”Without appropriate and affordable housing, refugees will remain on the periphery of Australian society.”181 Finding housing that will satisfy the needs of refugees for safety, security, comfort and community is essential for their successful integration into Australian society. However, they face a number of barriers when seeking housing, including:
Reports have documented that the current rental market is the most difficult for humanitarian migrants to find a place to live, with increased rental rates and decreased stock of affordable housing compounding what is already a challenging situation.182 Indeed, “[r]ecent national research has identified refugees as a group which is vulnerable to being in housing crisis and to homelessness183.”
Atem184 discusses new research into the predicament facing African refugees as a result of a profound decline in housing affordability. The research seeks to explore the current and future housing needs of African refugees, exploring issues such as family size, transport, work, health, education, community integration and income. Most African refugees come from low socio-economic status backgrounds and many depend on social security payments. In many cases their ambitions for suitable housing are unlikely to be met. The research seeks to develop a sociological understanding of African housing issues to inform creative policy options for settlement planning.
19.2Changes to housing assistance
In 2000, housing assistance for refugees after arrival was decreased from 13 weeks to four weeks. This provides insufficient time for people to settle, look for employment and search for permanent housing. The change was intended to lessen the disruption for refugees, who were previously forced to relocate after having had 13 weeks to settle in and become comfortable in a community. However, the opposing view is that only providing accommodation assistance for four weeks places an unnecessary additional pressure on refugees to find their own housing so soon after arrival.185
Within that first month there are many other things to do, and finding housing, even under the best of circumstances, is time consuming and stressful. It can become nearly impossible for newly-arrived refugees to search for a job and a house at the same time, especially when finding a house can involve significant transport needs and costs and simply compound their difficulties and confusion.186
19.3Discrimination in the housing market
Refugee families also face pervasive discrimination in the housing market. It was perceived that real estate agents would lie to members of the refugee community about the availability of housing.187 Some real estate agents may be reluctant to rent to refugees because, for example, they believe that refugees don’t know how to properly maintain a Western-style house or that they might cause damage they can’t afford to fix.188
Having not had to find housing in this way before, many refugees are further challenged by having to deal with real estate agents who are not sensitive to their needs, are reluctant to rent to them and are discriminatory towards them.
A key addition to housing services would be “tenancy education materials using low literacy learning and teaching resources”189 for refugees that would help address “their lack of understanding about the legal and contractual implications of rental agreements.”190
19.4Housing market does not meet needs of African communities
African families express an interest in accessing public housing, however the supply is limited and there are often long waiting periods.191 The current constrained rental market means that those families that cannot access public housing are stuck in a rental market that is not meeting their needs.
Lack of housing options means refugees can find themselves living in crowded, sub-standard and serially temporary accommodation, often referred to as ‘secondary homelessness’.192 This is a concern for newly-arrived individuals and families, as well as those who have been in Australia for an extended time. They are often unaware of their rights or the support services and other resources available to them.193 They might also be reluctant to access such services because of the social stigma of homelessness.194
Australian housing is not set up for African families, who often have many children and a desire for communal living.195 Further assistance is necessary for African families to locate appropriate housing options. The Migrant and Refugee Rental Housing Assistance project, servicing the southern and eastern regions of Melbourne, is currently looking to develop a casework model to help new arrivals find appropriate housing.196
19.5Search for housing can compromise other important needs
Given that housing is such an immediate concern after arrival, many humanitarian entrants skip English classes and overlook other settlement needs in order to find a place to live and a job.197 The search for housing and employment overshadow other needs, such as medical care, possibly education and attempts to find and fit in to a community. These other activities – vital in their own right – are seen as dispensable, at least in the early days following arrival.
Having to find a place to live immediately after coming to Australia puts tremendous stress on a family. When refugees arrive, if they do not have a community on which they can rely for information and advice, they can be unsure about how the housing market works, where to live or what to look for in a house. Furthermore, refugees also need to consider if the location offers them access to settlement services, as well as proximity to other members of their community to reduce social isolation and increase opportunities for networking and support.198