Many people cannot afford to rent or buy a home, so government programs provide Australians with housing assistance. This ranges from financial support to government-owned public housing. See glossary for definitions of housing types.

Policy context

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement began in July 2018. It aims to improve access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum (Council of Federal Financial Relations 2018). The agreement covers social housing and support for people experiencing homelessness or those at risk of homelessness.

What types of housing assistance are available?

Housing assistance programs funded by Australian and state and territory governments are provided by government and non–government organisations (Table 1).

Table 1: Governments and organisations administering types of housing assistance

Government or organisation providing assistance

Type of housing assistance

 Australian Government

Commonwealth Rent Assistance

National Rental Affordability Scheme

State and territory governments

Public rental housing

State owned and managed Indigenous housing

Home purchase assistance

Private rent assistance

National Rental Affordability Scheme

First Home Owner Grant 

Community-based organisations

Specialist Homelessness Services

Community housing

Indigenous community housing

This page focuses on private rental market housing assistance and social housing.

For information about:

Private rental market housing assistance

Australians on low or moderate incomes renting through the private rental market may be able to receive government assistance with the cost of housing.

Commonwealth Rent Assistance is a non–taxable income supplement, paid fortnightly to eligible recipients. It is paid at 75 cents for every dollar above a minimum rental threshold until a maximum rate is reached. Minimum thresholds and maximum rates vary depending on the household or family situation. This includes the number of children (DSS 2019b).

Australian Government real expenditure (adjusted for inflation) on Commonwealth Rent Assistance increased by around 12% between 2013–14 and 2017–18, from $3.95 billion to $4.44 billion (DSS 2014a, 2018a).

Private rent assistance is provided by state and territory governments to low–income households experiencing difficulty in securing or maintaining private rental accommodation. In 2017–18, it assisted about 114,600 recipients, a decrease from 158,700 in 2010–11 (AIHW 2019).

National Rental Affordability Scheme is delivered by the Australian Government in partnership with state and territory governments. It offers annual financial incentives for up to 10 years to rent dwellings for eligible tenants at 80% or less of market value rent (DSS 2018c).

As at 31 December 2018, there were 34,900 active allocations (dwellings tenanted or available for rent) through the scheme (DSS 2019b).

Social housing programs

Social housing is rental housing made available to Australians on low incomes who cannot afford to rent through the private rental market. Historically, social housing was made available to working families on low to moderately low incomes (Groenhart & Bourke 2014). In more recent years, social housing has increasingly focused on assisting families in greatest need, especially those experiencing homelessness.

These rental properties are owned and managed by government and/or non–government organisations (including not–for–profit organisations).

Social housing programs include:

  1. Public housing: Rental housing provided and managed by all state and territory governments. Included are dwellings owned by the housing authority or leased from the private sector or other housing program areas and used to provide public rental housing or leased to public housing tenants.
  2. Community housing (also known as mainstream community housing): Housing managed by community-based organisations, available to low to moderate income or special needs households (see glossary). Community housing models vary among states and territories. Various groups, including government, own the housing stock.
  3. State owned and managed Indigenous housing (SOMIH): Housing that state and territory governments provide and manage. This is available to low to moderate–income households that have at least one member who identifies as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin. SOMIH is currently available in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
  4. Indigenous community housing: Housing that Indigenous communities own and/or manage to provide housing services to Indigenous Australians (AIHW 2019b).

Who receives rental market housing assistance?

In 2018, 1.3 million income units (a person or group of related persons in a household whose income is shared, see glossary) received Commonwealth Rent Assistance; about 32,200 income units fewer than in 2017 (AIHW 2018b, 2019a). Of the 1.3 million Australian individuals or couples (the reference person) receiving such assistance in 2018:

  • just under one-quarter (23%) were aged 65 years and over
  • 5.5% identified as Indigenous (see glossary) (AIHW 2019a).

In 2017–18, there were about 114,600 instances of private rent assistance, a decrease from 158,700 (or 28%) in 2010–11. Of these:

  • nearly one-third (30%) were provided to households with the main applicant aged 25–34, and one-fifth (20%) were aged 15–24
  • 15% of instances were provided to Indigenous households
  • 59% were earning a gross income of less than $700 per week (or around $36,400 per year) (AIHW 2019a).

As at 30 April 2018, around 64,300 tenants lived in 33,500 dwellings accommodated under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Of these:

  • 57% were aged 18–54
  • 5.4% identified as Indigenous
  • 9.1% had disability
  • 29% received rent assistance (DSS 2019c).

Social housing tenants

Across Australia, in 2017–18, around 803,900 tenants were in Australia’s 3 main social housing programs (AIHW 2019a):

  • 75% were in public housing
  • 19% were in community housing
  • 6% were in SOMIH.

Most social housing tenants were female (56%) in 2017–18 (AIHW 2019a). Factors such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial difficulty and limited superannuation can put women at risk of homelessness (ABS 2018) and in need of social housing (AIHW 2018a).

Of the households in social housing:

  • more than 1 in 7 (14%) included an Indigenous member at 30 June 2018, compared with 12% at 30 June 2015
  • almost 2 in 5 (38%) reported having a tenant with disability at 30 June 2018, compared with 42% of households at 30 June 2015
  • more than 1 in 2 (55%) consisted of single adults at 30 June 2018, compared with 53% at 30 June 2015 (AIHW 2016, 2019a).

In 2017–18, around one-third of social housing tenants were aged 55 years or over (35% in public housing and 30% in community housing). Almost 1 in 3 (31%) of those in public housing and 36% in community housing were aged 25–54. Also, 22% of public housing tenants and 20% of community housing tenants were children aged 0–14 (AIHW 2019a).

Priority groups

Housing assistance has shifted to target specific vulnerable groups, such as people experiencing homelessness or those at imminent risk of homelessness. For example, public housing, SOMIH and community housing prioritise households by assessing applicants in greatest need (see glossary). Among all social housing programs, newly allocated dwellings provided to households in greatest need has been increasing since 2013–14. For:

  • public housing, 76% (about 15,600) of newly allocated dwellings were provided to households in greatest need in 2017–18; up from 74% (about 15,300) in 2013–14
  • community housing, 82% (about 12,900) of newly allocated dwellings were provided to households in greatest need in 2017–18; up from 75% (about 9,300) in 2013–14
  • SOMIH, 63% (about 790) of newly allocated dwellings were provided to households in greatest need in 2017–18; up from 59% (about 500) in 2013–14 (Productivity Commission 2019).

Of all newly allocated greatest needs households in social housing, many were assisted because they were experiencing homelessness. For:

  • public housing, half (50%, or 7,200) of newly allocated households were provided to households experiencing homelessness in 2017–18, down from a peak of 61% (9,100) in 2013–14
  • SOMIH, 43% (170) of newly allocated households were provided to the homeless in 2017–18, a decrease from a peak of 53% (235) in 2015­–16
  • mainstream community housing, 43% (4,700) of newly allocated households were provided to the homeless in 2017–18, down from 47% (3,100) in 2013–14 (AIHW 2019a).

Social housing dwellings

While the number of social housing dwellings has increased overall, it has not kept pace with population growth. Indeed, the number has decreased relative to the number of Australian households (AIHW 2019a).

  • In 2017–18, there were about 436,200 social housing dwellings, an increase from 408,800 in 2005–06.
  • The number of public housing dwellings declined from around 341,400 in 2005–06 to 316,200 in 2017–18. This was offset by an increase in community housing dwellings, from 32,300 to 87,800 over the same period.
  • The number of ‘other’ types of social housing dwellings (SOMIH, Indigenous community housing and NT remote dwellings) decreased from 35,100 to 32,200 over this period (Figure 1).

Wait lists and wait times

People meeting eligibility requirements for social housing are frequently placed on wait lists until a suitable dwelling becomes available. Factors that may affect a person’s position and influence the length of wait lists, include:

  • changes to allocation policies
  • priorities and eligibility criteria
  • people may refuse an option and be removed from the list
  • some people who wish to access social housing may not apply because of long waiting times or lack of available options in their preferred location (AIHW 2019a).

A reduction in the number of people on wait lists may not mean a decrease in demand for social housing dwellings, and applicants may be on more than one wait list. This means assessing the total number of people on wait lists is difficult.

Households assessed to be in greatest need are prioritised for housing:

  • Nationally at 30 June 2018, there were 140,600 total applicants awaiting a public housing allocation (a decrease from 154,600 at 30 June 2014), and 8,800 total applicants were awaiting allocation for a SOMIH dwelling (an increase from 8,000 at 30 June 2014).
  • Of those on the waiting list at 30 June 2018, around 45,800 new public housing applicants were classified as being in greatest need, up from 43,200 at 30 June 2014. For SOMIH, the number on the waiting list classified in greatest need was 4,700 at 30 June 2018, up from 3,800 at 30 June 2014.
  • In 2017–18, 43% of newly allocated public housing households and 62% of SOMIH households in greatest need (as defined by state and territory specific public housing criteria) spent less than 3 months on waiting lists (AIHW 2019a).

Overcrowding and underutilisation

Social housing dwelling size and configuration must be considered so dwellings meet household needs and to use social housing stock to greatest effect (AIHW 2019a).

Overcrowding occurs when a dwelling is too small for the size and composition of the household. A dwelling requiring at least 1 additional bedroom is designated as ‘overcrowded’. In 2017–18, the proportion of social housing dwellings with tenants living in overcrowded conditions were:

  • 3.8% of households in public housing; down from a peak of 4.6% in 2012–13
  • 24% of households in SOMIH
  • 4.3% of households in community housing; similar to 4.1% in 2013–14 (AIHW 2019a).

A dwelling is considered underutilised when two or more bedrooms are surplus to a household’s needs. In 2017–18, the proportion of social housing dwellings with tenants living in underutilised conditions was:

  • 10% of community housing households, a decrease from a peak of 13% in 2012–13
  • 17% of public housing households; relatively stable over the long term
  • 26% of SOMIH households; an increase from a low of 22% in 2012–13 (AIHW 2019a).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on housing assistance, see:

Visit Housing assistance for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2018. Census of population and housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016. ABS cat. no. 2049.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2016. Housing assistance in Australia 2016. Cat. no: WEB 136. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2018a. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018. Cat. no: FDV 2. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2018b. Housing assistance in Australia 2018. Cat. no. HOU 296. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019a. Housing assistance in Australia 2019. Cat. no. HOU 315. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019b. National Social Housing Survey 2018: Key results. Cat. no. HOU 311. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Government 2018. First Home Owner Grant. Viewed 28 February 2019,

Council of Federal Financial Relations 2018. National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. Viewed 28 February 2019.

DSS (Department of Social Services) 2014a. Department of Social Services Annual Report 2013–14. Canberra: DSS.

DSS 2014b. National Rental Affordability Scheme Quarterly Report. As at 31 December 2013. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 8 April 2019.

DSS 2018a. Department of Social Services Annual Report 2017–18. Canberra: DSS.

DSS 2018b. DSS Payment Demographic Data. DSS Demographics June 2018. Viewed 28 February 2019.

DSS 2018c. Housing support—about the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS). Viewed 28 February 2019.

DSS 2019a. Housing support—Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Viewed July 2019.

DSS 2019b. National Rental Affordability Scheme Quarterly Performance Report. As at 31 December 2018. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 28 February 2019.

DSS 2019c. NRAS Tenant Demographic Report—as at 30 April 2018. Viewed 28 February 2019.

Groenhart L & Burke T 2014. Thirty years of public housing supply and consumption: 1981–2011, AHURI final report no.231. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

Productivity Commission 2019. Report on Government Services 2019, Housing Chapter 18. Canberra/Melbourne: Productivity Commission.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Number of social housing dwellings, by social housing type, 2005–06 to 2017–18

The line graph shows that the number of public housing dwellings have declined from around 341,000 dwellings in 2005-06 to 316,000 in 2017–18. During the same time period, there was an increase in community housing dwellings, from around 32,000 to 88,000. The number of other types of social housing dwellings has declined from around 35,000 in 2005–06 to 32,000 in 2017–18. During the same time period, the total number of social housing dwellings has increased from 409,000 to 436,000.