Single mothers face rental discrimination. Is there a quick fix?

Record rent rises, the nation’s lowest vacancy rates, living expenses outpacing wage growth, and a lack of affordable housing stock are problems many people face in South Australia, writes Stacey Northover, but single mothers face even more challenges finding a home.

Mar 27, 2024, updated Mar 27, 2024
Stacey Northover, the Executive General Manager of Believe Housing Australia, launched a $14 million affordable housing development this week. Photo: supplied

Stacey Northover, the Executive General Manager of Believe Housing Australia, launched a $14 million affordable housing development this week. Photo: supplied

We know that single parenthood (women make up 80 per cent of single parent families) significantly impacts the financial stability and housing options for numerous women, especially those who have stopped work to care for children and/or have no recent rental records.

Single-parent residents and tenancy officers right across Believe Housing Australia’s community housing portfolio are increasingly reporting experiences of direct and indirect discrimination against single parents as the affordable housing stock continues to shrink.

They describe the current rental market as “cruel” and “heartbreaking”, particularly for single mothers. Many had believed that earning a wage, with good character references, would be enough to secure a home to rent.

One of our newest affordable housing residents Maria* and her young daughter have spent the past three years applying for two-bedroom rental properties in metropolitan Adelaide without success.

A lack of housing options meant Maria, who is in her early 20s, has been sharing a bedroom with her toddler at her parents’ home since 2021. Maria has been working part-time as a disability worker, successfully completing her qualifications 12 months ago and caring for her child.

Despite the regular wage and good character testimonies, Maria has not been able to secure a suitable rental property in the current market.

Maria believes her low wage, limited employment history, no rental history, her age and her gender are blocking her entry into the tight rental market.

She says that while no landlord has directly rejected her rental applications citing her parental status, she does feel the odds are clearly stacked against her when the tenancy pool is so increasingly competitive.

Julie* is a full-time receptionist and single parent who has been applying for two-bedroom rental homes for the past two years. With no other choice, she too has been living with family.

Amelia* is mum of three children. The young family of four was living in temporary accommodation after escaping domestic violence. Amelia said she felt shut down by landlords as a suitable applicant as soon as she mentioned her single parenting status with three children.

These women-led families are among the first residents to find an affordable rental home at Believe Housing Australia’s new housing development, launched yesterday in Mansfield Park.

The first 20 of 37 affordable rental homes at Believe Housing Mansfield Park received more than 700 enquiries within the first weeks of their market listing – many were families.

Under the Residential Tenancies Act, discrimination against tenants with children attracts a maximum penalty of $25,000. This penalty was increased from $2500 in March as part of much-needed tenancy law reforms in SA. Making landlords, realtors and tenants aware of this section of the act is important to help prevent discrimination.

Of critical importance though, is supply.

More affordable housing is needed now, not in two years’ time or 10. And in the mix of affordable housing developments, we must include specialised affordable long-term rental homes for women-led families.

Last week hundreds of Community Housing Providers (CHPs) across the nation submitted significant affordable housing development solutions as part of first-round applications for the Federal Government’s Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF).

Like most CHPs, we are excited and eager to start seeing the $10 billon housing fund deliver its promise of 30,000 social and affordable homes in the first five years so that families like those of Maria, Julia and Amelia do not need to wait years to find a rental home.

With an expected two-year planning and construction development turn-around, we needed to start building many months ago. Rent remains high, vacancy rates are still under 1 per cent and cost of living pressures are not abating.

With thousands of properties ready to be developed now, the first round of HAFF must not be unnecessarily limiting in the approval process in any way.

We need to front-load the building pipeline now and provide as much social and affordable housing as we can as part of round one HAFF, remembering that round one HAFF housing will not be available for occupancy before 2026.

Affordable housing provides the foundation on which vulnerable people can build independence and wellbeing for a fulfilling life, connected to their community and able to enjoy future opportunities, free from stereotypes and stigma.

There is no time to waste. Let’s get on with it.

Stacey Northover is the Executive General Manager of Believe Housing Australia.

* not their real names
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