Wait times balloon as scarce social housing is ‘rationed’ and many simply give up

Shelter NSW was proud to see a very important and significant piece of research it had co-sponsored published this month. Professor Hal Pawson and Dr David Lilley, of the UNSW City Futures Research Centre, have produced a very comprehensive piece of research – demonstrating the extent to which Australian state governments are struggling to meet growing demand for low-cost housing as cost-of-living pressure rises. 

As Professor Hal Pawson notes in this article in The Conversation, the crisis in social housing reflects a quarter-century of near-stagnation in social housing stock in Australia. While Australia’s population is now 41% higher than in 1996, social housing has expanded by just 3% over that period.

In NSW, the report shows stress intensifying in the social housing system. Social housing has become a scarce, ‘rationed’ housing product increasingly allocated to the most desperate of applicants. This cohort of course, requires urgent housing. But with the proportion of total lettings to highest priority applicants increasing from 41% to 60% in the six years to 2020-21, approved applicants on the general social housing waiting list wait longer and longer for housing. This means longer wait times for income-eligible but non-priority social housing applicants.

Interestingly, waiting lists remain fairly flat – out of sync with widespread levels of deep housing stress. The research surmises that waiting list trends are highly influenced by administrative practices in the management of access to social housing by state/territory governments. leading to a high rate of applicant ‘churn’. According to the research, unpublished statistics for NSW for example, suggest that in 2020-21, over 6,000 registrations were cancelled or otherwise ended during the year.

The research contains multiple insights into the wide variety of waiting list definitions, management and impacts observed across the country. We suggest that this research will provide an invaluable foundation for any future national housing strategy.