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What The Housing Crisis Has To Do With Gender Inequality

There's a tsunami brewing, and it's a gendered one.

Over the past few months, the issue of housing affordability has been planted firmly in the headlines. It's reached 'crisis point', with families wondering whether their children or grandchildren will ever be able to buy a home in their own city.

Various solutions have been touted -- the 'bank of Mum and Dad', special types of 'affordable housing' for key workers, inclusionary zoning, shared equity models and roll-backs of negative gearing. The pundits argue passionately back and forth about markets in housing and increasing supply versus housing as a human right.

Who should provide it, and how?

The key demographic of concern always seems to be the young couple, the first-home buyers. And while housing supply for this group is critically important, in the background, there is a tsunami brewing. And it's a gendered one.

The number of Australian women over 55 who rent grew from 91,549 in 2006 to 135,174 in 2011. This is a dramatic increase, and we expect 2016 census data to show another sharp uptick.

These are women who have often led very conventional lives. They've always been single, or they are divorced with grown children. They may have experienced domestic violence or the death of a partner. They may have taken time out of the workforce to care for children or ageing parents, which has impacted their capacity to earn the 'good money' which might provide a pathway to home ownership. And their superannuation balances certainly don't look anything like those of men in their age cohort. These women are much more likely to be in 'pink collar' jobs, casualised or low-security employment, which means they can be, quite literally, one pay cheque away from homelessness.

Take, for example, Julie*.

Julie is 56. Her marriage broke down seven years ago. She and her husband owned their home in a comfortable North Shore suburb. He worked full-time and managed their finances, while Julie worked part-time in a local bookshop and raised their two children, who now both live overseas.

Julie had experienced verbal and emotional abuse from her ex-husband, and discovered on separating that he had a hidden gambling problem and had redrawn all of the funds in their mortgage. He'd also taken out personal loans in her name, forging her signature. At property settlement, all Julie received was her eight-year-old car and $12,000 -- enough to put down a bond on a small unit and set it up. Her ex-husband removed all the contents of their old home and refused to disclose what he'd done with them.

Julie sought full-time work, but has a chronic auto-immune condition which requires medication and has her off work for around 20 days per year. She managed to continue part-time shifts in the bookshop, but they recently scaled this back from five shifts to three shifts per week due to economic pressures. As a result, Julie couldn't afford the comprehensive insurance bill on her car, and after rainy weather, had a crash. She couldn't pay to fix her car as well as pay for the other driver's damage, and she couldn't work for four weeks.

Would anyone like to attempt to drop a pin on a map where the affordable properties are for people like Julie?

She fell behind on rent, and could no longer pay for her unit. The local homelessness service referred her to a crisis accommodation shelter when she dropped in the day she had to move out of her place. She'd spent her last $250 on a local storage unit for her household goods.

Julie, without employment or a home, is eligible for $528.70 per fortnight on Newstart allowance. She may get some rental assistance of around $30 per week. She'll be assessed as being able to afford a rental somewhere around $190 - $200 per week. And she pays the rest of her living expenses out of the $200 she has left.

Now, would anyone like to attempt to drop a pin on a map where the affordable properties are for people like Julie?

Women overwhelmingly still do the bulk of caring work in our society. A report in 2010 found that there were 21.4 million hours of unpaid care work per annum, valued at around $650 billion. Over 60 percent was done by women. Julie has contributed to our society and our economy throughout her life in paid and unpaid ways. Is it fair to allow the housing 'market' to forget her, and the hundreds of thousands like her?

*Name has been changed.


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