15 May 2019
You’d have to be a neophyte in the ways of social media and online news to have avoided the hashtag #MyMum over the last week. Sparked by a comments made by the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in relation to his late mother and the intellectual pursuits she delayed in order to singlehandedly raise her young family, #MyMum spontaneously galvanised users who paid tribute to their mothers and grandmothers who had the smarts to pursue a myriad of dreams but were prevented from doing so in their own time.
While highlighting these stories of selflessness and resilience makes for compelling reading, it has also inadvertently brought to surface how opportunity denied at a younger age can be a precursor to poverty, crisis and cycles of disadvantaged in later years. A cycle that has predominantly featured in the lives of older women.
And it’s not as if we didn’t know this was coming. In 2010, social researcher and housing academic Dr Andrea Sharam warned that “in terms of scale, poor, single, baby boomer women represent a tsunami of homelessness that is on its way to our shore. And it will be a humanitarian disaster”. Almost a decade later, the tsunami is here.
Older women now represent the fastest growing cohort of Australia’s homeless. In the ACT between 2016-17, women accounted for more than half of the people accessing specialist homelessness and housing services. Furthermore, 55 per cent of women homeowners who are forced to leave their homes due to domestic and family violence, report becoming homeless in 12 months. And as the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute reported in April this year, the existing support framework for those experiencing DFV does not compensate for the absence of affordable housing – women and children fleeing violence are often forced to choose between homelessness and returning to their abusive partners.
Compounding an already precarious situation, older women will often find themselves at the mercy of the private rental market; competitively cutthroat in a city with a less than 1 per cent vacancy rate and simply unaffordable to those whose retirement savings reflect the careers and opportunities they were denied during the era of legalised workplace sexual discrimination and exclusion many of them grew up in.
As the Director of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, Felicity Reynolds reminded us recently at a YWCA Canberra breakfast to fundraise for our housing services; in the 60s we made women resign when they got married, in the 70s we made them resign when they got pregnant. Women were never in a position to create their own independence and then we said, “thank you very much for your service older women of Australia, you are now homeless”.
For YWCA Canberra this is the significance of #MyMum; that while we celebrate women’s resilience, we must come to appreciate how perilously close some can be to homelessness and crises. For many of our own mothers, illness, separation, job loss or the death of a spouse can compound the effects of the structural inequality that has already left them with 47 per cent less super than their male peers. And as their housing crisis is the manifestation of inequality, older women often do not have complex needs meaning they can be ineligible for traditional housing models.
For YWCA Canberra, addressing older women’s homelessness and housing crisis has been a longstanding policy priority. As a registered community housing provider, YWCA Canberra has been providing affordable housing and supportive tenancy services for women and families in Canberra for 60 years. And we are evolving our services to better meet the needs of this growing cohort.
Rentwell is the first charitable property management service in the ACT to provide affordable rental accommodation to Canberrans on low incomes. As a philanthropic model, Rentwell also provides those who own investment properties the opportunity to change someone’s life in a tangible way.
This model was made possible by recent changes to revenue legislation passed unanimously by the AC Legislative Assembly that provides land tax exemptions for investment property owners who lease their properties through registered community housing providers at less than 75 per cent market rent. As a registered charity, investors who choose Rentwell as their property management service, are also eligible for tax-deductible gift receipts for any forgone rent (the gap between the market rate and the discounted rate).
Through Rentwell, Canberrans who do not have complex service needs and who are struggling to afford market rents, but who earn too much to be eligible for other forms of housing support will have access to viable, long-term housing options. One property owner who has already signed her property over to the Rentwell scheme acknowledges she’s fortunate enough to be able to give back, but there was a time in her earlier life as a single mother, where a service like Rentwell was desperately needed. Today, she is living her values and choosing to invest her property through Rentwell because she wants to be part of the solution.
As with other viral social media threads, #MyMum and the collective appreciation it generated for the older women who came before us will eventually dissipate only to be replaced by the next sensation. But while the tributes of personal resilience, selflessness and adversity will fade the experience of those whose stories will continue to impact on the lives of older women, whose housing crisis we must address.
YWCA Canberra is a feminist not for profit organisation that has provided community services and represented women’s issues in Canberra since 1929. It celebrates its 90th Anniversary this year.
We provide children’s services, community development, homelessness and affordable housing, youth services, emergency relief and material aid, personal and professional training, women’s leadership and advocacy. YWCA Canberra is part of the World YWCA network, which connects 120 countries across the globe.