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COTA Affordable, Accessible, Appropriate Housing for Older Australians

4 July 2017

HCCA Consumer Reps Ros Lawson, Sue Andrews and Marion Reilly attended the Council of the Ageing (COTA) Affordable, Accessible, Appropriate Housing Forum on Thursday 22 June 2017 at the National Press Club and have written a summary below of their thoughts and findings from the event.

An impressive range of expert speakers with both research and lived experience representing the community sector and government addressed the themes of the forum, many warning of a looming crisis as older Australians face mounting pressure from rising rental prices and carrying mortgages into retirement. They discussed new ways to address the changing housing needs of older Australians including affordability, housing security and housing options appropriate for older Australians, now and in the future.

With much criticism of one of Australia’s biggest retirement village operators as “bleeding residents until they die” in the news lately, the forum couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time. Surprisingly only a small percentage (5.7%) of seniors actually live in Australia’s 2,200 retirement villages , according to Ben Myers from the Property Council of Australia. He told the forum that the average age of entry to these villages was 75 with most staying about 7 years. The industry was now facing some serious problems. Most of the residential village housing stock is more than twenty years old and is often not what people want. These days village residents demand cinemas, gyms and coffee shops on site, pet friendly policies, communal gardens, and integration into the surrounding communities. One solution is to make retirement village mixed age communities. Myers quoted examples from Queensland where younger residents joined the villages where the average age was 80 and bought back the choirs and volunteering that had been in decline.

Providing residential villages in regional areas was often difficult because housing prices are currently not high enough for people to get sufficient equity to buy into the villages, and construction costs are often too high in rural areas.

Opening the forum, Ian Yates, CEO of COTA emphasised that the focus was on providing affordable, accessible and appropriate housing for seniors, and not residential aged care facilities. It costs the government as much as $34,000 a year to keep a person in residential aged care compared with $4,000 -7,000 to provide home support and care. Keeping people in their own homes and their own local community also promoted social connectedness with consequent good effects on their health and wellbeing.

Overall, there is good news on the housing front for the majority of Australia’s 65 plus age group. But there is part of the population who are facing tough times.
Dr Judith Yates from the University of Sydney’s School of Economics said that 84% of the nation’s 65 plus are homeowners with 76% of that group owning their homes outright. The remaining 8% have mostly modest mortgages, and therefore most have very small housing costs. But private renters are in trouble, with about a quarter of them spending more than 50% of their income on rent causing much financial stress.

Renters also have much lower amounts of assets to call upon in times of economic hardship (the average is $1.2 million in super and property compared to under $200, 000 for renters). And this disparity will become even greater as the next generations face retirement.

The forum’s keynote speaker, John Daley CEO of the Grattan Institute (Australia’s leading non -partisan domestic research institute) says there are storm clouds on the horizon of housing accessibility for seniors.

A copy of John Daley’s presentation is on the Grattan Institute website: https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/COTA-seniors-housing-2017-June-16-9-original.pdf

Currently it’s not a social catastrophe as today’s seniors are net savers not spenders and will often pass away with more money in the bank than they retired with. But there are serious issues for those renters who are on pensions. They often have to skip meals, and are unable to pay utility and car registration costs so they can meet housing costs.

Rates of home ownership are falling for those in the 35-44, 44-54 age groups compared to those today who are 65 plus for whom the home ownership rate is the same as it was 35 years ago. In fifteen years’ time he predicts there will be significantly fewer people owning their own home, and there will be a real problem for renters as there has been little social housing built in the past 30 years. Currently the mix between private and social housing renters is about fifty fifty. Those people who have managed to get into social housing now will be staying on for many years so little will become available in the long term. According to Daley the only people able to access social housing now are the homeless and those suffering domestic violence.

And the answer to getting more housing is not for today’s seniors to downsize from their large suburban homes. When they downsize their choice is often limited to high end low density dwellings like townhouses and duplexes. Daley says this has arisen because those areas ripe for redevelopment- the medium density suburbs 10-15k from the city centre, are precisely those suburbs where there has been resistance to increasing the density of dwellings with apartments- the NIMBYs. As people prefer to downsize to a location that offers them shops, transport and community, most prefer to stay in the area they currently live in. Affordability is not on their list of desirability. So when large family home blocks are sold off, they are often replaced by high end town houses and duplexes. What is needed is to force developers to create affordable housing in larger developments and to ensure that the suburbs stay mixed as they are in Europe.

Daley warned of the shift from a system of stamp duty to land taxes which like rates would be paid over time. When land values go up because of favourable developments like trains and jobs then residents would pay more, and owners may have to seek economic buffers like reverse mortgages.

He ended his talk by saying that what is needed is policy reforms like owner occupied housing being included in the asset test, and tax benefit and superannuation reforms. These are political debates that have currently stalled but he says when they next come to the fore they will run and run.

At the end of the discussion on affordability the former Senator Susan Ryan and now Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, raised the issue of the gender divide. She pointed out that there are more than 700, 000 women over 45 on low incomes who are single and do not own their own home. And John Daley agreed that the housing issue was most serious for women and that the overwhelming number of disadvantaged over 65s were women in single households and who are in the private rental market.

Other highlights of the Forum were the panel discussion about Affordable housing. Adrian Pisarski from National Shelter pointed out that there is no reliable current data about housing supply to inform policy decisions. More vulnerable people are more likely to be displaced and are then more at risk of homelessness which is on the rise including for older women. He mentioned Wintringham housing service in Melbourne as one of only a few who provide housing services for homeless people. Social housing is ‘broken’ and not meeting demand as the government is not investing enough. He thinks that the Community Housing sector has the capacity to increase supply but will always need investment from government.

Jeff Fielder from Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) in Melbourne talked about their operation as an information and support service for older people. They provide early intervention for the growing number of older people at risk of homelessness. Again he noted that the private rental market does not work for older people because of short leases, high rentals and much lower rental housing in very poor condition. There need to be more options for people to access affordable housing equitably – public, community, independent living units, rental villages, aged care linked housing, Abbeyfield model, residential parks, shared living and a lot more advocacy. And he also noted that the aged care sector is well placed to assist with advocacy and appropriate placements by being better integrated with the housing and homelessness sector.

Lisa Langley from COTA NSW presented some outcomes of research with older NSW residents which tested attitudes and policy assumptions about housing which are made on behalf of older people.

The panel discussion about Accessible housing (regardless of age or ability) focused on issues of universal design, with contributions from Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Association, Sue Salthouse, Director of Rights and Inclusion Australia and David Brant from the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design. Contrary to the commercial market driven approach of the MBA, Sue Salthouse emphasised that self regulation doesn’t serve the market which shouldn’t only be driven by demand, an unreliable predictor of future longer term needs. Housing needs to be provided within the framework of human rights and our responsibilities under the relevant UN Conventions. She pointed out that all housing needs to have accessible and appropriate features. There is a complicated set of standards and regulations for builders, government and providers which makes accessible housing very challenging to regulate.

David Brant picked up this issue saying that there needs to be more regulation and all new housing must meet a single basic accessible standard which ANUHB is lobbying for. This includes easy access from the outside (including lifts), internal ramps with no steps, wide doorways and halls, accessible toilet and bathroom and capacity for carer sleepover. This is slowly being implemented, especially in Victoria. This will ultimately be very cost effective by contributing to preventing older people being admitted (no falls, general safety) to aged care facilities.

The overlooked but very important issue was raised about older people living in rural and remote communities. They are unable to stay ‘home’ but can’t afford to move and are ineligible for assistance. This highlights the broader issue of lack of appropriate affordable services for remote communities.
For more information about the Forum go to the COTA Australia website where most of the presentations are available to download:
Sue Andrews
Ros Lawson
Marion Reilly
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