Luckily Siobhan Joseph likes the cold, because she can’t afford to turn on her radiator.
The 57-year-old is paying over 80% of her JobSeeker benefit on the rent from her home in Marrickville in Sydney’s mid-west.
Ms Joseph receives about $770 a fortnight from JobSeeker and other support payments, and spends about $600 on rent.
“So I’m left with about $174 for everything else,” she said.
Mrs Joseph has had to learn to survive on one income since her husband died in 2020, and the wider battle has begun against the rising cost of living.
She has arranged to be placed on a special plan with her electricity supplier, uses a nearby food charity and, if needed, borrows money from friends.
She also wears extra layers in the winter to avoid turning on her heater.
“While it sounds a little contradictory, I’m a bit overweight at the moment, which is actually partly due to my not-so-great diet, as you tend to load up on carbs – pasta and rice and stuff like that.”
Ms Joseph has been on the waiting list for social housing for two and a half years and says she fears becoming homeless.
“Fingers crossed, things will get a little easier.”
Rents and inflation are rising, but the number of affordable homes is falling
Advocate for secure rentals, the Tenants and Housing Union (RAHU), released a report in February with data through October 2021, before inflation peaked.
The ‘Roofs For Ransom’ report found that 91% of syndicate clients suffered from rental stress, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics classified as spending more than 30% of household income on rent.
RAHU secretary Eirene Tsolidis Noyce said union data showed the average monthly rent had risen by $250 this year, with one client seeing a 95% increase.
Renters face a triple whammy: as rents rise, the cost of basic necessities also rises, and at the same time, the supply of affordable housing declines.
The RAHU secretary said many people seeking help from the union reported skipping meals, not being able to afford their medications and missing utility bills.
“Particularly in the winter this is extremely concerning as we know these homes are generally not particularly well insulated, there are common issues with black mold and unsafe conditions and yet they still won’t turn on the heating to save the cost of bills,” she says.
The union argues that many tenants cannot simply move elsewhere due to the lack of affordable properties in cities and regions.
“Estate agents will say there are so many vacancies, but the problem isn’t necessarily the number of vacancies. It’s the price of the rents themselves,” she said.
“We know that over 100,000 homes are vacant in Victoria alone.
The union wants state, territory and federal governments to adopt enforceable regulations on what constitutes excessive rental charges, a cap on rent increases and minimum wage rent.
Debt, a growing problem
Financial advisers say they are getting a growing number of calls from people struggling with rent arrears and worried about how they will make next month’s payment.
The National Debt Helpline said it has always stressed to its customers that rent should take priority over all other expenses, including food and electricity.
“There are hardship rights that you can access to pay your debts and utility bills that are not granted to lease payments,” Councilor Kirsty Robson said.
Ms Robson said the rising cost of living was also causing an increase in calls to the National Debt Helpline.
She said financial stress can harm a person’s physical health.
“The first thing to do is always regular meals,” she said.
“People will skip meals before they start paying off certain debts and it comes down to fear of asking for help or admitting you’re in trouble or even knowing you’re entitled to help.”
But she said financial worries could also have implications for mental health.
“It’s a pretty hard thing to talk to, so people don’t necessarily go to the same support networks they would if something else was wrong, but it has immediate impacts and quite long-term on physical and mental health,” she said. said.
“And it’s pretty insulating too.”
“I stay at home because there is nothing left”
Adelaide retiree Elaine, who does not use her real name for confidentiality reasons, can attest to this isolation.
The 67-year-old lives a very quiet life in her outer suburbs, and it’s not by choice.
She pays more than half of her pension in rent and says the rising cost of living leaves her with virtually no money left to enjoy life or to save for future expenses.
“I’m staying home because there’s nothing left,” she said.
“We got this $20 raise [to the single person’s pension] and then what happened? Gasoline has gone up and the price of food has gone up.”
Elaine said she was dreading a rent increase when her lease ended in August, so she accepted an offer of social housing, out of the blue.
It’s half the rent she’s currently paying and she said the savings will allow her “to have a life”.
But first, she’ll save up for a screen door for the unit.
“Security is pretty dreadful and I’m going to have to get rid of half my furniture but that’s the sacrifice I’m willing to make,” she said.
“It’s being able to live your life and when your friends say to you, ‘Do you want to go out to lunch?’ and you can happily say “yes” because I can afford it.
“The government needs to understand that the housing crisis is real. They seem to ignore it and not spend money on social housing. Stop building stadiums and start building affordable houses.”
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