Why secure and affordable housing is an increasing worry for age pensioners

The average housing costs of older (65-plus) outright homeowners in lone-person households were A$38 a week in 2013-14, the Australian
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The average housing costs of older (65-plus) outright homeowners in lone-person households were A$38 a week in 2013-14, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated, compared to $103 for older social housing tenants and $232 for older private renters.

Fortunately, over the last several decades almost all Australians who depend on the age pension for their income have been outright homeowners, and their housing costs have thus usually represented a small proportion of their pension. However, this situation is changing and the significance of this is profound.

Drawing on 125 in-depth interviews conducted in Sydney and regional New South Wales (discussed in detail in my book, The Australian Dream: Housing Experiences of Older Australians), it is evident that these substantial differences in housing costs combined with differing levels of tenure security have a fundamental impact on the capacity of Australians dependent solely or primarily on the age pension to lead a decent life.

The interviews I conducted with the older homeowners, particularly with couple households, indicated that provided they did not have extraordinary expenses (high medical bills, excessive smoking and or drinking, having to look after a child etc), they managed reasonably well on the age pension. They could run a car, engage in modest leisure activities, travel and even save.

Margaret, who lived by herself, was content:

Well I can [and] I do participate. I don’t go to the opera because that’s too expensive … I don’t go to live shows because they’re too expensive, but that’s okay. I do other things. I’m a very busy person.

Although the housing costs of older social housing tenants are high relative to homeowners, the fact that their rent is pegged at 25 per cent of their income means they have a fair amount of disposable income after paying for their accommodation.

Betty, a social housing tenant, summed up their situation:

In public housing you see, even if they’ve only got the old age pension, nothing else, because their rent is only a quarter [of their income], they manage, most of them quite well. People who don’t manage are the ones who drink, smoke a lot … or who have an illness that requires heavy expenditure on medication.

In addition, historically, older social housing tenants have had guaranteed security of tenure. John spoke of the enormous benefits of this security:

When you know your accommodation is right, this is especially when you’re older, you can pursue other interests. You’re more relaxed and I do feel, I really feel you’re in for a longer life you know … I’m quite content and I think it’s just wonderful that the government does supply these houses.

Private renters live with insecurity

Also, once their lease ends they can be asked to leave at any time – no grounds have to be given. The resulting perpetual insecurity combined with the cost of their housing is the basis for enormous anxiety and distress.The third group, older private renters dependent on the age pension for their income, are in a completely different position. A large proportion of them are having to use a large proportion of their income to pay for their rent.

Maggie, a private renter in Sydney, said:

It [the age pension] is unrealistic. I mean I thank God for it because I’d never make ends meet otherwise. I really thank God for it, but it’s unrealistic. You cannot live on that. I mean what would you live on? It’s a joke. I was lucky that I had the income from working on the side … I couldn’t have lived like that without working a bit …

Helen painted a bleak picture. Even though she was drawing the couple pension she was clearly suffering enormous psychological distress:

Sometimes I think I’m too old for this. Maybe I’ll be dead in a year’s time and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. All the stress … I said to my doctor, ‘Why keep us alive when there’s nothing there for us?’ I said, ‘There’s no help for us,’ and she agreed with me … I told her we couldn’t get into a retirement village or even buy a caravan, or mobile home. We couldn’t even buy that. So we have a little bit of money but we can’t do anything with it. It’s not enough to help us.

When I asked Janet, who had been a private renter for a long time, how she responded when she heard that she had been accepted for social housing, she said:

I was absolutely, well, I sat down and cried. I literally sat down and cried because I felt like, well, at least I had the protection of the Department of Housing whereas before of course I didn’t have any of that. I had no protection whatsoever … My children were having children so they couldn’t [take care of me]. They’re just working-class people and so they couldn’t care for me … So consequently I couldn’t see any future at all until I got the word from Housing that I have got somewhere.

Numbers of vulnerable older people are rising

The power of affordable and secure housing to create a foundation for a decent life for people dependent on the age pension is clear.

However, there is no doubt that an increasing proportion of older Australians on the age pension will be dependent on the private rental sector in coming decades. This is because of the housing affordability crisis and increasing divorce in later life, combined with the virtual stagnation of the social housing sector.

In 2013-14, 4.8 per cent of couples aged 65-plus and 9.5 per cent of people living by themselves were private renters. Among 55-to-64-year-olds, these proportions were almost double: 8.4 per cent of couples and 20.7 per cent of lone-person households in this age cohort were private renters. Almost all of these households will still be private renters when they become dependent on the age pension, so the prospects for this group are grim.

The ConversationAre you concerned about your accommodation options as you get older? What are your thoughts on this issue? Share them with us.


Alan Morris, Chair Professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

  1. Johanna  

    I sm an aged pensioner living in s privste rental unit. I have been told that the waiting time for s housing dept uni is 10-15 years!
    I am 70 so i could be 85 before i get a place.
    Meantime my rent takes up half of my pension i pay gas and power every fortnigjt plus car and contents insurance which takes up about another 100 a fortnight.
    I am unable to live with my adult son if i had to leave here for any reason. Ir’s not easy to budget what’s left with prices going up every week. I have a dog and two cats. Their food goes up all the time, sometimes by as much as $1 for a packet of cat biscuits.
    I am very fortunate to be medication free.
    I aim to stay that way.

    • Guy Flavell  

      Johanna, I sympathize completely with you trying to pay a market rental from your pension. I was
      in a similar situation 4 years ago and was even reduced to having to accept food parcels from
      St.Vinnies and the Salvos to keep myself and my little dog afloat.
      Then someone referred me to an organisation called HAAG. I rang them and explained my dire
      circumstances and they appointed a case officer to assist me try to find cheaper accommodation.
      The upshod is that within 3 months they had found me a lovely one b/room Dept of Human Services unit in Bayside Melbourne for $100 pw. It was equally as nice as the unit I had been paying $240 pw for and with absolutely no maintenance worries. Life is now a joy !!!
      Might I suggest doing a Google search on HAAG and giving them a ring … and don’t forget to
      cry a lot over the phone … it really helps. I wish you the VERY best of luck.

  2. Irene  

    I have rented most of my life , I had to move to Queensland when the flat I was renting was bought by developers, I couldn’t find any place to rent in the area where I had lived for 40 years . I am now 70 and living in a flat in Brisbane, , after paying my weekly rent of 298 per week , I don’t have a great deal left to pay electricity , gas , phone , food and medication , I have 7 grandchildren so when it’s birthdays etc I have had to cut costs , usually eat less at those times . I try to lspend $100.00 a fortnight on food but I usually need to spend more . Fortunately I don’t have any credit .
    I have worked ever since I was 16yrs old and owing to several bouts of pneumonia , I retired when I was 68 , I don’t have a great amount of super , because we didn’t have that until later in my working life. And yes it is hard to live on the pension , I need dental work , but just can’t afford it . The question of available housing must be addressed and soon , it is the biggest expenditure . I believe seniors in Australia are not really looked after .

  3. Pamela  

    If it is hard for a pensioner alone, find a friend in a similar situation and share.

    I have and it makes life reasonably comfortable – certainly much easier than struggling on your own!

    • Mary  

      It’s so sad to see people living alone. I cannot see why pensioners in private 3 bedroom homes cannot help those who are private renters as long as it is done professionally so if it doesn’t work out there are consequences. It seems a win win. You have companionship and cheaper rent.

    • Mary  

      It’s so sad to see people living alone. I cannot see why pensioners in private 3 bedroom homes cannot help those who are private renters as long as it is done professionally so if it doesn’t work out there are consequences. It seems a win win. You have companionship and cheaper rent.

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