A policy
and research
advocacy body
Promoting a sustainable housing system
and a secure home for all.
A policy
and research
advocacy body
Promoting a sustainable housing system
and a secure home for all.
A policy
and research
advocacy body
Promoting a sustainable housing system
and a secure home for all.


Our vision is to create a sustainable housing system that provides a secure home for all. We do so by advocating reforms to government policy that address housing insecurity in all its forms. This involves engaging experts and communities to research and discuss solutions that are good for our economy, society and environment.

Our research and advocacy covers the full scope of the housing system:
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What we want

We want to see a world in which everyone in NSW has to access to:

affordable homes that cater to a diverse range of needs;

accessible housing that is located close to jobs and services;

and appropriate development that is well-designed and maintained.

Why we want it

We see the results of everyone having a secure home as being:

productive cities and regions that
create jobs and provide opportunities;

poverty-free communities that support health and wellbeing;

and protected neighbourhoods that respond to their natural environment.

How we can achieve it

We advocate reforms to achieve this vision by focusing on:

revenue and spending measures that fund, finance and tax housing;

regulation and planning that control and direct housing supply,
quality and location;

and responsibilities for governing, administering and coordinating policy.

Take Action!

The support of activists, communities, and organisations across NSW is crucial to our work at Shelter NSW. Sign up to be a member now and help us in our fight for a fairer housing system.

Social housing

Social housing is rental housing that public and community housing providers offer at sub-market rents to eligible households. Since the 1970s, the NSW Government has increasingly restricted access to social housing to households with particular needs rather than anyone who applies—thus the shift in name from public housing to social housing. Rents for these households are usually set at around 25-30 per cent of their income to achieve a level of affordability but, as these incomes are usually very low, households may still have very little left over after housing costs. Similarly, the low rental income for government means that need to provide additional funds to support new development maintenance, as they do with other essential services like schools, hospitals and trains. However, social housing in NSW is currently ‘off-budget’ and so providers currently look to other sources of funds like public land sales to renew estates and rent assistance to boost tenant income.

Social housing in NSW is in structural decline as a result. Having housed 5.3 per cent of the population in 2006, it was down to 4.4 per cent in 2016. At its height, it housed upwards of 6 per cent although some states such as South Australia reached 15 per cent. About 120,000 households in NSW live in social housing today which includes close to 6,000 homes owned by the Aboriginal Housing Office. While there are around 45,000 additional households on the social housing waiting list, this does not represent the total number of households that may need access a more affordable and better-quality place to call home. In 2016, for instance, there were more than 216,000 households on lower-incomes—that is, earning up to 80 per cent of the median in their region—who were paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent in the private market. Much like private healthcare or private schools can be too expensive for some households to afford by themselves, social housing can provide a good quality and affordable home where governments choose to support it.

Shelter NSW is a strong advocate for social housing and has published and contributed to over 20 reports on the sector in the previous 20 years. These include insights to what existing tenants want from renewal and the role of investment in economic recovery. Check them out here. For a broader overview of the role of social housing fits in our housing system, we also recommend two excellent books: the accessible No Place Like Home by Peter Mares and the comprehensive Housing Policy in Australia by Pawson, Milligan and Yates.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing is a tricky term because it means different things to different people. For most people, it means housing that is available for rent or purchase at a price that is related to a measure of affordability like 30 per cent of gross household income. In this sense, housing may be affordable for any number of reasons be it because of its quality or location, or broader economic conditions. However, affordable housing also has a more specific meaning in NSW as a type of rental housing product—or asset class—which is subject to legal affordability and access requirements. For example, the rent may not be allowed to exceed 120 per cent of the median incomes in exchange for special planning permission. Or, it may be that it is set 80 per cent below the market rate in exchange for a tax credit or grant. At these rates, though, there can be a contradiction in that ‘affordable housing’ may not be ‘affordable’ to everyone on low-incomes. However, it may enable some workers to live closer to their job where they might not otherwise be able to afford a home of the same quality by themselves. Accordingly, eligibility criteria may apply such as income limits or employment in the local government area. This is why it is always best to clarify exactly what someone means by ‘affordable housing’.

Affordable housing—the kind with below-market rent—can be developed and managed by both for-profit and not-for-profit housing providers. There may also be an institution (like a super fund) or an individual who owns or invests in a share of the property. Here, the role of the government is to provide a subsidy that compensates for lower rents that may not cover costs or deliver standard market returns. This subsidy can come in many forms such as a grant, a tax credit or discounted land. While there is not currently a large-scale program in Australia, smaller initiatives that are gaining momentum include low-cost loans and inclusionary planning schemes. Where governments do provide subsidies, directing them to community housing providers may make that money make go further. This is because as non-profit organisations they can leverage other concessions accorded by their regulated status and because they must reinvest any surpluses into their mission of providing affordable housing.

Unfortunately, no one knows how much affordable housing exists in NSW but planning research suggests there are fewer than 50,000 dwellings across Australia. However, this figure will decline as subsidies from previous schemes and development conditions expire after 10 years. What we do know is that there is a large need. For example, there are almost 80,000 households in NSW who earn between 50-80 per cent of median income and pay more than 30 per cent on rent. And while building this much affordable housing is expensive, government investment can have huge economic benefits such as improving access to jobs, reducing commute times, stabilizing construction cycles, and boosting household consumption.

Shelter NSW is a strong advocate of affordable housing and especially community housing. Click here to check out the multiple reports we have published on this housing type including on the potential yields of inclusionary zoning and the role of social impact investment. For a broader overview of how it fits into our housing system, we also recommend two excellent books: the accessible No Place Like Home by Peter Mares and the comprehensive Housing Policy in Australia by Pawson, Milligan and Yates.

Specialist housing

Specialist housing is accommodation that providers design and/or manage to meet the needs of older people and people living with disability. Examples include residential aged care, specialist disability accommodation, retirement villages and group homes. It could even be thought to encompass services like home care packages associated with the idea of ageing-in-place. However, grouping specialist housing under the category of ‘renters’ is of course not entirely accurate but we do so here as housing research recognises that its ownership can be ambiguous and often involves long-term lease arrangements.

Almost all specialist housing in NSW is provided by the community and private sectors but it is regulated by and may receive subsidies from state and federal government. For example, eligible individuals under the National Disability and Insurance Scheme may receive additional funds in their plan to cover the cost of Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) in the private market. Similarly, the Australian Government is responsible for the regulation of the residential aged care which provides on-site nursing care to its residents. Then there are types of specialist housing like retirement villages that offer a range of recreational amenities, structured support and care services which are subject to state consumer protection law.

Shelter NSW has historically taken an interest in specialist housing in relation to design and planning issues that are regulated at a state level. This includes our last report on local government provisions for accessible and adaptable housing in new developments. However, we are currently exploring opportunities to engage further with this critical part of our sector. Please reach out to us if you would like to how we can partner with you or your organisation to advocate for more secure and better-quality specialist housing.

Shared renting

Shared renting refers to multiple living arrangements where independent individuals share their private living space with others. Examples include share housing where groups of friends or strangers rent under formal or informal tenancy agreements, student accommodation where students live in residential colleges or purpose-built facilities, and ‘co-living’ which is an emerging form of commercial share housing. Boarding houses may also represent a form of shared renting but we have followed the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ definitions in including that particular type of housing under the category of homelessness. This reflects that some types of sharing may involve sacrifices in both tenure security and personal privacy where an individual may have no other choice.

Share housing in general is historically associated with a transition phase of life like university. However, more young people are sharing their housing into adulthood. For instance, the proportion of Australians aged 25-34 who lived in share housing rose from 11 per cent in 2003 to 13 per cent in 2016. Surveys of this group indicate that their reasons for doing so relate to both affordability issues and personal preference with 40 per cent saying they can afford no other option and 30 per cent saying they want to live with friends. This diversity bears out in the variety of shared living arrangements which range from strangers finding flatmates online and having no formal lease agreement, to groups from friends going in on a lease together.

For students, a more formally commercial option is now available in the form of purpose-built student accommodation. This sector has grown rapidly in Australia over the previous 25 years with over 10,000 student beds in Sydney alone. While mainly developed under planning rules for boarding houses, the NSW Government is looking to recognise PBSA as its own distinct type of housing that features small individual rooms and shared living space. However, as the rents charged by some providers show, student housing is not necessarily affordable housing.

An emerging type of housing that blends these two kinds of shared renting is co-living. Co-living providers offer small furnished apartments with bills and cleaning services included in the rent. The dwellings themselves offer varying degrees of privacy ranging from shared bathrooms and kitchens to self-contained rooms with communal spaces that may be programmed with social activities. Currently there are only a handful of co-living properties in Sydney which were developed under planning rules for boarding houses which permit smaller dwelling sizes than what would be allowed with standard apartments. However, the NSW Government is similarly looking to recognise co-living as a distinct type of housing as part of the emerging market of Build-to-Rent.

Shared renting works well for some households, particularly those with moderate incomes and/or strong social networks. However, Shelter NSW is a strong advocate of affordable housing that provides greater choice and security to those without alternatives. We explored some of these issues in our recent report on the growth and change in the boarding sector. You can check out that report and others here.

Private renting

Private renting is the fasting growing part of our housing system. Nationwide, the private rental market grew by 38 per cent between the 2006 and 2016 census years. In NSW, it accommodates over 700,000 households which is over one quarter of the state population. And in some local government areas of Sydney, the majority of households are now renters.

Major contributors to this growth have been the simultaneous increase in house prices and the decline in social housing. And while renting can work well for most people, over two-thirds of Australian households on low-incomes pay more than 30 per cent of their gross income of rent. Most households appear to move out of this state of rental stress as their incomes grow but others remain stuck. In NSW, the total number of households in need of affordable housing continues to rise. For those earning between 50-to-80 per cent of median incomes, the number of households in rental stress is projected to grow from around 80,000 today to over 100,000 by 2036. In other words, while individual households may escape rental stress, there will always be part of our community that needs more affordable housing.

Affordability issues affect low-income households most but all renters can be affected by issues of security, adequacy and amenity. For instance, research by Choice and National Shelter found that over half of renters say their home is in need of repairs but two thirds do not make a request with their landlord for fear it could result in a rent rise. And while most tenants move of their own accord, the possibility of eviction remains present due to the right of landlords to provide notice for any reason after the initial lease term of 6-12 months. This lack of security means that tenants do not necessarily have the confidence to assert their rights for a good service or peace of mind in putting down roots in their community. This is especially important for families with children. And as a tenure associated with urban density, the design quality of the new buildings and their access to public space and community facilities are critical factors that shape the experience of renting.

However, the growth of private renting is causing the sector to change. While over 80 per cent of rental properties are still owned by individuals, an emerging Build-to-Rent sector is claiming to offer the flexibility of renting with the security of ownership. Build-to-Rent may provide a more secure and professional rental product, particularly where its business model focuses on long-term rental income rather than short-term capital gains. This remains to be seen in practice but the NSW Government is looking to help the sector grow through tax concessions and special planning rules. However, the premium service of Build-to-Rent can come with a premium price tag. As to whether it can include a component of affordable housing, the economics do not currently stack up. That is, at least not without a subsidy that may be better spent on the original form of Build-to-Rent: public and community housing.

Shelter NSW is a strong advocate for more secure and affordable rental housing that has good amenity. Check out the reports we have published or contributed to on private renting here including on the quality of rental housing, the consumer experience of renting, and our series on equitable density. For a broader overview of renting fits into our housing system, we also recommend two excellent books: the accessible No Place Like Home by Peter Mares and the comprehensive Housing Policy in Australia by Pawson, Milligan and Yates.


Rent-to-buy refers to purchasing schemes where households rent their home with an agreement in place to buy it at a later date—say, within five years. The intention of such schemes is usually to help first-time buyers secure a property when they might not otherwise be able to afford the deposit at that time. In this sense, the operator of a rent-to-buy scheme can assist the purchaser by offering fixed or reduced the rent during the agreement period or by pegging the purchase price to the value of the property at the time of the contract.

Rent-to-buy schemes can exist in both the social and private rental sectors. In the private sector, agreements can present significant risks to consumers depending on the terms. For example, a tenant that is ultimately not able to afford to purchase the property at the agreed date may incur additional costs. Protections may be stronger in the social housing sector but such sales can end up draining the stock of available dwellings in the same location if they are not replaced at a higher rate. Rent-to-buy schemes might therefore work as tailored assistance for first-time purchasers but they require both caution and adequate consumer protection.

While we do not know how many rent-to-buy schemes exist in Australia, similar arrangements are starting to pop up as part of the emerging Build-to-Rent sector. For example, one private model of development offers a 5-year lease to potential buyers who then have the optional right to purchase the property at the end of that period. On face value, such models may present more as try-before-you-buy schemes in that the household pays standard market rent and does not face a penalty if choose not to proceed with the purchase. For the developer or investor that holds onto the properties, this may represent a unique Build-to-Rent business model that may be better characterised as build-to-sell-later.

Shelter NSW explored the role of rent-to-buy and related schemes in our report on sustainable homeownership for low-income households. Check it out here. It is an area we continue to monitor particularly as part of the emerging Build-to-Rent sector.

Shared equity

Shared equity refers to purchasing schemes where first-time buyers buys a portion of the value of a property with a mortgage and an equity partner buys the rest. This way, such schemes may help the purchaser by getting over a deposit hurdle or by lowering their mortgage repayments in exchange for sharing appreciation in the property value with the equity partner. Equity partners can be anyone—a family member, a non-profit organisation, a private lender—but usually they are governments looking to support homeownership. In Australia, there has been a long history of shared equity schemes and proposals including those that provide low-deposit and low-cost mortgages to households on lower-incomes.

Like rent-to-buy, shared equity schemes come with risks. For participants, consumer issues may arise in the complexity of such schemes, their restrictiveness and their expense. For example, borrowers that resell their property may come out significantly worse off under an equity finance mortgage than a standard one. Then there are the broader economic and social issues that come with extending loans to households who do not meet standard lending requirements. Accordingly, potential benefits and risks need to be weighed up against each other by analysing the particular features of any given scheme.

Shelter NSW has explored some of these issues in our previous reports on shared equity schemes, sustainable homeownership for low-income households and intermediate housing markets. Check them out here.

First-time buyers

First-time buyers are households that are purchasing a property to live in for the first time. At 67 per cent, homeownership in Australia is only marginally less than it was in the 1970s when it was 68 per cent. But these aggregate figures hide declines among younger generations with only half of 25-to-55-year-olds expected to own their own home by 2040. Housing unaffordability is an obvious reason but the drivers behind it are complex and contested. They include the regulation of our finance and tax systems, the density and settlement patterns of our cities, and the changing nature of our labour markets. But alongside affordability, cultural preferences might also be changing. Ultimately, though, the institutions and policy settings that once drove homeownership have changed and may be unlikely to change back.

Homeownership may still be a realistic goal for high-income households but in the current environment governments often look to provide additional support to those on low- and moderate-incomes to achieve it. This can come in many forms including tax exemptions and concessions, grant payments and equity schemes, advisory services and regulatory protections, as well as targeted development projects. Both the Australian and NSW Government currently provide examples of such schemes while the media regularly features debates about the economic impacts and merits of alternative proposals like withdrawing superannuation to pay for home deposits. Support for homeownership in this way may be justified as being about giving households opportunities to build wealth and achieve security in retirement. However, it also brings with it the economic and personal risks of making a home the same thing as a financial investment.

In any case, Australia and NSW is on current trends heading to become a dual-tenure society of those who rent their home and those who buy it. In making this transition, Shelter NSW advocates for a tenure-neutral approach to housing policy to ensure both renters and buyers have a secure home and a secure retirement. You can click here to read our past reports on homeownership. For a broader overview of its role in our housing system, we recommend two excellent books: the accessible No Place Like Home by Peter Mares and the comprehensive Housing Policy in Australia by Pawson, Milligan and Yates.

Cooperative housing
Existing buyers
Crown lease
Native title
Community title
Strata title
Freehold title
Trust/fund investors
SMSF investors
Portfolio investors
Sole investors
Holiday property owners
Vacant property owners
Public funding bodies
State investment banks
Commercial banks
Superannuation funds
Investment trusts/funds
Private philanthropy
Public housing orgs
Community housing orgs
Indigenous housing orgs
Specialist care providers
Deliberative developers
Build-to-rent/buy developers
Advice and information
Outreach services
Specialist services
Transition services
Out-of-home care
Marginal housing providers
Rough sleeping

Rough sleeping is a situation where a person is living in an improvised dwelling, a tent or sleeping on the street. It is the most acute form of homelessness which the Australian Bureau of Statistics broadly defines as living arrangements where a person lacks an adequate dwelling, tenure or privacy. Of the approximatley 35,000 people who were homeless in NSW on the night of the 2021 Census – nearly 1000 were rough sleepers. Whilst this number is likely skewed due to impacts of the Covid pandemic, more recent information from the 2023 NSW street count recorded 1623 people sleeping rough, a 34% increase from the 2022 NSW street count. Of course, these figures are only a snapshot in time. Studies estimate that  2.35 million Australians have been homeless at some point in their life, with 1.4 million having slept rough.

Couch surfing

Couch surfing is a situation where a person is temporarily staying with another household such as family and friends. This matches up with the ABS definition of homeless in that they do not have access to an adequate dwelling, tenure or privacy. On the night of the 2021 Census, 4100 people were counted as couch surfers in NSW making up about 11% of the total homeless population in NSW of 35,011. However, this is likely an underestimate as the ABS suspect many people still report having a ‘usual address’ even if they cannot technically or practically return ‘home’. In any case, Census figures are only a snapshot in time. Studies estimate that 2.35 million Australians have been homeless at some point in their lifetime.

Supported accommodation

Supported accommodation is a living arrangement where a Specialist Homelessness Service is providing someone with temporary access to a dwelling. They can do this directly as in the case of shelters and refuges or indirectly such as by purchasing a hotel room. The ABS counted around 5,000 people who were supported in this way on the night of the 2021 Census in NSW. Nationally, though, 290,300 Australians sought assistance from a Specialist Homelessness Service in 2018-19. That much larger figure illustrates that census figures are only ever a snapshot in time. The homeless population is a fluid one with studies estimating the 2.35 million Australians have experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime.

Boarding houses

Boarding houses are dwellings where residents pay for the right to occupy a room, share facilities with others and generally have less control over the premises than would a private tenant. These compromises lead researchers to classify boarders as homeless since their living situation falls below community standards for what constitutes a home. This is reflected in the ABS definition of homelessness which refers to the lack of an adequate dwelling, tenure or privacy. However, recent developments of ‘New Generation Boarding Houses’ in NSW have blurred this line. Now called co-living, these self-contained units are generally rented out under standard tenancy agreements and are more akin to micro-apartments with communal living spaces. As such, we consider these a form of ‘student and share housing’. In any case, approximately 9000 people were counted as living in a boarding house on the night of the 2021 census in NSW, a 79% increase in the decade since the 2011 census.

Severe overcrowding

Severe overcrowding is a situation where a household needs at least four additional bedrooms to accommodate their needs. These needs depend on the makeup of the household such as the age and gender of children who can share bedrooms, as well as the relationship status and ages of all household members. Severe overcrowding is one of the fastest growing types of homelessness in NSW. Having grown 52% in the past decade, the ABS counted nearly 15,000 people living in this situation on the night of the 2021 census. However, researchers debate whether or not to include such households in official statistics given that they may be permanently housed. Here, the ABS definition is nuanced by referring to situations where a person lacks alternatives to a dwelling that is either inadequate, has no or limited tenure, or does not allow them control over their social space. These cultural ideas about what constitutes a home are open to question. Regardless, it is fair to say that severely overcrowded dwellings significantly reduce the quality of life for people living in them. Shelter NSW has explored this topic in depth “Understanding Overcrowding in South West Sydney (2023)”.

Marginal and at-risk

The term ‘marginal housing’ refers to situations that are not officially considered homelessness but close to it. In NSW, the ABS counted these in the 2021 census as people who are ‘marginally housed in caravan parks’ (2,331), living in ‘other improvised dwellings’ (642) and living in ‘other crowded dwellings’ (29,956). Crowded dwellings are those that require up to three additional bedrooms (see ‘severe overcrowding’). Separately, the term ‘at risk’ commonly refers to the various factors that interact to result in someone becoming homeless. Here, though, we are referring to specific types of housing situations—namely care arrangements—where a person is at risk of ‘exiting into homelessness’ without long-term housing and support services. This includes young people leaving out-of-home care, patients being discharged from health care facilities, and people leaving prison after a custodial sentence.