If you asked the majority of Australians about housing, many would picture a three or four-bedroom detached home and a nice garden on a quarter acre block.

What they may not picture is holes in the wall, an absence of heating or cooling or an infestation of rodents.

Nevertheless, such conditions may in fact be more common than often thought. Hard data is scarce as the last survey on housing conditions by the Australian Bureau of Statistics took place in 1999.

Nevertheless, a research team led by associate professor Emma Baker from the School of Architecture at the University of Adelaide is providing some instructive indications about the scale and magnitude of the problem. To gauge a reading of the overall size of the challenge, the team analysed the results of ratings of the external conditions of dwellings which were performed as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics survey conducted by the University of Melbourne.

The results are startling. Based upon their analysis, the researchers concluded that more than one million Australians were living in poor quality housing and at least 100,000 were in extremely poor housing. The analysis represents the first step of a more detailed project through which the researchers are now in the process of speaking to 4,500 people about the main problems within their homes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baker says the majority of housing which the researchers picked up as being substandard was concentrated within the rental sector (both public and private). She says the problem was largely hidden from many within mainstream Australia.

“In Australia we have almost no idea what the condition of our housing is like,” she said.

“There is a big history of Australia being a nation with great housing and lots of people owning housing, and many of us own detached properties with a yard and fairly good quality relative to other houses around the world. It’s actually such a dominant view that we don’t even measure it anymore.

“The last Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on housing conditions was in 1999. Since 1999, a lot has been going on in the housing market and we really have no idea about what is going on underneath.”

Despite the limitations regarding hard data, anecdotal evidence supports the notion that Australia does have a problem in this area. Earlier this year in Victoria, for example Consumer Affairs Victoria published the results of a survey it performed into the experiences of tenants, landlords and property agents. Assuming the results of that survey are representative of conditions across the estimated 515,585 properties which were rented in that state as of the 2011 Census, the Council for Homeless Persons estimates that across that one state’s rental market alone:

  • more than 92,000 properties are not heated
  • 10,312 have no electricity
  • 15,486 have no running water
  • 25,779 have no toilet
  • 41,247 have no shower
  • 56,714 have no access to a stove or oven
  • 82,494 do not have locks on all external doors

Moreover, welfare and community groups talk of severe problems on the ground. In remote areas, Mission Australia head of policy Marion Bennett points out, there are many cases of multiple indigenous families living together under one roof. In one case, nine families were living in one house. Even in urban areas, there is at least one case in Sydney where a family was sleeping in a garage.

Tenants Union of Victoria policy officer Yaelle Caspi says her members’ experiences include severe structural issues; cracks and holes in the walls, floors and ceilings causing drafts and infestation of pests; poor electrical and gas safety; faulty appliances; faulty heaters or properties with no heating; plumbing problems and faulty hot water systems; and chronic problems with mould. Most commonly, Caspi said, at-risk groups include those on low incomes and disadvantaged groups such as those with disabilities, no work and indigenous Australians.

All this has flow-on impacts. Children living in housing without adequate space, lighting or heating have an unsatisfactory environment in which to do homework. Those without adequate washing and cooking facilities cannot be expected to maintain any form of reasonable diet or hygiene. Children who grow up in poor quality houses are likely to feel embarrassed; asked whether or not they felt comfortable inviting friends over to their home as part of a Mission Australia Youth Survey last year, more than one in 10 children said that they would not. Presumably, children who live in poor quality homes would be likely targets for school bullying. Many families who live with mold experience sickness.

Why is this happening? There are a few issues on which many experts agree.

First and foremost is the lack of affordable housing. Whilst much of the media commentary focuses around home ownership, less attention is given to the affordability of rental property for those on extremely low incomes. Here the situation is dire. Of more than 75,000 properties listed on the rental market around Australia which were analysed by Anglicare on one weekend in early April, only 4.7 per cent were affordable to a single person on the minimum wage, 4.3 per cent were affordable to age pensioner couples, 2.1 per cent were affordable to singes living on the age pension and 0.5 per cent were affordable for singles living on the disability support pension.

Most appallingly, just 21 of the 75,410 properties listed were affordable to those on the Newstart Allowance and just one was affordable to those on a Youth Allowance. With such limited choice available, those in such positions have little choice but to accept what they can find irrespective of its condition.

This shortage of affordable properties is also driving an imbalance of power at the bottom end of the housing scale between landlord and tenant. With little in the way of alternative accommodation, a significant number of tenants fear retribution and eviction if they complain and therefore tolerate unsatisfactory conditions. Landlords, meanwhile, face little pressure at that end of the market to bring homes up to scratch as tenants who do not like the condition of their home and move out are easily replaceable.

Related to that, there is regulation. Speaking particularly of the situation in Victoria, Caspi said that whilst consumers are protected by legislation with minimum standards when purchasing goods at a store, no such protection exists in housing. There are no minimum requirements for rental properties and no rules which stop unsatisfactory properties being offered.

In public housing, meanwhile, a long-term pull-back in investment has depleted stock and slashed the amount of money available to replenish dwellings within existing portfolios.

Poor design can also be a factor, Baker argues. The design of some properties at the lower end of the market is such that it does not facilitate the installation of efficient heating systems. Many of these houses will also not have insulation in the walls, she adds.

On a broader level, Baker points out that Australia does not have a national standard to define acceptable housing quality.

Finally, whilst the majority of the problems occur in the rental market, Community Housing Ltd national manager Brett Wake says issues still occur for owner occupiers. As house prices and mortgages expand, some households who have stretched themselves financially may struggle with undertaking significant repairs. Elderly citizens who may be frail and living on a fixed income can also struggle to keep up with necessary maintenance.

Broad agreement exists about the need to expand the supply of affordable housing. Regulation to ensure that housing on offer in the private rental market is subject to minimum requirements for safety and liveability is also needed, Caspi argues.

Beyond that, many experts suggest that Australia should stop relying upon the private market to cater for those at the lower end of the scale and that efforts should be undertaken to ramp up investment in public housing and community housing. Whilst government itself has significant issues associated with maintenance liabilities, Wake says there is an opportunity to engage with community housing providers who can bring private finance to the table.

“There is the conservative argument that the market will fix it,” he said. “The market won’t fix it for the people who we deal with.”

Finally, Wake says Australia needed to change how we see public investment within the housing sector.

“From my point of view, we should stop thinking about it (housing provision) as welfare and start thinking about it as essential infrastructure so that like bridges, hospitals, roads and schools, we are making sure that there is sufficient funds and sufficient resources to provide affordable housing for a whole range of people, particularly in cities,” he said.