Brianna Muir, 28, has no idea what she would do if she were to be evicted.
She lives with her daughter in a three-bedroom house in Berkeley, just south of Wollongong on the NSW South Coast. She pays $340 a week in rent, which leaves her with about $160 a week for everything else.
Muir has been on Newstart since her daughter turned eight six months ago. The unemployment benefit pays up to $601.10 a fortnight to single parents. She also receives the Family Tax Benefit.
Muir hasn’t been able to find a job within school hours, and after-school care would be too expensive, she said. Searching for suitable jobs — Newstart recipients must apply for 20 a month — after eight years of not working is “very confronting, very nerve-wracking”, she told BuzzFeed News.
Muir also receives Commonwealth Rent Assistance, the supplement for recipients of income support who rent. For single parents with one or two kids, the maximum Rent Assistance payment is $161.14 each fortnight.
All up, with child support, her income is about $1,000 per fortnight.
Living on her budget is not easy. She avoids meat, relying on a fortnightly veggie hamper from a local charity. “I just make sure that the rent and bills are paid and then whatever’s left over, we just kind of work with,” she said.
When Muir moved in, her rent was considered expensive for Berkeley, a relatively disadvantaged area (she had a flatmate to ease the cost). But thanks to a “really good landlord” her rent hasn’t gone up in six years, and now she thinks she’d struggle to find another place for a similar price. “I’ve just watched the rent go up around me,” she said.
“If we lost this house, I honestly don’t know,” Muir said. “We would have to look at some sort of share house arrangement maybe.”
Rent Assistance has been “woefully low” for a long time, according to National Shelter executive officer Adrian Pisarski, who is calling for it to be raised by 40%.
One reason is that as rents have steeply increased over the years, Rent Assistance has not kept up because it is pegged to the Consumer Price Index.
Of the 1.3 million people receiving Rent Assistance, over 40% are in rental stress — meaning over 30% of their income goes on rent.
The situation is particularly bad for people on Newstart, like Muir. In mid-2018, over 60% of Newstart recipients getting Rent Assistance were in rental stress, and a quarter were spending at least half their income on rent.
The numbers are also dire for students on Youth Allowance. Nearly three-quarters (74.1%) are in rental stress, and well over a third (40.7%) are spending more than half their income on rent.
The worst affected age group across all welfare payments is the young: recent data revealed that 57.4% of young people aged 24 years or under receiving Rent Assistance were experiencing housing affordability stress.
Ashley Cain-Grey, 24, took two gap years to be able to afford to move to Sydney for his degree. After school, he spent two years working in a pharmacy in his home town of Armidale in order to qualify as “independent” for Youth Allowance.
Now studying commerce and media at the University of New South Wales, Cain-Grey told BuzzFeed News Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance have “never actually paid for my rent”.
“Obviously it helps to get me over the line, but if I were to just use the amount I get, which is on average about $570 a fortnight, I’ve never actually had a rental that has been at that price — let alone taking into account money for food, etc.”
Cain-Grey is currently paying $275 a week to live in a share house with three others. It’s $30 cheaper than his last rental, which was closer to campus.
He considers himself lucky to have found a good quality property for that price. “When we were searching they could be expensive, like $280 or $300, and not that great,” he said. “The rooms would be tiny, or really oddly shaped. And then if you wanted a good quality house you had to pay through the nose for it.”
Even with this cheaper rent, Cain-Grey said it is difficult to get by, and it would be impossible for anyone in Sydney to rely on Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance without working on the side.
Balancing study and casual work has come at a cost to his studies, he said. He has dropped down classes to be able to manage, which has meant his degree, and his reliance on Youth Allowance, have lasted longer than he planned.
Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients on Rent Assistance are particularly prone to housing affordability struggles because their rents have to be higher before they qualify for the payment, according to Anglicare’s deputy national director Roland Manderson.
Whereas pensioners qualify when their rent is 13% of their income, rent must be at least 27% of income for Youth Allowance recipients. “If you’re on Youth Allowance you are in rental stress even before you start,” he said.
While Manderson describes a Rent Assistance increase as “urgent”, he told BuzzFeed News it needs to come along with more social housing supply.
Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot showed this week that only two properties out of 69,000 in the country were affordable for someone on Newstart or Youth Allowance.
“There’s a good argument to be made that in a tight rental market, part of what increasing Rent Assistance does is goes to increased rent,” Manderson said. Addressing the supply side too would mean low-income renters “wouldn’t be competing for such a scarce resources."
Neither major party has pledged to increase Rent Assistance. Labor’s rental affordability plans have centred on policies to encourage the private sector to build 250,000 new affordable homes and tax incentives encouraging more build-to-rent projects. Meanwhile, the Coalition is arguing that Labor’s plans to partially wind back negative gearing would increase rents.
Muir believes that politicians have “no concept of what it’s like to live so close to the bone”.
“To have your bank account hit zero days and days before payday and have to think, ‘How am I going to get through to the next pay day?’”
Increasing Rent Assistance would help, she said. “It’s at the point when every dollar makes a difference.”