When Liang’s* landlords told her last year that they were going to sell the house she lived in, they gave her more notice than most – a full six months.
It was the only thing that allowed her to get ahead.
“I was scared,” Liang told Guardian Australia. “In my local area people were posting [on social media] that they’d applied for 50 houses and been knocked back for all of them. I’m not even in a two-income family. I was worried about becoming homeless.”
So Liang, 49, who works in hospital-based healthcare in Melbourne, started saving as much as she could.
“I found this property and I got the impression there were over 50 applicants for this one place. As a single mother, I don’t think I was at the top of the list but I wrote a cover letter for my application and within it I said I could give three months rent in advance,” Liang said.
“I worked so, so hard to save up … It was recommended I do this because there is so much competition.”
Her new landlord eventually told her she didn’t need to pay that rent in advance, but prices had risen so much in general that Liang was paying $450 more a month for the house she now lives in with her three children than she had been in the old one.
Tenants around Australia are straining under the weight of pandemic-era rent rises, with triple digit increases in parts of regional New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, and costs of living soaring beyond the reach of wage increases.
Single parents, 82% of whom are sole-parenting mothers, are particularly feeling the strain.
For Melanie*, who moved back in with her parents in the Blue Mountains after her relationship ended, the hunt for somewhere to live in the area has been going on for 12 months.
“Generally you get told there are 60 other applicants for every house,” she said. “And of course, being a single mum, you don’t really have a competitive edge compared to a lot of couples.”
Melanie said she was expecting to have to pay $500 a week – about 58% of the approximately $850 a week that she was able to bring in through a combination of Centrelink payments, which meant appropriate houses were “severely unaffordable”, according to the schema provided by the Rental Affordability Index.
Finding a house that would suit her and her two primary school-age children for less than that was tough, she said.
“I also have a dog, so that makes things a little bit more difficult, because a lot of people discriminate against pets,” Melanie said. “But I couldn’t get rid of her. My kids and I would be devastated.”
Giving up the family pet is just one of the unthinkable choices that families are being forced to make, not out of desire but desperation thanks to skyrocketing rents, said Terese Edwards, chief executive of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children.
“I think [the rental market] is the most bleak and fierce that I’ve witnessed in over 12 years,” said Edwards.
“Vacancies are incredibly minimal, there is a lot of competition for them, and a lot of time and emotion is spent trying to find secure accommodation. I’m hearing from a lot of women who have already really reduced their needs and ambitions, and they are still missing out.”
Parenthood has knock-on effects on the incomes and tenancy options for many women, particularly those who may have taken time off from work in order to look after children, or who don’t have recent rental histories, having either left a relationship in which they owned property as a couple – with assets often whittled away due to protracted family court proceedings – or not having been a signatory to a previous lease.
In these cases, women can have trouble proving they are able to pay the rent, or demonstrating any kind of rental history.
Women who left abusive relationships also said that the trauma and complications of that process affected their ability to work, and therefore their tenancy applications.
Liang said she would prefer to have a permanent part-time job, and was even offered one by her employer, but could not accept it, as she needed the flexibility of casual work to be able to drop shifts to manage the administrative and emotional burdens of navigating her ex-partner’s ongoing demands of her.
“Domestic violence rules my life. There are times when I can’t actually work because I’m too distressed dealing with this stuff,” said Liang. “When things like this happen, you can’t function. These things cripple you, they just mentally cripple you.”
In these times, Liang falls back on Centrelink payments, but this comes with added complications.
“They insist that I have to come in and find a job. I have a job, I don’t need help finding a job, but they don’t hear that, they insist I come in and apply for jobs,” Liang said.
Edwards said housing needed to be “front and centre” of the forthcoming federal election.
“I don’t think the initiatives coming out have really targeted those most in need,” she said, pointing to the huge gap in affordable housing stock, especially since the phase-out of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, and the long waiting lists for social housing.
Those juggling single parenthood and financial hardship needed more affordable housing options and government subsidies to help them manage basic costs, Edwards said. “For instance, we need to look at how we can better support people who are living in hardship to actually move house, so that they don’t go to a payday lender for the removalist, or throw their items out because they can’t afford to move them.”
Incentives for landlords to lease to families with dependent children would also help, Edwards said. “That would go some way towards challenging discrimination but also keeping kids out of homelessness.”
* Names have been changed