The prospect of homelessness has become a looming reality for many thousands of low to modest income earners in regional Victoria due to excessive rent hikes and the lack of social and affordable housing.
Anglicare Victoria Ballarat community development worker Kim Boyd said the process of acquiring a rental property in the region had become, for many, "horrible and soul-destroying".
"In just the last fortnight, we've spoken to two single mothers who were forced to sleep in their cars because they were out of options," Ms Boyd said.
"We've seen a significant rise in the number of people seeking assistance because of insecure housing in the past year, particularly since [job-seeker] payments were cut."
The experience on the ground corresponds with new research by the ACOSS and UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership, which found market pressures had combined to push an estimated 400,000 families in Australia to the brink of homelessness.
The report found private rents started to increase from mid-2020, reversing a trend experienced in some inner-city suburbs at the beginning of the pandemic. In the year to August 2021, rent prices surged by an average 9 per cent across the country, the fastest rise for over a decade.
Regional areas, however, were hardest hit, with some places experiencing rent rises in excess of 12 per cent.
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In Victoria, rent increased by an average of 7.2 per cent in metropolitan areas, compared with 9.4 per cent in regional areas, far out-pacing average wage growth, which sits at less than two per cent.
ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the rent crisis had forced many to "stay in circumstances that are not healthy or safe."
"Community organisations across the country are telling us about the growing level of despair experienced by people trying and failing to find affordable accommodation for their families," Dr Goldie said.
The report found the disproportionate rise in rent experienced in regional areas in part owed to the influx of city-dwellers who had moved during the pandemic. But it said it was more closely related to reduced turnover of existing rental stock and a lack of new housing supply.
According to the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, the rental vacancy rate in the Ballarat and Central Highlands region sits at 1.7 per cent. A healthy market, by contrast, ordinarily has a vacancy rate of around 3 per cent.
Meanwhile, the report noted that the lack of affordable rental housing currently experienced in regional areas, though acute, was a continuation of a trend which pre-dates the pandemic.
In Victoria, the size of the private rental market either flat-lined or declined in the three years to March 2020, with the proportion of regional lettings within reach of low-income households falling from 58 per cent to 41 per cent.
Since then, the private rental supply in regional Victoria has contracted by 15 per cent, with the proportion of affordable dwellings for low-income households falling further still to 33 per cent.
But Children and Family Services Ballarat chief executive Wendy Sturgess cast doubt on the reliability of that number. Ms Sturgess said that while one in three properties theoretically remain within reach of low-income households, the competition for private rentals had frozen many out of the market.
"With higher demand, landlords in these times are proving to be a lot more choosey [in their choice of tenant]," Ms Sturgess said.
"If you don't have a job, you're more likely to be rejected."
Ms Sturgess said she had noticed a marked increase in the number of first-time users of homelessness services provided by CAFS.
"What's alarming is that we're seeing many more people than ever requesting help who have never been in the situation before."
State-wide, nearly 53,000 social housing applicants were registered on Victoria's housing waiting list in September. Of these, 2360 were from the Ballarat and Central Highlands region.
The Victorian government announced a $1 billion social housing growth fund in February, which will deliver a net increase of 8200 new dwellings to the state's social housing stock by 2025.
Dr Goldie, however, said that state resources for public housing, though welcome, typically fell short of what was required to meet demand.
"With such a chronic shortage of affordable homes, the resources they are putting towards social and affordable housing are just not enough to meet existing demand, let alone future need," she said.
"We need the federal government to step up and step back into this space and do some heavy lifting to both address the massive social housing shortfall and meet the future needs of a growing and ageing population."
ACOSS has called on the federal government to resume its "historic role" as the main provider of social housing developments. It has also recommended the Commonwealth Rent Assistance payment to low-income households be increased by 50 per cent.
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