Single women aged 55 and over are overrepresented amongst the asset poor in Australia. They are also one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people nationally. This is a product of a number of gendered risks that accrue to women across the life course, including through gendered differences in pay, superannuation and care responsibilities. It is also an outcome of a housing system that offers few options to low income households, typified by a private rental market that is often unaffordable and insecure and growing social housing waiting lists. These factors drive an often precarious experience of housing.

The project Ageing, home and housing security among single, asset-poor older women investigates the housing and home-making experiences of older women living in and around greater Sydney, Australia. It questions how housing policy and governance and ongoing housing mobility inform how single asset-poor older women create a sense of home and security and explores the stability of women’s senses of home, security and belonging as they negotiated asset and income insecurity.

This research has motivated my growing concern with questions of care. It has driven my interrogation of the care ethics that inform housing systems and informed a growing agenda of research concerned with the possibility of more caring and just cities.

The research was funded through an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellowship and supported by Western Sydney University.
The research built on an earlier partnership with the former UnitingCare Ageing NSW.ACT Examining innovations in aged care: affordable housing, healthy ageing, which investigated residents’ experiences of an innovative housing model designed for single low income, asset poor older women.

A review was undertaken of key ageing and age-related housing strategy papers released by the Australian Federal government between 1996 and 2015. Twenty documents of three types were reviewed. These include: those that detail a national ageing strategy (including both government authored and commissioned reports from the Advisory Panel on the Economic Potential of Older Australians; reports by government bodies, ministers and departments (for example, Department of Treasury, Ministers of Ageing and related, and other Senate Committee reports); Productivity Commission reports (for full details of all reviewed documents see Power 2017a: 237).

Interviews were conducted with key informants at housing and ageing advocacy organisations including peak bodies and managers at not-for-profit housing companies. Interviews explored the key issues and policy trends impacting the housing opportunities of single, asset-poor, low-income older women. Interviewed explored how key ageing and housing policies affect women’s experiences of housing, housing choices, and ability to make home.

In-depth interviews and housing biographies were recorded with single women aged 55 and over living in a low income across diverse housing contexts in the greater Sydney region, Australia. Forty-six women took part in the research.

Respondents typically lived in private rental or social housing when they took part in an interview. Many of the social housing tenants had lived in the private rental sector before gaining their social tenancy. Some participants had experienced homelessness and a number were living or had recently lived in transitional or sheltered housing such as a homeless or family violence shelter.

The research was qualitative by design. There are substantial policy scoping and affordability analyses that indicate the scope of affordability and security challenges impacting low income and older renters (Easthope 2014; Faulkner & Fieldler 2017; Fieldler & Faulkner 2019, 2017; Hulse et al. 2011; Hulse et al. 2014; Jones et al. 2004, 2007; Petersen et al. 2014; Short et al. 2008). The purpose of this research was to build on that body of knowledge to develop in-depth knowledge of women’s experiences of housing. Methodologically this required in-depth, semi-structured interviews to explore the detail of women’s housing experiences. Participant recruitment continued until data saturation was achieved.

The research was in two phases. Twenty-three women took part in phase 1, recording a detailed housing biography and experiences making and moving home. An additional twenty-three women took part in phase 2. In this phase women were invited to briefly recount their housing biography before focusing in greater depth on key themes that emerged in phase 1, including: experiences making and moving home, experiences of housing security and quality, searching for and applying for housing, and landlord – tenant relationships. Experiences moving house were explored across both phases of the research. Data were analysed to identify core dimensions of women’s housing experiences across tenure using analysis software QSR NVivo.

Older women in the Private Rental Sector: Unaffordable, Substandard and insecure housing

Single older women aged 55 and over are overrepresented amongst the asset poor in Australia. They are also one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people nationally. This status is a product of a number of risks that accrue to women across the life course including gendered differences in pay and superannuation. It is also a product of an unaffordable and insecure private rental system. This report presents the experiences of single older women living on low incomes in the private rental sector within and around the Greater Sydney region, Australia. It presents their efforts to make home and meet their essential needs in a segment of the housing market where rising rents and short lease terms of six to twelve months are the norm. First, the report presents women’s experiences of unaffordable housing. Older women renters face difficulties finding appropriate, quality housing. High housing costs have implications for budget management, including the ability to buy sufficient nutritious food and manage utility bills. Further, affordable housing is often of low or degraded quality. Second, the report presents women’s experiences of housing insecurity. Rent increases and evictions often required women to move house. Women described the challenges moving house and how these challenges compounded over time through multiple experiences of unchosen and unplanned relocations. Ongoing housing insecurity drives interconnected financial, physical and emotional costs.

Report - Older women in the private rental sector

A project report presenting the stories of single older women living on low incomes in the private rental sector within and around the Greater Sydney region, Australia will be released in 2020. The report will present women’s experiences of unaffordable and insecure housing and make five recommendations for necessary changes to Australia’s income support system and private rental systems.

Academic publications

  • Power, ER (in press) Mobility-based disadvantage in older age: insecure housing and the risks of moving house., Ageing & Society.
  • Power ER & Gillon CW (in press) How housing tenure drives household care strategies and practices., Social & Cultural Geography,
  • Power and Williams (2020) Cities of care: A platform for urban geographical care research, Geography Compass, 14, 1: 1-11.
  • Power ER & Mee KJ (2020) Housing: an infrastructure of care, Housing Studies, 35, 3: 484-404.
  • Power ER (2019) Assembling the capacity to care: Caring-with precarious housing, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44, 4: 763-777.
  • Power ER & Bergan TL (2018) Care and Resistance to Neoliberal Reform in Social Housing, Housing, Theory and Society: 1-23.
  • Power ER (2017) Housing, home ownership and the governance of ageing The Geographical Journal, 183, 3: 233-246.

Public commentary

Media – Radio

  • Older women tell heartbreaking stories of rental stress, ABC PM across Australia.
  • Older women in housing crisis as experts appeal for rental law overhaul, 2GB.
  • Older women struggling in the private rental sector, 2SER (at 46'00").
  • The Future of Renting in Australia , ABC Radio National Breakfast.
  • Older women in the private rental sector: unaffordable, substandard and insecure housing report released, news briefs on 2GB, ABC NewsRadio, 702 ABC Sydney, 774 ABC Melbourne, 666 ABC Canberra, 936 ABC Hobart, 612 ABC Brisbane, ABC Sunshine Coast, 720 ABC Perth, 1233 ABC Newcastle, ABC Upper Hunter AM, ABC Central Coast NSW, ABC Coffs Coast, ABC North Coast NSW, ABC North and West SA, ABC Goulburn Murray, ABC Illawarra, 891 ABC Adelaide, ABC Broken Hill, ABC Alice Springs, 105.7 ABC Darwin, smooth fm91.5 Melbourne, amongst others.
  • ABC Central West, Mornings - discussing life as an older renter.
  • ABC Radio Illawarra, Breakfasts - discussing the housing risks facing single older women who are not homeowners in the Illawarra region.
  • ABC Radio Sydney 5pm News - discussing Census 2016 release - Median weekly rent has increased faster than median weekly income. Single-person and single parent households are among the most affected.
  • ABC Radio Newcastle 5pm News - discussing Census 2016 release - there is a need for flexible and affordable housing options to accommodate families living on a single income.
  • ABC Radio Canberra Drive - discussing the need for greater security in the rental market and arguing for three key policy changes in tenancy legislation.
  • ABC Radio Brisbane Statewide Evenings program - discussing the changes needed to make renting more affordable and secure in Australia.

Media – Print

Public talks and engagements

  • Renting in later life at Make Renting Fair forum, Parliament House NSW, October 2018.
  • Housing as a care infrastructure at National Homelessness Conference, Older people and homelessness panel, Melbourne, 6-7 August 2018.
  • Assembling caring capacity, keynote at Cities of Care Symposium, University of Melbourne, 2018.
  • Homeownership and the governance of ageing, keynote at Ageing on the Edge in NSW – A State of Crisis for Older Renters report launch, National Housing Conference, Darling Harbour, Sydney, 2017.
  • Bridging housing and home: older women’s housing security, at Older women and violence: innovative policies, programs and practices symposium, Older Women’s Network (OWN) and School of Social Sciences & Psychology, Western Sydney University, September, 2016.
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