There was nothing wrong with the furniture at the op shop. A table performed the role of a table: with one chair it became a desk, two more a place for Neville to serve up a roast to his daughters on the weekend. He sat himself down on couch after couch, wondering about the houses they had previously resided in. How many couches had he owned in his lifetime? He hadn’t been expecting to buy another one at the age of seventy-six. At least, not one from the Salvos or Vinnies or whichever kind-hearted charity had herded all the couches into this warehouse for him to take his pick. A couch, a table and chairs, a bed and something to put the television on. He had bought a fridge, and his daughters had dropped off a washer and dryer. Was that everything he needed? When would the furniture begin to feel like his, not somebody else’s? When would his house begin to feel like home?
Neville reminds me of my dad. It isn’t physical: Neville is taller than my father and his hair is a soft, laundered white while Dad’s is clipped close to the skull and still greying. It’s not his manner either: Neville’s conversation is a polite tugboat, ploughing resolutely through the choppy waters of my questions, whereas Dad’s manner is that of a kite surfer, ducking and weaving in the hunt for a sharp aside or witty comment. But there is something about Neville’s steadfast nature that reminds me of my dad who, in the tradition of fathers everywhere, retains a sense of infallibility, a legacy of the childish part of me that will always believe Dad knows everything about the machinations of the world. Neville shares this easy confidence, which is why his story was such a hit to the gut. Listening to Neville talk, I imagined my own father coming undone and saw my own helplessness in the face of it.
‘A nice home, mortgage-free, a lovely garden, a dog and a cat. It was a nice lifestyle, you know? Brunches on Sunday, walks on the beach or a ride along the river in Perth – all that sort of stuff.’ Having worked in a senior position at Qantas for over twenty years before running his own business, Neville had set himself up for a decent retirement. But three years ago, at the age of seventy-three, he received a phone call from Diane, his wife of eighteen years. His good life, as he knew it, disappeared.
‘He had this great idea he was going to be a trader,’ said Neville about his wife’s son, Richard. When Neville and Diane met, they each had adult children from their first marriages. Almost two decades later and in a bit of a tight spot financially, Diane’s son Richard and his young family had moved in with Neville and Diane.
‘Richard had this room in our house set up with about thirteen screens and he used to work at night, trading on the American stock market. I had no idea,’ said Neville. ‘He wasn’t very communicative, you could never really pin down exactly what he was up to.’
The global financial crisis had been making its mark around the world, but Australia, particularly Perth, tiara-like at the head of the mining boom, had seemed out of harm’s way. Uncrossing his legs, Neville leaned forward in his chair, ‘The bottom line is, long story short, just after the GFC Richard’s venture failed dramatically. It was only then I found out that my wife had allowed him to use the equity in our house.’
Within two years, at the age of seventy-five, Neville found himself adrift. ‘Homeless and penniless. They’re not words I ever thought would apply to me – even then it didn’t feel applicable. But it was. I suppose I had suddenly found myself in a very emotional situation.’
Neville and his wife had been together for twenty-four years, living in a house Diane had originally bought and which they had both paid off and renovated. As Diane had made the original purchase, Neville’s name was never on the contract. The house was worth close to $800,000 when Diane signed over the equity and became a guarantor for Richard.
‘She thought Richard could do no wrong because he was her son,’ said Neville. ‘When Richard crashed and burned we had to fire sale the house, so we only got $630,000 for it, and any savings or superannuation we had went, any asset we had. We’d only retired a few years before when I was seventy, and my wife was sixty-three. So we suddenly found ourselves homeless and financially broke – we had to go on the pension.’
It was Neville’s first foray into the welfare system. ‘I’d always had work. I’d worked hard for myself and for my business; I always had an income so I’d never at any time in my life been on a welfare benefit. And while I was grateful, I found it a little demeaning. It was quite impersonal.’
The welfare system wasn’t the safety net Neville envisaged, however, because of rules that discourage people ‘giving away’ their assets to family in order to claim the aged pension. As Diane had ‘given’ their house and savings to her son, they were both only allowed to receive around a third of the aged pension. Neville found a job with a relative, doing menial work in a warehouse, while Diane took up childminding and other paying domestic tasks.
‘Well, probably at forty-five, even fifty-five, you might have a chance to get back on your feet again. But at seventy-three it’s a bit different. After everything happened…’ Neville trailed off, shaking his head.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neville and Diane’s marriage didn’t survive. Neville left behind anything that wouldn’t fit in his car, including his dog, and drove across the Nullarbor to Melbourne – a city he hadn’t lived in for two decades.
‘Suddenly I was back here, living between my two daughters and my sister, doing the whole couch-surfing thing, and it was then it just hit me that being middle–’ Neville interrupted himself, lifting a finger. ‘Well, being old and broke and homeless wasn’t all that pleasant. And my kids were wonderful but one only had a small unit, the other only had a small house and her two children, and I didn’t feel comfortable being there and taking up their space.’
I imagined my own father couch surfing, folding the sheets each morning, returning the couch to its daytime occupation. Slotting his toothbrush and shaving can back into his toiletries bag, eager not to leave any mess behind. The blue-checked shirt Neville was wearing beneath a beige jacket was carefully ironed, his shoes polished – I couldn’t picture him living out of a suitcase any more than I could my own father.
The Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) offices in the community building of Ross House in Melbourne’s CBD are a crowded jumble of desks, chairs and whiteboards, the atmosphere buoyant with the familiar, welcoming buzz of a not-for-profit organisation. It was through luck that Neville found himself there – after a year splitting his time between his sister and daughters he had applied for public housing only to be told there was a seven-year waiting list. He would be homeless until he was well into his eighties. Demoralised, he wasn’t sure where to turn until his daughter’s friend, who worked at a crisis accommodation service, suggested he get in touch with HAAG, which had just opened a service called Home at Last. While HAAG has been fighting for the rights of older people to satisfactory housing for thirty years, the Home at Last service was only established in 2012 with funding from a Victorian Government keen to support projects that prevented homelessness, rather than trying to solve it long after the event.
In its first year Home at Last assisted 3400 older people, a result that was far beyond the projected need. Neville’s experience shows how simple it is for someone who owns their own home to become homeless, but for many people it doesn’t require anything so dramatic. To be approaching retirement age and to be a renter, particularly in the private market, is enough to place a person at risk of imminent homelessness no matter how careful they might be with their money.
As someone who has been a private renter for over a decade, it sounds alarmist to me to suggest that renting is one step away from homelessness. I don’t own a house and with property prices rising so far out of step with my salary I am beginning to see I possibly never will. But I still have the majority of my working life ahead of me – even with the relatively low wages offered in my chosen fields of social work and writing, time is on my side. And in the meantime, being of working age means I can cope with the precariousness of the private rental market: the high rent and its inevitable increases over the course of a tenancy, the possibility of sudden eviction should the owner decide to sell. These things had created headaches and upheaval for me over the years in a variety of houses but they had never left me at risk of homelessness. There was always a friend’s couch or a spare room at my parents’ house, not to mention the possibility of increasing my income by throwing in the social work towel and entering the corporate workplace under the guise of marketing or communications. But people who are no longer in the workforce – which is many, but not all, older people – don’t have these options, which means living in a private rental can be closer to homelessness than many realise.
For those who can afford it, the Great Australian Dream of buying property is seen as a sensible investment and made all the more attractive by generous tax benefits. Negative gearing, the process of buying an investment property with the assistance of borrowed funds without receiving enough income from the investment to cover the interest, has allowed many of the Baby Boomer generation, and Generation X, to purchase multiple properties that can be leased for maximum profit – and with little responsibility toward their tenants, thanks to Australia’s notoriously lax regulations concerning residential tenancy. Ironically, while some people use negative gearing to set themselves up for a comfortable retirement, this very practice of buying an investment property has contributed, along with an overall shortage of housing stock, to a vicious rental market that makes retirement considerably less comfortable for those who did not have the opportunity to buy a house – let alone two or three. Most government policies that sought to address the problems of the housing market have failed to address the issue of supply – there are simply not enough houses in Australia located in the vicinity of where we work. Things like the First Home Owners Grant and stamp duty concessions have only resulted in more expensive houses, meaning higher mortgages and higher rent, with schemes such as Rent Assistance (paid to eligible people receiving welfare benefits) essentially being paid straight to the landlords, since rental prices are set by a competitive market.
Private rental in Australia is insecure because the market is skewed in the landlord’s favour, rather than the tenant’s. It’s not just the insecurity of private rental that makes it an issue for older people. Something as seemingly insignificant as yearly rent increases can be disastrous if you’re on a small, finite income such as the pension. Private renters spend the highest proportion of their income on housing costs and so have less money to spend on other necessities. They also don’t have home equity that can be accessed to fund their retirement or aged care. All in all, the precarious private rental market is an unhappy place to be, but it’s easy to see why people cling to it when the alternatives are so few.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2011 the number of people over the age of sixty-five experiencing homelessness in Australia was 6202. This includes people sleeping rough, or living in crisis accommodation or inadequate housing. Conscious of the fact that quoting statistics can be a turn off, I concentrate on that number – 6202 – trying to see it for what it is. Relevant to Australia’s population, it is not a large number. But to each of those 6202 people, the state of homelessness is not a statistic or category. It is something to be experienced, something that affects every other aspect of life. Significantly, another 8649 people aged fifty-five to sixty-four are homeless, and it is important to include these ‘younger old’ both because their current status might influence their housing options in older age, and because approximately a quarter of people experiencing homelessness are Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders who, due to a lower life expectancy, reach what is considered ‘old age’ at a younger chronological age than the rest of the population.
Jeff Fiedler has been working with HAAG for many years, endeavouring to increase the organisation’s profile and reach. Possessing a quiet yet direct manner, throughout our conversation Jeff’s expression, beneath quizzical black eyebrows, remains constantly perplexed, as though he is surprised to still find himself pushing for answers to the same old problems. Over coffee with Gemma White, a HAAG community education worker, he tells me that considering the current economic state and Australia’s well documented housing problems, he wasn’t surprised that Home at Last has been inundated with requests for help since it opened.
‘Lower home ownership rates, more older people in retirement with mortgages, more people renting. Then at the other end, there’s not enough social and public housing. We see people who own their own home – about 70 to 80 per cent of older people – as successfully housed, as well as a small group – say 5 per cent who are in public housing, which is secure. But it’s the wedge of people in-between that’s the worry and it’s growing rapidly. Between 2006 and 2011 there has been a 44 per cent increase in older people living in private rental housing.’
While helping people at risk of homelessness find housing is one of HAAG’s main tasks, they also spend a lot of time just trying to let people know that they can help.
‘A huge part of it is getting awareness out there,’ said Gemma. ‘There are a lot of people who are housed, but really struggling, and thinking that’s normal; that that’s just the way it is. Many older people aren’t used to navigating the service system – they might never have received welfare, or needed any kind of assistance, so they don’t know organisations like ours exist. We try to present it as a positive option – that their housing and making a change to it is something they can take charge of, rather than it only be for people who are having some kind of problem.’
‘There’s a stoicism we often see with older people,’ said Jeff. ‘They really do put up with a lot of hardship, and they don’t necessarily see that it’s everyone’s right to have affordable and secure housing.’
He describes a recent client, an elderly man who received a notice to vacate in sixty days because his landlord wanted to sell. ‘He’s lived in this place for thirty-four years and he’s still working,’ explained Jeff. ‘But he’d had an agreement with the landlord that if he never asked for repairs to be done, the landlord would keep the rent down.’ The rent had stayed low but the house, when Jeff went to look at it, was barely habitable. The ceiling in the hallway had fallen in, there was only a single bar heater in the lounge room and the entire place was dangerously rundown. But the man had just accepted it as normal – it was all he could afford, particularly as he was soon to retire. ‘The thing is, this crisis has come about because the landlord himself has aged,’ said Jeff. ‘He’s gone into care and the family have taken over responsibility for the house and they want to sell it.’
Jeff went on to give multiple examples of people who, through no fault of their own, found themselves with few options when they reached retirement. There was a woman who had recently come into the office, unsure of what to do. She was earning $37,000 a year as a machinist in South Yarra and renting privately – there was no possibility of saving enough for a deposit on that kind of income, but ironically it was enough to make her ineligible for public housing. What would she do when she retired and the pension would not be enough to pay her rent?
‘There’s an issue with our mindset in Australia about how we should be housed,’ said Jeff. ‘If there was an investment in social housing like there is in Europe, where most people see rental accommodation as being the norm, where you’ve got secure tenure and it’s affordable for life, it would make a big difference. But home ownership is the only secure housing in Australia and it’s getting more unattainable.’
HAAG helped Neville find a new one-bedroom unit in a community housing development in Heidelberg, making him one of the lucky ones. Now separated from his wife, his pension has been restored to its full amount, and his rent is fixed at a percentage of this.
‘It’s brand new and very nice. It’s basically only two rooms and a bathroom, but it’s a very large bedroom and so is the living area and kitchen, and behind two cupboard doors there’s a laundry.’ I tried to imagine the kind of house Neville used to own, one that could accommodate his stepson, daughter-in-law and their three children, and I could guess at how his current accommodation might be a downgrade. But not once does Neville show any sign of being anything other than grateful.
Interestingly, a scare campaign by Heidelberg residents tried to get Neville’s housing block stopped before it was even built – neighbours were unnerved by what they saw as overcrowding of eight single-occupancy apartments and three townhouses on a site that used to be occupied by one family in one house. It’s the classic ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome that is seen so often in Melbourne’s suburbs, and is usually more successful at stopping development in the leafy eastern suburbs than in the less salubrious west. If affordable housing is built as infill, and a suburb becomes more crowded, people are concerned that the value of their house will lessen – or not rampantly increase as we have become used to. And when so much of our assets are tied up in our housing, it’s a valid concern for people trying to be responsible for their own retirement.
But out on a morning run in Northcote recently I saw flyers wrapped around a telephone pole, advertising a community meeting. They were calling for residents to lodge complaints about a staggered four- and six-storey apartment building to be constructed on the site of an old factory. Were apartments worse than the shell of a factory? The flyers encouraged residents (those of us already in situ) to complain about the overcrowding the apartment building would cause: the parking and traffic problems, the impact it would have on the childcare places and class sizes at the local primary school. I am stumped by this attitude. Where are people supposed to live if not in suburbs like mine with its established infrastructure and services? If I want to live in Brunswick or Northcote, surely I must accept that others might want to do the same?
One of the problems causing Australia’s low supply of housing is that much of our existing housing stock is under-utilised. Contributing to this number are older people who hang on to the family home rather than moving somewhere smaller. Analysis of census data shows that approximately 60 per cent of people over the age of seventy who live alone occupy a house with three or more bedrooms, as do over 80 per cent of older couples. The reasons behind the reluctance to downsize are many, from the sentimental to the logistical. Not to mention the rational: a person’s home is not counted as an asset when calculating their eligibility for the aged pension, whereas any profit made from downsizing from the family home to a smaller, cheaper property would be counted as an asset and require the payment of stamp duty. In this sense, government policies are an active deterrent to people downsizing, with a detrimental consequence on the overall housing supply.
A similar situation regarding assets applies when deciding how much a person will pay for residential aged care, encouraging people to hang onto the family home. At present only a capped portion of the value of a person’s home is counted when calculating how much they are required to pay toward their aged care (so it doesn’t matter if the home is worth $400,000 or $900,000, all homes are valued at approximately $155,000). Any savings or profit from selling the family home in the years before moving to residential care, however, would be included as an asset requiring the individual to pay more for their aged care. Some would argue that while the government should pick up the tab for everyone’s nursing and support services in old age, individuals should pay for their accommodation in residential care, just as they’ve been responsible for their own housing throughout their lives. Leaving these arguments aside, however, how much a person pays for their aged care directly affects how much is left for their children to inherit.
Inheritance impatience is one of the key drivers for the financial abuse of older people, as is the presence of ‘boomerang children’ – adult children who have returned to live with their elderly parents for financial reasons. In the last financial year the advocacy and legal service Seniors Rights Victoria received well over 1000 calls relating to elder abuse, which is defined as an act of harm to an older person carried out by someone they know and trust, most often a son or daughter. Of these calls, the most prevalent complaint was regarding financial abuse. Because while many older people may find themselves in a tenuous housing situation as a result of lifelong circumstances, Neville’s loss was directly caused by his stepson Richard taking advantage of Neville’s wife Diana, who didn’t realise what she was signing when she agreed to help out her beloved son. And as long as the housing market remains difficult to break into for first home buyers and tenuous for lifelong renters, older parents will find their offspring returning home not to save for a house deposit, but simply because they have no other affordable option. Government housing policies have created an increasingly inequitable and troublesome market, and with a rapidly ageing population the problems are only going to escalate.
This essay was written with the support of the Australia Council through the JUMP Mentoring program.
Image credit: Woodleywonderworks