Five foundations for youth housing

24 February 2015 | Posted In: #124 Autumn 2015, Housing Affordability, Housing Types and Issues, Human Service Delivery, Youth, | Author: Chris Stone

youth2There are undeniably large challenges facing young people trying to move into their own home. The term ‘housing crisis’ is becoming commonplace, and the crisis is particularly acute for young people. Chris Stone explores the housing options needed to prevent youth homelessness.

Due to a substantial and continuing increase to the average cost of a house relative to the average income, getting a mortgage to own your own home is a long way off for many young people – and for a growing number will never be possible. In other countries where long term renting is more common the legal structure tends to give tenants greater security and there are options such as 99-year leases. In Australia the social and legal assumption is that renting is a short term arrangement while you save for a mortgage deposit, but this is an increasingly false assumption. Home ownership rates are decreasing and terms such as ‘generation rent’ are being coined.

Renting is not free from challenges. Young people are staying longer with their parents and this is partly, perhaps mostly, driven by financial considerations. Rents have increased along with housing prices and the rental market has become more competitive meaning that young people find it hard to get a tenancy, as older tenants with more established incomes are usually preferred by real estate agents.

Other factors compound these problems. Youth unemployment is high and the level of qualifications required for many jobs is going up, requiring longer periods as a student with little or no income. Also, more and more entry-level jobs require experience, meaning that voluntary and unpaid internship work must be undertaken. It is becoming more common for young people to remain partially financial dependant for years after moving out. Of course these are the fortunate young people able to draw on family resources.

For young people from low income families, such ongoing support may not be possible. Increasing numbers of low income households are in ‘renting stress’ with more than 30% of their income needed just for the roof over their heads. Factors such as domestic abuse and family background can force a young person to live independently well before they can generate sufficient income to do so. A housing crisis is, for the least fortunate, a homelessness crisis.

All this paints a dark picture, but young people are often surprisingly resourceful and resilient. We as a society can support their resilience and enable them to overcome the challenges that face them. Suitable housing alternatives can play a significant role. We need to ensure our young people have a place to call home, but home is more than just a dwelling. It is difficult to call a place home when your safety there is threatened or when you may be forced to leave at any time. A place where you cannot be physically and mentally well is not a home. Nor is a place where you feel isolated from friends, family and community – the absence of such support networks will mean that what home you have may be lost when challenges arise. Similarly a home with no access to employment opportunities and the education to get and keep a job is unlikely to remain a home for long.

Yfoundations has for the past 35 years been working with young people, and the community services that help them, to develop strategies to combat youth homelessness. We frame the issue by talking about five ‘foundations’ to end youth homelessness: Safety and Security, Home and Place, Health and Wellness, Connections, and Employment and Education. These foundations help clarify both the problems and the solutions. Without the foundations a young person cannot be said to have a home, with them they have not only a home, but the ability to keep it.

The five foundations suggest a number of possible changes to the physical, legal and social structures of housing:

Safety and Security: Certainty over occupancy is important to being able to emotionally invest in a place as a home. The growing impossibility for many of obtaining the security of home ownership means that alternatives need to be provided; for example, increasing the viability of other forms of ‘ownership’ such as lend-leasing and 99-year lease arrangements are possibilities. Alternatively, many countries have strong public or community housing systems (subsidised housing provided to low income families as long-term or permanent homes). Australia is increasingly moving to a model where public and community housing is regarded as a temporary privilege, provided to help a person get into the private rental market (as long as they obey behaviour guidelines). Perhaps this change needs to be resisted, and an acknowledgement made that subsidised secure housing is required to satisfy the human right to a home for all Australians. However, to do this would require significant investment to increase the public and community housing stock back to historical levels or beyond.

Home and Place: A physical place of shelter that a person can emotionally invest in as a home is required. In general the availability of dwelling stock needs to be increased, and we need creative ways to achieve this. Thinking about what young people need in a home can provide some room for innovation. For example, young people (increasingly even including couples and young families) are more willing to enter share housing. Some even prefer it. This allows for denser living conditions. It may be possible to encourage development of low-cost housing in inner city areas by allowing dedicated youth housing with standards that permit higher density while still protecting what young people need in a home.

Health and Wellness: Denser forms of housing can cause problems for the physical and mental health of residents if sensible regulations are not in place. Boarding houses, traditionally housing mostly unmarried men, have for many years seen an increase in usage by students and young single parents. This industry was substantially unregulated and some horrendous and dangerous practices existed in some residences. There have been some improvement in the regulations in recent years, and despite protests by some in the industry there is no evidence that these rules have significantly damaged the viability of these businesses. More needs to be done to enforce and strengthen these regulations to ensure they provide adequate homes.

Connections: Feeling a connection to friends, family, community and/or the broader society is an important part of feeling at home. The presence of informal support networks can provide critical help when tough times arise. Such help will often be given well before a young person is willing to try and obtain support. Early assistance can stop a small problem becoming significant, reducing the demand for support from government or charities. New mediums for maintaining such networks now exist, such as social media and the internet broadly. The provision of an internet connection through free public wi-fi spots or subsidised NBN access may be a cost-effect way of avoiding more costly later assistance. Of course, face-to-face interactions remain important and so a variety of youth-friendly public spaces are needed. These can range from skate parks to a place to park a pram and get a cheap coffee (invaluable to young single parents).

Education and Employment: Without the income from employment (and thus without the education increasingly needed to obtain such employment) a young person will not be able to get and keep a home. There are also significant benefits to personal development and mental well-being that come from employment and education themselves. As with social connections, learning and work are increasingly pursued online and so internet access is important, but in-person interactions remain significant. This means that access to places of employment, campuses and public transport are critical. Well-thought out zoning and further investment in public transport is becoming increasingly important as vehicle running costs rise and rates of young people holding driving licences and owning cars decrease.

Many, perhaps all, of the potential changes suggested here have practical difficulties. However, these practical difficulties have practical solutions. Efforts need to be devoted to developing such solutions, or better alternative changes, if we are going to address the acute youth housing crisis, and the youth homelessness crisis it is ultimately driving.

Chris Stone is Senior Policy Officer at Yfoundations –