A Tale of Two Housing Systems: How the Federal Budget could support Women’s Housing Needs

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The Federal Budget is being handed down today. No document is a more authentic signal of political commitment than that which allocates funds. In today’s analysis Hannah Gissane (@HannahGissane) of the Equality Rights Alliance walks us through the gendered nature of Australia’s unhealthy housing policies, what they say about Government commitment to addressing gender inequality, and how housing policy could be fixed to support women out of poverty.

Australia needs gender-responsive budgeting

Just as the tides roll in and out and the sun rises and sets, the Federal Budget is handed down on the second Tuesday of every May.

As momentum gathers from the community on gender-responsive budgeting, there remains no firm commitment or position from government on the process. We will get an idea of what the Budget has in store for women tonight, but the full range of gendered impacts will not be clear until the conclusion of the National Foundation for Australian Women’s careful and thorough Gender Lens on the Budget analysis.  In a very recent development, Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer, has flagged a women’s economic security component of the Budget with details to come in September. This signals recognition of the need for a gender focus in this coming Budget.

The growing calls for gender-responsive budgeting sit within the discursive push to locate the Budget as a statement of national values.  Increasingly we understand that it is people and communities who are at the centre of the Budget. In this sense, the Budget is a test for what the Government claims are priorities. If, as we’re told, gender equality is a Government priority, then this Budget will show us the money. Gender-responsive budgeting is in part a process to address gender inequalities through budgeting, but also importantly increases transparency to keep the Government accountable for its promises on gender equality.  

Housing policy is a highly gendered issue

Housing is a case in point. In this tale of two housing systems, the Government subsidises the portfolios of those much higher up on the housing ladder at the direct expense of women in housing need.

Women are the primary beneficiaries of housing support systems and assistance. Single women make up 45% of the 1.3 million income units in receipt of Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA). Single men account for 30% and couples 25% (see here). Females compose 60% of the 288 000 people assisted by specialist homelessness services (SHS). And across all social housing programs 61% of main tenants are women.  Gendered patterns of housing support and assistance reflect the gendered contours of housing need and reveal the demand for housing solutions that are gender responsive. With just over 40% of CRA recipients in housing stress after receiving CRA, females making up 66% of unassisted requests for specialist homelessness service and almost 200 000 households waiting for social housing, it is clear than when housing supports fail from under-investment, it is women and their children who are left with nowhere to go.

There is a lack of political will to address affordable housing shortages, which have a particularly detrimental impact on women, but there are many innovative models that could be employed in Australia, including this Canadian housing created from shipping containers and specifically provided to women.  Photo credit: CBC . 

There is a lack of political will to address affordable housing shortages, which have a particularly detrimental impact on women, but there are many innovative models that could be employed in Australia, including this Canadian housing created from shipping containers and specifically provided to women. Photo credit: CBC

Therefore, how the Budget deals with housing is a key indicator for what the Budget will deliver for women and gender equality more generally. As Patricia Kennett and Kam Wah Chan articulate in their comprehensive analysis of the gendered nature of housing, “housing systems and opportunities are embedded within structured and institutionalised relations of power which are gendered” (p. 2).  How does housing funding respond to gendered demographics and experiences, when women’s housing needs are shaped by caring responsibilities, with 82% of single parent families headed by women?  Women also live longer compared to men and on less, gendered income and retirement gaps show no signs of shrinking, and violence continues to displace women and their children from their homes. The disadvantaged position of women in housing systems calls for greater housing stock that is both affordable and appropriate for women and their families.

Current housing funding arrangements embed this disadvantage. If decisions contained in this Budget maintain the housing status quo, this implies a lack of concern for addressing the second-class status of women and current gender inequality.

As recent research from AHURI finds, “the typical negatively-geared investor is male; aged in his mid-to-late forties; employed full-time; and has a tax assessable income, or income before deductions, of $91, 000” (p. 1). While estimates vary, it is suggested that the impact of negative gearing alone on the Federal Budget is at least $2 billion.

On the other hand, the typical social housing tenant is a woman. In public housing she is a woman over 55 and living alone. In State Owned and Managed Indigenous Housing, she is a woman aged 25-54 with dependent children. And in community housing she is a woman over 45 and living alone (see here).  The annual Commonwealth funding for social housing and homelessness services from 2018-19 through the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement is $1.5 billion. Given that housing affordability has reached crisis levels which is propelling an increasing number of people into homelessness, housing affordability measures must be a priority for significantly greater investment.

Aligning housing policy to support women out of poverty

So, what would the Budget look like if it was responsive to the diverse housing needs of women? There are nation-wide calls for significant housing reform as part of the Everybody’s Home campaign. Chief among the recommendations is the call for a National Housing Strategy. A national strategy would finally ditch the incoherence that currently plagues housing policy. This should include, for example, a tax system that aligns with moves to improve housing affordability elsewhere. The absence of a cohesive housing policy damages and disadvantages women.  

A national strategy needs to be gender-responsive. We can look to Canada’s new national housing strategy for inspiration. The Canadian Government is dedicating $40 billion to a ten-year human-rights based housing strategy. Twenty-five per cent of this funding is quarantined for housing projects and services that prioritise women and their families.   

Developing gender-responsive policy will be a challenge, given only the ghosts of our previously robust gender machinery in government remain.  However, until that is in order again, some key principles should guide the way. These are visibility, capability and accountability. Visibility asks: where are women in all of their diversity in this policy framework? Capability ensures that policy frameworks and funding is adequate (read: increased) to meet the diverse housing needs of women. And accountability builds gendered indicators into performance frameworks.

The handing down of the Budget every second Tuesday in May might be predictable, but the chronic under-funding of housing supports and misdirected housing budget shouldn’t be. This Budget could increase women’s access to affordable housing, but it will be a test of political will to see if it does.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.