‘Forgotten’ renters hope recent federal election will turn the tide for housing policies

Rosie Wallis has been renting her entire adult life, and she can’t see that changing any time soon.

She’s only 33 years old, but she’s already spent 15 years paying off other peoples’ mortgages.

Much to her frustration, buying in Melbourne feels out of reach, even if prices fall.

“I think the median house price in metro Melbourne — being [almost] a million dollars — it’s quite scary and it does make it feel really out of reach,” she said. 

Paying for the property she rents with her partner, Ash, and her four-year-old daughter, Julia, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs takes a substantial chunk of their income.

She works as an office manager, and her partner is an automotive assembler.

They’re also facing a rent increase to renew the lease.

Rosie Wallis and her partner, Ash, spend 26 per cent of their income on rent.(Supplied)

“It’s about 26 per cent of our income [that] goes on rent, another 13 per cent on childcare,” she told ABC’s 7.30. 

According to figures from the just released 2021 Census, there are 2.8 million rental households, accounting for more than 30 per cent of the population.

There were also almost one million Australian homes that were unoccupied on the night the census was conducted last August.

Many of renters are coming under increasing financial pressure. Rents are skyrocketing, having increased by almost 10 per cent in the past 12 months, and low vacancy rates mean there’s often little choice.

Eirene Tsolidis Noyce from the Renters and Housing Union (RAHU) in Victoria said the situation facing many renters was unacceptable.

A young person wearing a
Eirene Tsolidis Noyce says the market is getting tougher for renters.(Supplied)

“The situation is quite dire,” she said. “We’re not seeing wages increase, we’re not seeing income support increase and we are seeing the market [prices] increase exponentially.”

Renters are the ‘forgotten people’

Housing was a significant issue during the federal election campaign, but many of the promises focused on home buyers.

Economist Brendan Coates from independent think tank the Grattan Institute argues that renters did not get the attention they deserved.

Brendan Coates
Brendan Coates says neither major party has offered substantial solutions for the one-third of Australians who rent.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

“Renters have really been the forgotten people when it comes to this election campaign, from the major parties,” he said. 

“We haven’t really seen big policies from either side to tackle what is a big issue for one-third of Australians.”

When Rosie Wallis voted for Labor in the seat of Deakin in this year’s federal election, housing policy was at the forefront of her mind.

As a renter, she felt “ignored” and “taken for granted” during the campaign.

She preferenced the Greens in the Senate and wants to see concrete outcomes on housing policy.

“I certainly hope to see the Greens and the independents put more pressure on Labor on housing affordability,” she said. 

Greens MP campaigned on rental affordability

Stephen Bates is one of three new Greens MPs to win seats off the major parties in Brisbane.

The 29-year-old credits campaigning on rental affordability as a key reason he’s going to Canberra.

Stephen Bates wearing a maroon business shirt and smiling.
Stephen Bates was elected as the MP for Brisbane in the 2022 federal election.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

“[More than] 50 per cent of the electorate of Brisbane rents, so it’s important to have that representation reflected in Parliament, so me being a renter and my entire immediate circle of friends are renters,” he said.

The Greens took an ambitious and expensive housing policy to the election, to build one million affordable homes over 20 years.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand homes would be for public and community housing, and 125,000 would be rental properties, costing almost $23 billion over a decade.

“What that would do is cap rents at 25 per cent of your income or the market average — sort of whichever was lower, basically — so that you can put that floor in the market and give people access to housing,” Mr Bates said.

Houses in Brisbane street
More than 50 per cent of the electorate of Brisbane rents, says MP Stephen Bates.(ABC News: Liz Pickering)

Economist Brendan Coates said there was merit in the Greens’ proposal, although he stressed more work was needed to make sure the numbers stack up.

“The scheme is very expensive and committing to that scale of intervention, you know, it is a big change in the market,” he said. 

However, he argued that increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance was a greater priority than building so many homes.

“A better way beyond, say, building the first 100,000 or 200,000 social housing homes, will probably be to increase rent assistance instead,” he said. 

Survey reveals renters backed Labor, Greens

YouGov polled almost 6,000 voters during the election campaign.

That polling showed young renters strongly backed Labor and the Greens over the Coalition, YouGov data scientist Shaun Ratcliff said.

“Voters [who] don’t own their own homes are almost half as likely to vote for the Coalition than voters [who] do own their own homes,” he said.

“This is particularly the case with younger voters, so those aged 18 to 34, those [who] own their own homes, about 30 per cent or slightly more, voted for the Coalition.

“But, [for] 18 to 34-year-old voters [who] don’t own their own homes, that number was closer to something like 17 per cent. 

Voters in Wentworth at North Bondi Primary School
YouGov data scientist Shaun Ratcliff says the proportion of voters who rent or aren’t homeowners is going up at every election.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

The YouGov polling also showed 38 per cent of older people who don’t own their own home and are aged between 35 and 64 supported Labor, compared to only 24 per cent for the Coalition.

Renters on high incomes also avoided the Coalition.

Mr Ratcliff said the high proportion of renters in key seats — such as Higgins in Melbourne and Wentworth in Sydney — hurt the Coalition.

“We’ve got seats like Higgins in Melbourne, that was [former treasurer] Peter Costello’s seat,” he said. 

“One of the reasons why the Labor Party was able to win that off the Liberal Party was because there’s a large number of renters in the western part of the seat, younger renters in particular.”

Policies targeting supply and affordability

The Albanese government has promised to build 30,000 social and affordable homes over five years.

Labor will also establish a council to try to increase supply and affordability.

Economist Brendan Coates calls it a big step forward, however, Ms Noyce said much more was needed.

An aerial view of houses in Melbourne.
The Labor government plans to establish a council to try to increase supply and affordability of houses.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown)

“Our membership have voted to see public housing expanded and improved, and we need the federal government to fund that in an exponential way,” she said. 

“We need to see urgent action to regulate the rental market.”

Brendan Coates said more reform could help ease the housing crisis.

“There is an agenda that would materially make a difference, and that would be for the federal government to look at paying the states to boost the supply of housing by fixing planning rules that make it hard to build homes where people want to live,” he said.

Renter Rosie Wallis wants all political parties to do more to address the stark reality of being locked out of home ownership.

“I’d like them to be making policy that considers many, many people who have rented their whole lives, may rent their whole lives.”

Watch this 7.30 story tonight on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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