Category: Homeless

Scaling Youth Foyers for NSW

There is renewed nation-wide interest in the Youth Foyer model as a strategic response for some young people at risk of homelessness. The value of the model lies its integration of housing with strategies for the effective transition from vulnerability to further education and employment.

It is timely for local, State and Commonwealth government to consider scaling up Foyers in NSW as:

  • Foyer Central has recently opened in Sydney (Uniting, St George Community Housing, Social Ventures Australia), with NSW and Commonwealth support
  • Victorian research has improved on the quality of previous evaluations and demonstrated positive outcomes and a cost-benefit for government (Coddou, et.al., 2019) – consistent with less rigorous evaluations of other foyers
  • AHURI has published its peer-reviewed Redesign of a homelessness service system for young people (MacKenzie, et.al., 2020) which positions Foyers as an important part of wider youth-specific social housing options.

In this Policy Brief we explore key issues of:

  • Where do Foyer’s fit in the policy landscape?
  • What reasons are there for governments to invest in Foyers?  
  • What might be an appropriate scale for NSW?

Why is this issue important?

Between 40 and 50 percent of young people exiting homelessness services move into a situation of further homelessness, indicating a need for youth-specific social housing options which recognise their developmental needs, and their low and insecure incomes (MacKenzie, et.al., 2020).

Sixty to seventy percent of Australians who ever seek help from Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) have left school before completing Year 12 and never recovered their education (MacKenzie, Flatau et al. 2016). If people leave school without Year 12 or equivalent and do not recover their education by the age of 24 years they largely remain disadvantaged for the rest of their lives (Lamb and Huo, 2017).

Improving life-course outcomes

Improving the outcomes experienced by vulnerable young people is a critical challenge for communities and governments. Much is invested in the health, education and wellbeing of children, but the return on that investment can be lost during the transition to adulthood, leaving young people with diminished life-course outcomes.

The best evidence available on the costs of different cohorts of people to the NSW Government (Their Futures Matter – Data Snapshot, 2019) indicates that at June 2017 there were just over 30000 vulnerable young people transitioning to adulthood in NSW. Based on linked data and an actuarial assessment, these young people were expected to cost just the NSW Government a total of $3.9B more than their average peers.

The NSW Government’s Better Lives for Vulnerable Teens Review (DCJ, 2014) found that:

  • Young people’s experiences of fragmented services and serial crisis interventions can do further damage to their wellbeing and life-course outcomes
  • Education and employment are foundational to young people’s transition to independence and long-term outcomes (see also MacKenzie, et.al., 2020)
  • A focus on achieving education and employment outcomes can be used to drive holistic responses to the factors contributing to a young person’s vulnerability 

Foyers are a critical option for policy makers to consider because they redress the Australian siloing of housing/homelessness services from education/employment services, and they shape delivery to achieve education and employment outcomes. 

What does the research tell us?

Since the 1990s Foyers emerged in the UK, United States, Australia, France and elsewhere as a response to youth homelessness. Meta-reviews of the evidence conducted in Australia (Levin et.al. 2015) and Norway (Menseses-Echavez & Berg, 2018) found that while many international studies since 1995 have reported positive outcomes, none had a truly rigorous research design. This deficiency has subsequently been addressed through an outcome and economic evaluation of the three Education First Youth (EFY) Foyers in Victoria.

The EFY evaluation validates what evaluations of other Foyers have reported over many years, and our use of that report is not to recommend any one model.

What makes the difference?  

Programs responding to youth homeless have remained largely unchanged in Australia for the past 30 years, despite homelessness’ complex causes (Levin et al., 2015). Rather than integrate housing with education and employment supports, programs have typically been funded in ways which over-stretch and silo services, resulting in crisis focussed delivery and limited capacity to secure long-term outcomes.

Foyers change this by providing a package of accommodation and support to young people aged 16 to 24 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, typically including (Menseses-Echavez & Berg, 2018):

  • Secure, stable accommodation, with an average stay of under two years
  • An up-front agreement for residents to participate in education, training or employment as a condition of their accommodation
  • Tailored youth development and support services, including training, mentoring and living skills
  • Assistance with securing employment and transitioning to independent living
  • Sports, arts and social activities

Part of what Foyers provide young people is a supportive peer community. In some evaluations some young people have found large Foyers too big (eg. greater than 90 units), or the peer environment too complex (KPMG, 2018). Accumulated experience in the UK and Australia seems to indicate that about 40 units is a good size for maintaining a positive peer community, and for maximising financial sustainability (Steen and MacKenzie, 2016).

However, each foyer needs to be designed around the young people it targets and with consideration of the surrounding community and service landscape. Some foyers provide accommodation in one site, while others have accommodation scattered around a hub. 

Who are Foyers appropriate for, and who not?

Foyers work for people who are ready to engage with training, education and employment, despite a history of vulnerability. This “readiness” approach is critical for being open to people who may otherwise be considered “too hard” or too great a risk. However, it is important that other services are therefore in place to assist people first address key risk factors in order to be ready later for Foyer life or other forms of social housing. 

The current generation of three Tasmanian EFY Foyers exclude people with

  • Unmanaged mental health issues or a recent suicide attempt
  • Unmanaged drug and alcohol issues
  • Current charges likely to lead to incarceration
  • Recent violent behaviour or serious conviction

Foyers need to be selective in their admission of people, but that screening is focussed on where they are now, not what their history is. The following table outlines the experiences of the 331 young people who entered the three EFY Foyers during the evaluation, which were largely comparable with the resident experiences reported in other Foyers (Menseses-Echavez & Berg, 2018).

Young people in the EFY Evaluation
Experienced OOHC at any time33%
Experienced detention, remand, prison at any time  4%
Experienced supported housing at any time55% Crisis accom. 29% Transitional or other
Housing at referral30% Friends, relatives 28% Crisis accom. 20% Transitional 11% Parent’s home   6% Own place   5% Sleeping rough
Lived in 3 or more places in last 12 months – at entry57%
Mental health, at entry, using Kessler-6 scale30% serious distress 40% moderate distress

Eleven percent of the Victorian EFY Foyer evaluation’s cohort were Indigenous, which was consistent with the wider Specialist Homelessness Services population in that State.

Some young people are better served by Supported or Transitional Accommodation or Affordable Housing, and will not want to enter into the kind of agreement Foyers require, nor live in that form of community. It shouldn’t be assumed that Foyers are appropriate for everyone.

Youth-appropriate forms of Housing First are also relevant for this target group (MacKenzie 2020) – as, like Foyers, they go “beyond assisting young people merely to become independent but rather to enable them to make a successful transition to adulthood” (Gaetz, 2104).

NSW has a number of programs in place to make a diversity of housing and/or support options available to young people, including through My Foundation Youth Housing. All of these housing solutions are vital for the differing needs of young people at different stages of their life journey.  

What outcomes do Foyers demonstrate? 

Participant outcomes

The EFY Foyers documented the following improvements 12 months after exit:

  • 46% of participants had improved their educational qualifications, with a further 24% still enrolled in further study
  • 36% of participants were employed – up from 19% at entry
  • 51% of participants were living in their own place – up from 6% at entry
  • Housing had been stable over the previous 12 months for 59% of participants – up from 43% at entry

The EFY Evaluation is working to produce more detailed analysis of any differences in outcomes for different cohorts of young people – this will be valuable research. The EFY Evaluation substantiates previous Foyer evaluation observations that:

  • Foyers can work well for vulnerable young people – when they are ready to engage with education and/or employment 
  • Foyers can deliver substantially positive outcomes in the domains of housing, education and employment for young people where these things were at risk at entry.

Cost-benefit for government

The EFY evaluation addressed the previous gap in the literature regarding a cost-benefit analysis. KPMG’s analysis was based on each model delivering with 331 clients, with costs/benefits calculated over twenty years. Only the costs of service delivery were included, not the capital costs.

In the analysis Transitional Housing Management demonstrated a benefit-cost ratio of 0.97, in comparison to EFY Foyer’s ratio of 1.6. Other Foyers only demonstrated a benefit-cost ratio of 1.02 but this could be improved by increasing their average scale (EFY has 40 beds compared to <20 beds) and decreasing the average length of stay (EFY 1.2 years compared to 1.5 years).

That said, flexibility regarding length of stay is an important feature of the foyer model and often reflects the level or complexity of needs of individual residents.

KPMG estimated a Net Program Impact for EFY Foyers of $9.91m over twenty years.

This analysis is deliberately conservative.

  • The likely future costs to the NSW Government alone, modelled by Their Futures Matter (2019) for a similar cohort of young people to the age of 40 years, were more than $110 000 per person greater than the average person’s costs
  • MacKenzie and Flatau (2016) measured the annual cost of 400 homeless and unemployed young people over three years and found average annual health and justice costs per person of $15000. Multiplied by 50% of the EFY foyer population over just eight years (eg. from age 17 to 24) the total cost to NSW health and justice agencies would be $5m. The KPMG analysis only includes total health and justice costs avoided of $2.2m
  • Lamb and Huo (2017) measured the fiscal and social costs of all young people who disengage from education and employment (not only homeless young people), and found an average annual fiscal cost to government of $10 300 per person, which for 50% of the EFY foyer population over 20 years would be $34m.   

The KPMG analysis reveals that Foyers are a relatively expensive model but that by achieving the desired results with a strategic target group Foyers generate a return on investment.

With the support of the NSW and Commonwealth Governments, Foyer Central is being independently evaluated and will add substantially to the evidence this report was able to draw on. Social Investment Bonds have been used to finance the delivery of Foyer Central so there will be close measurement of the outcomes achieved.

Further research on youth foyers is needed, especially for the diversity of foyers located within Australia (Steen & MacKenzie, 2016). Coddou et al.’s (2019) study has provided rigorous evidence of the impact of EFY foyers, but high-quality process, outcomes and economic evaluations of other models would be valuable. 

What are the implications of the research?

It is possible to achieve positive outcomes with vulnerable young people

The right options for the right people at the right time achieve positive results, respect a person’s autonomy and build (rather than undermine) their long-term independence.

Foyers are a rational policy option within a wider array of programs

Many vulnerable young people right now need more Supported or Transitional Housing than is available, while others (or the same young people in a year’s time) just need access to an affordable housing market. A range of housing solutions are needed. Even within the EFY Foyer cohort, 20% of residents accessed Transitional Housing at exit, and 16% were living there 12 months later.   

AHURI’s report (2020) argues for the homelessness services sector to be rebalanced from crisis responses to prevention, early intervention and post-homelessness social housing options and support. Foyers fit in the latter category, along with the My Foundations Youth Housing Company and subsidised rentals in the private market – both of which NSW is delivering.  

Between 30-60% of homeless young people have experienced OOHC (MacKenzie, at al. 2020). Thirty-three percent of EFY Foyer residents had a history of OOHC. While foyers are a great option for some young people exiting OOHC, Extended Care, as championed through the Home Stretch Campaign, would enable other options for more of these young people in relation to housing, education and employment, and improve their long-term outcomes (Deloitte, 2018). It would also significantly decrease the young homeless population.

Foyers genuinely assist vulnerable young people move beyond their history when they are ready to engage with education, employment and a peer community, and are not in the midst of ongoing episodes of instability. Fifty-five percent of the EFY Foyer residents had experienced crisis accommodation at some point, and 32% were living there just prior to entering the Foyer. Many young people will continue to need services which assist them stabilise before they can make longer term commitments.

Foyer’s help some people not need crisis accommodation again. This is why the AHURI report believes Foyers should be targeted to young people transitioning out of homelessness services, and established as part of place-based homelessness strategies, informed by local data and systems.  

Government needs to invest to achieve a return  

While Foyers have been shown to generate a positive cost-benefit, it is not the Foyer that reaps the long-term savings, but State and Commonwealth governments.

Income support is very low and employment is increasingly insecure and poorly paid for young people, meaning that Foyers cannot be delivered on the basis of rental returns. Steen and MacKenzie (2017) argue for the creation of sustainable recurrent funding to enable the scaling of Foyers in Australia. They note that Foyers in Australia do not have the kind of financial supports available to Foyers in the UK – where they have proliferated.

None of Australia’s purpose-built Foyers would have been developed without government investment and backing. There are a number of ways that government can invest in foyers to make them feasible. The investment can be up-front in the capital build and/or made over time via payments for service delivery.  

Foyer Central has been valuable as a current experience of the significant financial challenges of bringing a foyer from concept through to delivery, and a case study of that experience would be instructive for future work.

What scale might be strategic for NSW?

There are 15 accredited Foyers in Australia, including several under development in Tasmania and Queensland.

In NSW there are 60 Foyer units provided in the Illawarra by Southern Youth and Family Services, and 53 units provided through Foyer Central in Sydney. That is less than 120 units for all of NSW.

Overlapping with the 30 000 vulnerable young people aged 16 to 18 years transitioning to adulthood in 2017 identified through Their Futures Matter (2019), there were in NSW:

  • 13 700 young people aged 15 – 24 years who presented alone to a homelessness service in 2019/20
  • Almost 1000 young people who aged out of Out of Home Care in 2019/20 (DCJ, 2020), plus others who leave their placement from the age of 15 years. At any one time there would be more than 6000 people in NSW aged 16 to 24 who have exited Out of Home Care
  • 6725 mothers aged 21 years or younger with at least one child in 2017

For the purposes of outlining a way forward, if we conservatively assume that in any year just 5% of young people who present alone to NSW homelessness services would be ready and willing to access Foyers as a platform for their engagement with education and employment, that would equate to demand for 822 units (eg. 20 foyers of 40 units each) – if the average duration of stay was equivalent to the EFY experience of 1.2 years.

As Foyers are not the right service for all vulnerable young people, and that additional investment in things like Extended Care will affect demand, the true scale suitable for NSW is not knowable at this stage, but the above numbers suggest it would be cautious and reasonable to create a rolling program to develop sufficient Foyers for about 240 units over the next six years.

Given this is a very conservative starting point, at five years an assessment could be made on any further investment, based on the demand and outcomes experienced. Ongoing data from existing Foyers nationally will also provide useful information for decision makers. Place-based planning would enable decisions to be made about appropriate regional and metropolitan sites and partnerships.

It would be important to balance any investment in foyers with additional investment in Extended Care and supported medium-term and transitional accommodation for young people, and to make further decisions in that context. This is why we do not immediately advocate for many more foyers – they are not the only investment required. The important thing is to start scaling with confidence within the anticipated level of demand and allow cumulative experience to inform future decisions.

With emerging evidence on foyers’ effectiveness in Australia, and more to learn about how successful youth foyers are for young people with varied circumstances, it would be sensible to scale a diversity of youth foyers with an in-built dynamic developmental evaluation to continually inform implementation and service delivery in real time. It would also be strategic to develop financial models for the capital build of new services and/or sustainable service delivery (Steen & MacKenzie, 2016).

Where to from here?

In 2020/21 the NSW Government budgeted $291.8 million for specialist homelessness services ($1.1 billion over 4 years).

Shelter NSW applauds the NSW Government’s recent investment in Foyer Central. We also recognise NSW is investing in young people through the My Foundations Youth Housing Company and Rent Choice Youth.

We agree with AHURI in urging greater investment in prevention and early intervention, including through the delivery of Extended Care. We encourage the NSW Government to consider the development of place-based strategies to address homelessness, which would provide a strategic context within which decisions regarding the location and nature of future Foyers could be made.

There is clearly scope for the further development of Foyers in NSW right now, especially as a model targeted to young people exiting homelessness services. Foyers are an important contribution to the overall mix of pathways out of life-long vulnerability.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people feature among homeless and vulnerable populations further research and co-design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, led by community-controlled organisations, would help inform future delivery.

More Foyers will not occur in NSW without government investment. This would best be done as a considered strategy rather than in opportunistic ways.

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‘Foot in the Door’ getting young people into private rentals

For a young person, entering the private rental market for the first time is a daunting and confusing process; navigating inspections, applications, and even establishing rental payments can be an anxiety-inducing exercise for anyone. For our most vulnerable young people, even the idea of ‘going it alone’ can evoke emotional barriers. Regardless of the solutions presented around affordability and bias, rental legislation, the whole process can be very overwhelming for a young person.

We know that creating a positive transition into a private rental can turn those feelings of hesitation and doubt into emotions of excitement and empowerment for a young person who is still establishing their independence.

Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) support young people to carve out a way for a young person to find stable employment, create relationships, provide shelter and deal with complexed trauma. While SHS services provide this vital role, the real estate sector plays the most crucial role in young people accessing and being successful in a private rental property.

Real estate engagement has been a taboo topic for several years in the SHS sector. With only a handful of successful one-off funded projects of this nature, delivered in a specific location across NSW and even fewer nationally, there was a proven need for a boarder and more consistent approach.

Even with the introduction of private rental subsidies such as Rent Choice Youth and rental guarantee’s, both available through NSW state government initiatives, barriers around the stigma of homelessness from agents remained a constant response. The issues around perceived stigma have been long felt by the SHS sector when trying to place a young person into stable and secure housing. Along with the reality young people are more likely to have a lack of rental history, which further contributes to the challenge of finding a private rental. In 2018 the NSW premier advised a priority of reducing youth homelessness by 2019. Increasing access to the private rental market was a key strategy under this priority. Yfoundations saw this as an opportunity for cross-sector collaboration and proposed the pilot concepts of the NSW wide, Foot in the Door initiative.

Development and design of Foot in the Door

To understand the barriers young people and services were facing in accessing private rental opportunities, Yfoundations consulted further with SHS members and the broader sector to obtain an understanding of how we could improve young people accessing the private rental market.  Simultaneously Yfoundations was working closely with the Real Estate industry to understand the challenges they faced with considering young people for private rentals. Yfoundations received feedback around a lack of rental history and affordability as the significant barriers to accessing a property. Issues of stigma were prevalent from Real Estate agents but more so towards those young people who were currently residing in a shelter, refuge or transitional housing. Some other barriers expressed equally by both SHS service workers and the Real Estate sector were the challenges of maintaining positive relationships with high staff turn over and communications, highlighted by statements like,

“ We used to be able to get many clients into properties when John was at the agency, but since he left it’s like starting all over again every time with someone new, they don’t know what we do, and we just don’t have time to start over continuously.”

The critical considerations for the Foot in the Door initiative were to develop a consistent approach to Real Estate engagement with the potential to be scaled across the state and easily adapted or duplicated nationally.

The Foot in the Door was then designed to:

  • Increase agent’s knowledge on the roles and function of Youth Homelessness Services
  • Provide an introduction to property managers in understanding trauma and youth homelessness

These aims would foster increased communication and relationship building between SHS and the real estate sector. Creating accessibility and uptake of the Rent Choice youth subsidy and improved access to the private rental market for those young people leaving SHS services for which it was suitable.

When reflecting on the learnings of existing work done across NSW we were able to see that the most common way the community sector has sought participation from Real Estate agents was through networking breakfasts in the hopes of building one on one relations.

When designing the Foot in the Door model, taking the elements of what was working well was necessary, however, considerations of the projects ability to be saleable, evaluated and duplicated were vital.

One of the early pieces of feedback in initial consultations with the Real Estate Industry was the need for the SHS sector to speak the same language as the Real estate agents. The first learning in this was something straightforward, in defining our audience; we quickly learnt we needed to be speaking to property managers and not in fact Real Estate Agents as so much of our work had previously referred to. Foot in the Door also had to produce content that could be delivered and relevant to any location across NSW, and simple enough to be understood by even Real Estate administration staff. Key partners for the Real Estate industry also provided input into the development of a potential delivery model. The Real Estate Institute of NSW being instrumental in the core piece of work focusing on training and skills. A secondary element would see a communication strategy created to promote relationships and information share.

What is Foot In The Door 

Foot in the Door is a face to face training program that provides up to date information and resources highlighting key focus area’s in language Real-Estate Agents can relate to.

The key topic areas of learning in the program for agents introduce agents to the challenges of youth homelessness. Exploring the financial and social impacts on young people and the broader community. This element was an important part of developing the ‘what’s in it for me’ for agents.

We realised that many agents didn’t have even a basic understanding of the role of the SHS services, so the possible benefits of working collaboratively with services was not within conception.

Resource videos of lived experience case stories, including genuine agent recommendations were created to demonstrate this highlighting the client, worker, agent relationships working cohesively to support new and existing tenants.

From an ethical perspective, it was important to include some introductory understandings around trauma practice, adapting the content to be trauma-informed leading to trauma informed tenancy management. This outlined theories on trauma triggers and understanding isolated incident, ongoing and vicarious trauma as most relevant for agents. It was hoped that with this knowledge agents could adopt a varied approach to daily interactions with tenants and potentially influence their workplace practice.

Knowledge about available Government Subsides Rent Choice Youth and tenancy guarantees was high on the topics of interest for property managers and this worked in favour when opening the conversation of potentially suitable properties to be offered for lease in promotion of new tenancies for SHS leavers. Property managers were also provided a short workbook with some details of the services available in their local area.

Delivery 

Delivery of Foot in the Door was done across a number of platforms.

Face-to-Face: training sessions were two-and-a-half hours each at five locations across NSW, Sydney, Liverpool, Orange, Port Macquarie and Armidale. Training was hosted in community or Government spaces, with morning/afternoon tea provided to encourage networking.

Webinar: Online delivery was hosted by REINSW with promotion and registrations being carried out through their database of agents and stakeholders.

Roadshow events: Annual CPD training events conducted by REINSW were an ideal opportunity to network with local agents and provided a wide reach for information dissemination.

Events: Significant events held within the Real Estate industry were important to develop the visibility of Foot in the Door concept. This included being an exhibitor Australian Property Management Expo with over 700 property managers in attendance.

Evaluations

This first stage evaluation focused on the relevance, concepts and delivery of the program to property managers, and the potential short-term outcomes of the of the work. The key questions the evaluation aimed to explore were: Are real estate agents satisfied with the Foot in the Door training? Does the Foot in the Door training contribute to changes in real estate agents’ knowledge and attitudes relating to homeless young people?

Property managers that participated in the training were firstly asked a series of questions to establish a baseline attitudinal scale. Secondly post training the same questions was asked along with reflections on training content and knowledge gained. The results outlined the biggest affect was an agent’s likelihood to connect with services after participating in Foot in the Door training. The evaluation also specified participation rates, 150 people attended Foot in the Door training: 43 face-to-face; and 107 through webinar. A further 118 Property Managers were reached through direct contact with the REINSW Roadshow events.

Overall participant satisfaction with the Foot in the Door program was high. The webinar retention rate was 100%; and face-to-face training achieved a net Promoter Score of 64. Post training feedback provided reflected that on average, Foot in the Door significantly improved attendee’s understanding and competency around youth homelessness.

The majority of Real Estate Industry attendees reported improvement in:

  • knowledge about youth homelessness (58%)
  • knowledge about trauma (50%)
  • ability to recognise behaviour associated with trauma (50%)
  • confidence to connect a tenant with a youth worker (75%)
  • knowledge of the subsidies and supports available to young tenants (67%)

Foot in the Door has achieved outcomes beyond what was expected in a short period of time: young people were connected with private rental opportunities; and Property Managers implemented new practices to support young tenants. Further opportunities to improve young people’s access to private rental tenancies were also identified through this pilot.

The Future of Foot in the Door

The outcomes realised through the project went beyond the boundaries of evaluation questions alone, as relationships with the property sector were built at every level and extended to introductions that saw larger new build developers with offers of available properties. With new knowledge of SHS systems, agent’s came to understand the majority of young people make consistent payments to reside in a SHS services, with majority of agents suggesting that a statement proving these payments included with a new tenancy application could possibly be viewed similarly as a rental ledger, somewhat solving this issue. This work also highlighted pockets of opportunity for the development of future work for Yfoundations. We witnessed, SHS engagement with private business, leading to conversations around improvements and engagement with temporary accommodation providers working towards better outcomes for clients, particularly relevant in regional areas. Another area for future exploration for Foot in the Door will look into the development of a broader tenant referral systems aimed at direct property management referral to SHS services. This initiative will identify at risk tenancies for early intervention long before young people are facing evictions or even presenting at services.

The future Foot in the Door program sees property managers and caseworkers working side by side in a co-supporting relationship with common goals and a deep understanding of the challenges being faced by all parties. This can only be done by continuing the availability of this training to the property sector and providing the platform to have impactful conversations with stakeholders such as REINSW. It is inevitable that through this process we will evoke long-term systemic change accoss the wider sector.

Foot in the Door challenges both the property sector and services to work in a truly progressive way and realise common goals and benefits that may not have been apparent until recently. At no other time in history could it be more accurately said “we are all in this together”.

A copy of the full evaluation report from 2019 is available at the Yfoundations website. For more information on the Foot In The Door program please contact Lauren Brown: lauren@yfoundations.org.au

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Housing and the Gig Economy

Over the past 30 years our lives at work have been changing radically, just as our housing system has been changing too. In both cases stability and predictability are giving way to flexibility – and that has generally meant less security and, increasingly, greater inequality. These changes are not a coincidence, both are driven by the same macroeconomic emphasis on deregulation; and increasingly insecurities at work are reinforcing problems in our housing system. In Australia, the link between employment and housing is particularly important. For much of the twentieth century we had a unique approach to jobs and housing that focused on what we might call pre-distribution rather than re-distribution. By regulating financial and labour markets Australia gave households more equitable access to jobs and housing without as much need for government spending.

In housing strong regulation of banks (including public ownership of banks), land release policies and preferential policies for home buyers all contributed to a high rate of home ownership (the most secure form of tenure) and low rate of private renting (the least secure). In employment, a formal commitment to full employment and centralized wage fixing gave workers, especially those with less bargaining power, a bigger say. In both areas, most of those policies have been dismantled.

The last 30 years have seen a dramatic increase in ‘non-standard’ forms of employment. This includes part-time jobs, and casual and contract employment. There are some real advantages to these changes for many – they allow workers to combine work and other commitments (like caring for family), and can mean more control over the work we do. But there is growing evidence that for many these changes just mean less security and less bargaining power.

The days of full employment have long since gone. Australia’s unemployment rate barely rose above two per cent for the three decades following WWII, it has barely fallen below five per cent since. Underemployment is also on the rise; more and more of those with a job want more hours than they are offered. And because jobs are more ‘flexible’, they are also less stable, meaning we often cannot be sure if we will still have a job in six months’ time. When you combine these trends with falling union membership it is hardly surprising that wages are barely growing, despite steady economic growth. Flat wage growth is now one of the major drivers of rising inequality.

We are now witnessing an increase in the ‘gig economy’, where workers are employed on a very short term basis. The typical examples are the rise of Uber to replace taxi drivers, and of Airtasker to source all sorts of jobs from ‘handy person’ work to editing and graphic design. A similar trend has emerged in housing as well – through AirBnB. Because all of these examples use the internet to change the way we do things, the gig economy is often linked to debates around automation, and the potential for automation to significantly reduce the number of jobs.

The gig economy and automation, however, are distinct trends. As Jim Stanford from the Centre for Future Work has argued, in most gig jobs new technology plays a relatively minor role, focused largely on connecting buyers and sellers. The handy person does much the same thing they did before. The Uber driver still drives a car to pick you up and drop you off. The service itself is almost identical – what has changed is the way we connect workers and consumers. This is quite different to changes in manufacturing, where the nature of the work itself has changed dramatically as computers and robots replace people.

So why are gig jobs growing so quickly if they involve so little change? One explanation is that these online platforms circumvent the rules we have developed to regulate labour and housing markets. Airtasker workers and Uber drivers are legally independent contractors (although this is increasingly being challenged). They pay all their own overheads and have to manage all their own cash flow. If you are only doing this on the side for a bit of spare cash, that’s fine, but if it replaces more stable jobs, then it is a problem.

So what does all this have to do with housing? Well it is driving some of the growing inequalities and insecurities we see in the housing market. As more and more people work in less stable jobs – either on short-term contracts, or as casuals or in the ‘gig’ economy – so they can find it harder to access stable housing. First, without a stable job it is difficult to get a mortgage, which means you cannot buy a house. Australia now has one of the highest household debt to GDP ratios in the world, driven almost entirely by mortgage debt. And unlike most other similar countries, debt is still rising after the financial crisis. Expensive housing and high debt make insecure work a much bigger problem.

Insecure work is just as much a problem for renters. If your income fluctuates every week then you are forced to manage your finances much more actively to ensure you can cover the rent in periods where you have fewer hours or no work. Low paid and underemployed workers are more likely to have insecure forms of employment, and also have less of a financial buffer when things get tight. It is not surprising this leads to a growing number of people scarifying essentials to pay the rent. The new world of insecure employment is also creating problems for the other policies we have to help those in need. Many government payments are highly targeted – meaning only those on low incomes get help, and that support is withdrawn as you start to earn income. This creates two big problems. Often working an extra shift leaves you with not much extra cash, because benefits are withdrawn at much higher rates than apply for taxation. Second, it can be hard to predict what you will earn, and government systems are often slow in responding. This can mean you lose benefits based on previous earnings just as you lose shifts – leaving you with no money, or even a debt.

For those in social housing, the problems are potentially even worse. Because governments have invested so little in social housing, while the demand for social housing has been growing, access is now very tightly targeted. Indeed, the main way governments have used to ‘reduce’ public housing waiting lists has been to make it harder to get on the list, not to provide more housing. As a consequence, only those on very low incomes generally qualify. If you are in social housing and you start to earn more, then you risk losing your home.

The strong eligibility rules are less important in a world of stable full-time jobs. If you get a new full-time job it will pay a reasonable wage and you know it will be fairly stable, so you can afford to move into other forms of housing. But in the new world of insecure work you might get a good contract and then find yourself without enough income soon after. If you lose your house in the process – forcing you into a much more expensive and less secure private rental market – then that is a huge loss. So big a loss, in fact, that many tenants might avoid initially taking work (especially if it is short-term, casual or contract). Ideally, those small ‘gigs’ would give people experience and connections to get more work. But our social housing system is not designed for the new world of work.

The problems of integrating ‘targeted’ social housing and insecure work are so bad that governments have been forced to try new things. One of the reasons for new models of housing for key workers is precisely this problem. The state government has been exploring other options too – it knows it is a problem – but the whole structure of housing provision is so deeply based on targeting it often ends up making things worse.

None of this is to argue that we can or should return to the pre-reform days of the 1960s. But the combination of changes in employment and housing are proving unfair and unsustainable. A gig economy of short term contracts might be feasible if people were guaranteed secure and affordable housing as a right. Strong targeting of social housing can make sense in a world of secure full time jobs. Taken together, however, insecure employment reinforces the worst aspects of our expensive and insecure housing system. For now, the fight for more secure work and a fairer housing system are bound together.

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