When ‘having it good’ leaves you with nothing: life as a renter on the poverty line

It’s never been more obvious that those in the business of exploiting our need for shelter have no shame.

Everyone’s wellbeing is affected by their living environment, but as an autistic person with a few psychosocial disabilities thrown in, I’m more sensitive than most. My current home has given me more stability than I’ve ever had – more than two years without an extended period of total breakdown.

I’m on the public housing waiting list, just a few decades away from escaping the private rental market. In June I got a call from my real estate agent. On a month-to-month lease since August 2020, I feared my time was up.

The thought of leaving my home makes me sick. Moving house is stressful for anyone, but my executive function hindered by disability, the task is guaranteed to destabilise.

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The real estate agent could hear the deep relief in my voice when she offered a six-month lease. Finally, a modicum of certainty.

She moved quickly to ensure the feeling didn’t last: “But it’s not all good news. We need to put the rent up $90 a week.” As I processed that nauseating figure, she added that it was “well below market … you’ve had it good for a long time.”

Her statement was both true and ghoulish in its cruelty.

At $400 a week, my rent was already 73% of my disability support pension. I already relied on charity to cover bills – how could I possibly absorb the increase?

Whatever the law might say I had no real power to negotiate. My “choices” were to submit or leave.

After I recovered from shock, I started looking for rentals nearby. Even with the rent hike my place was still cheaper than others in the area – coincidentally just a few blocks from where the prime minister’s mum raised him in public housing on a disability pension, which he politicises while doing nothing meaningful to support those of us who rely on welfare payments today.

Leaving here means leaving my doctors. I needed to stay but had no idea how.

In the end my least-bad option was to again turn to strangers on the internet, seeking donations from the community to stay in my home. The consequences of not getting that help would be horrific.

I’m now handing more than 87% of my welfare payment for the privilege of a few more months’ stability. The banality of my situation and total lack of alternatives resigned me to it.

It feels like every day there’s another report of someone dealt a debilitating rent increase. Sometimes the story ends in homelessness, sometimes in costly relocation. Like me, many have no choice but to rearrange life and absorb the financial shock.

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But every story starts the same way: with people who own property punishing those of us who don’t, whether for their own failure to plan a viable landlording business, or simply wringing more from us because market conditions, unchecked by regulation, mean they can.

Those market conditions are no mistake. They’re the direct, predictable result of political choices: the compound effect of running down public housing to justify sell-offs, privatised “community” housing that serves non-profits who run it more than people who need a home, politicians’ refusal to impose rent control or rein in apparently untouchable negative gearing and capital gains rules that stack the entire housing market in landlords’ favour.

How much more ruthless can landlords get before they go too far? How many of us will lose our home, crowdfund rent or join the public housing waiting list before politicians feel compelled, or are forced, to act?

In Australia, support for my preferred silver-bullet method of expropriation might lag Berlin and Los Angeles, but there are other solutions.

Changes could be made overnight to help those of us on the lowest incomes so we aren’t made homeless by poverty. Welfare payments must be at least the Henderson poverty line and commonwealth rent assistance should be transformed into a supportive and equitable housing payment.

That buys time for politicians to stop pouring fuel on the fire by winding back rules that reoriented the entire economy around housing profiteers and introducing rent control. If they’re too cowardly to take on the “mum and dad” investors who’ve had it good for such a long time, they could start by capping how many residential properties can be used to reduce income tax, or how many you’re allowed to own.

In the long term we need dramatic public housing expansion, but also support from every level of government for a range of tenure types including cooperatives and a transition to tenant-controlled community housing. A recent Anglicare report showed policymakers there is plenty to be done.

The lease I was promised never materialised. I’m too fearful to enquire in case they kick me out. Either way, swallowing the bitter medicine of a whopping rent increase only delayed the inevitable.

For those of us who rely on the whim of a landlord for safe shelter, there’s no relief in sight.

Kristin O’Connell is an activist and disability support pensioner working in social policy at the Antipoverty Centre

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