Housing insecurity among older Australian women: Exploring the challenges and seeking solutions

Aug 30, 2023
Women facing homelessness are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health problems, and physical health problems in addition to being at a heightened risk of experiencing violence. Source: Getty Images.

As the sun sets on careers and family responsibilities, many older Australian women are unfortunately finding themselves faced with the unexpected challenge of housing insecurity.

While retirement is meant to be a time of relaxation and enjoyment, a growing number of women over 50 are navigating a complex landscape of unaffordable housing, tenancy uncertainties, and the looming threat of homelessness.

A recent Swinburne report highlighted the increasing pressure faced by older renters, claiming that “older people are increasingly struggling with housing affordability in the private rental sector.”

The report found that in 2019-2020, 227,565 older people were living in very low and low-income households and paying unaffordable rents.

In addition, an alarming 2022 report from the Retirement Living Council found that women over the age of 55 are the fastest-growing group of homeless Australians. The Retirement Living – A Solution For Older Women at Risk of Homelessness report found that the number of older Australian women accessing homelessness services has increased by 63 per cent in the last five years.

In light of these concerning trends, Starts at 60 examines the causes behind the rate of older women facing these challenges, what help is available, and what can be done to overcome this challenging issue.

Why is housing insecurity so high among older women in Australia?

The housing insecurity among older Australian women is a multifaceted problem rooted in various factors.

While the current housing crisis certainly hasn’t helped matters, issues related to finances, separation from a partner later in life, limited retirement savings, and job prospects are all factors contributing to this growing issue.

Link Wentworth Housing’s Chief Customer Officer, Margaret Maljkovic explains that “older single women are some of the most at risk and vulnerable members of our community. Housing insecurity among older women in Australia results from several inter-related factors.”

“There is still a gender pay gap with women still earning less than men on average,” she says.

“Coupled with life events like relationship breakdowns, career interruptions due to being caregivers, and a higher likelihood of working part-time, these factors all contribute to lower retirement savings and reduced superannuation.

“As a result, many older women find themselves financially vulnerable on retirement, making it difficult to afford stable housing in an increasingly expensive property market.”

In addition, age discrimination can also play a part which can result in older women being overlooked by potential landlords and employers, impacting their ability to secure both stable housing and supplementary income.

Many older women may also require accessible and adaptable housing due to age-related mobility challenges. However, the availability of such housing is limited, making it difficult for them to find suitable homes that cater to their needs.

Maljkovic also points to the “unprecedented housing crisis” currently gripping the nation that has resulted in a “severe lack of affordable housing in the market”.

“There have been pockets of cheaper private rental housing in the past, but everything has gotten more expensive. We are seeing a dramatic squeezing at the bottom end of the private rental market,” she says.

“These supply shortages create more competition for fewer vacancies, pushing out women on lower incomes.

“No one is immune from ending up in this situation. We see women who have owned their own homes and through life circumstances end up losing this security. We are finding the number of older women who are calling us or coming into our office has gone up dramatically over the last couple of years.”


What can be done to overcome the obstacles to accessing safe and affordable housing?

The need to address the challenges that are preventing older Australian women from getting a foot in the door to secure safe and affordable housing is crucial.

Women facing homelessness are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health problems, and physical health problems in addition to being at a heightened risk of experiencing violence. Access to essential health and education services also becomes extremely limited.

Given the ever-growing number of older women facing homelessness in Australia, this is certainly an issue that can no longer be ignored and needs to be remedied.

Maljkovic stresses that addressing this crisis “requires a multi-faceted approach”.

“We ultimately need a much greater supply of social and affordable housing,” she explains.

“Born out of a need to address the growing number of women over 55 who are experiencing, or are at risk of homelessness, Link Wentworth has established a “meanwhile-use” housing model in partnership with Women’s Community Shelters and Twilight Aged Care, providing 39 short-term, safe and affordable properties in Sydney’s north.

“The model utilises buildings that would otherwise go unused while awaiting planning approvals, allowing older women who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, a place to live in convenient locations at an affordable price.”

Those accessing these services have access to mental health and community support, as well as the company of other women in their age group who are experiencing similar hardships.

While these services are essential and make a real difference in the lives of those accessing them, Maljkovicv recognises that it “is a temporary solution to the chronic shortage of safe, appropriate and long term social and affordable housing in Australia.”

“Ultimately, social and affordable housing needs to be significantly increased,” she stresses.

“We believe the Commonwealth Government’s proposed Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) is a critical start to increasing supply of social and affordable housing in Australia.

“We hope that all sides of politics see the immediate benefits that the HAFF brings to increasing the supply of social and affordable housing and make sure this legislation passes through parliament this week.”


What services are available to help older women find affordable housing?

In addition to the services offered by Link Wentworth, there are a number of services and organisations across the country waiting to offer much-needed help to those experiencing the hardships of homelessness.

Providing everything from food, and shelter to much-needed support and assistance, these essential services can provide a much-needed lifeline to those struggling with housing insecurity.

  • AskIzzy is a free and anonymous website to search for housing, food, health care, and legal help in your area.
  • Homelessness Australia can help you if you’re homeless, or at risk of being homeless.
  • Mission Australia manages community housing across Australia and can help you look for a home.
  • The Red Cross can help you look for suitable shelter. They also give meals to people with low incomes or housing problems.
  • The Salvation Army helps people across Australia to find housing and support services.

“All community housing providers can assist to help older women find affordable housing,” Maljkovic says.

“Women can contact the provider in their area to see what options they can offer. Community Housing providers advertise affordable rental vacancies on their websites and also through the website Welcome Mat.”

What can be done now? 

While the issue of housing insecurity is certainly not something that is going to be solved overnight, there are a number of measures that can be taken to ease the burden.

Some areas worth exploring when faced with the struggle of housing insecurity include:

  • Shared living arrangements: Co-living arrangements could not only allow older women to pool resources, and share expenses to reduce the financial burden of rental payments but can also help to create a supportive community environment.
  • Utilise government assistance programs: Exploring government programs specifically designed to help older Australians with the financial side of securing affordable housing. Understanding eligibility criteria and application processes is crucial.
  • Downsizing: Older women can consider downsizing their homes, selling assets, or renting out spare rooms to generate additional income to support housing needs.

While these suggestions will certainly not fix the glaring housing insecurity problem faced by older Australian women, they can certainly help to ease the burden caused by what Maljkovic describes as a “lack of investment over decades in social housing”.

“The supply of appropriate social and affordable housing is not keeping pace with increasing demand, this is a systemic issue,” she adds.

Maljkovic suggests that “given the long waiting lists for social housing we would suggest that women apply as soon as possible”.

“There are other alternatives like affordable housing which is priced at around 20-25 per cent below market rental and best suited to people who are working,” she suggests.

“Some other community housing providers also offer meanwhile use housing like Link Wentworth.”

Housing insecurity and the threat of homelessness faced by older Australian women is a deeply concerning issue that demands attention from policymakers, community leaders, and society as a whole.

Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach that includes bridging the gender pay gap, expanding affordable housing options, and fostering a culture of inclusivity and support for seniors.

The alarming fact that women over the age of 55 are the fastest-growing group of homeless Australians serves as a powerful reminder of the need for equitable solutions to ensure that their golden years remain truly golden.


Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up