare services and public transport.

The question of compensation in such scenarios is another “hot issue”, Professor Webb says. “If you make an investment in a product and then are told you need to leave within 60 days, there’s a question of whether you should be compensated for that. I think the bottom line is, if you sign up for a particular period of time and that lease has been cut off for whatever reason and you have the expenses of moving, you should receive compensation.”

Changes afoot

Greater tenant safeguards, and improvements to security of tenure in particular, may be on the horizon, with the WA Government currently reviewing the Residential Parks (Long-stay Tenants) Act. A discussion paper has been released and a series of community meetings is being held.

More broadly, Mr Lovelle says ACSA WA is working with the State Government to address current planning processes, which he says are a major cause of the accommodation shortage.

Currently there are 30 different metropolitan planning schemes in WA “and that in itself is a recipe for disaster,” he says.

“You could say there’s an un-strategic approach; local government would have their own reasons for allowing or disallowing certain developments, but that might not fit in with the grander plan of supporting an ageing community. These people need to be housed; we know there’s a shortage of public seniors housing, surely government has to be part of the solution,” says Mr Lovelle.

While the issue has been recognised in the ongoing local government review, it is also a matter for state government to address. Indeed, in developing a new facility, a provider could encounter all three levels of government.

“We’re working closely with government to get some change in policy that recognises the planning requirements for aged care facilities; such as refurbishment of brown field developments where you’re refurbishing an unutilised or end-of-life facility to make it more contemporary,” says Lovelle.

Residential sector on hold

Much like construction in the housing sector, building of new residential aged care remains patchy in WA. According to Beth Cameron, chief executive of Leading Age Services WA, the high cost of construction in the state coupled with “zero confidence” in the Federal Government’s approach to aged care means providers aren’t building.

“Since 2008 we have been handing beds back,” Ms Cameron says of the state’s continued under-subscription for bed licences in the annual Aged Care Approvals Round.

“We are nowhere near having the adequate number of residential places we’ll need. Our providers are at 98 per cent occupancy on average, which is higher than other states. You are more likely in WA to go on a waiting list for a place. You are more likely in WA to be unable to get into a facility of your first choice in your preferred area.”

The traditional impediments to building new residential facilities in WA, such as high construction costs and land prices, have been compounded by several recent announcements from Canberra, Ms Cameron says. In particular she singles out the change to the payroll tax.

“In the lead up to the election, no one was building. There was no confidence. Then there was the change in government. They said they would reduce red tape, which the sector so desperately needs. I saw optimism return, I saw providers get ready to build. But after the debacle that’s been the last six months, there is frankly no business confidence in the current political environment.

“When you’re in a sector that’s so tied up with regulation, with market controls on where you can build, what price you can set, so reliant on that government funding, having a volatile approach within the Federal Government is hugely risky for aged care businesses.

“Given we were already behind the eight ball in WA I think we’re at a point now where there just won’t be enough care places for seniors. Even if by some miracle the state and Federal Government suddenly decided they’d give the payroll tax, or even provide incentives to the sector to build, when you look at the lead time I just don’t know how we’re going to catch up.”

*Case study adapted from Housing Affordability: The real costs of housing in WA

Related AAA coverage: Seniors who rent living in fear: report 

Tags: accommodation, beth cameron, eileen webb, homelessness, trevor-lovelle,

1 thought on “On the fringes: seniors struggling for accommodation

  1. Why not lobby the government for tax concessions for those who rent to seniors at reduced prices? Both sides win.

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