Housing assistance

There is a range of assistance provided by the Australian and state and territory governments to people who find it difficult to sustain affordable and appropriate housing in the private marketplace. Housing assistance refers to both access to social housing (such as public housing) as well as targeted financial assistance for eligible Australians.

Access to affordable housing

Housing plays a critical role in the health and wellbeing of Australians (SCRGSP 2021). The lack of affordable housing puts households at an increased risk of experiencing housing stress, which can influence workforce participation, education attainment, social security and health. It can also place people at risk of homelessness (CSERC 2015; SCRGSP 2021; Rowley & Ong 2012).

Housing assistance can help people avoid housing stress, which improves household wellbeing (Rowley & Ong 2012). Assistance also enhances security of tenure, which improves social cohesion (Bridge et al. 2007).

For more information, see Housing affordability and Home ownership and housing tenure (AIHW 2021).

Drivers for people seeking housing assistance

Many factors can lead people to seek assistance with housing. Often it is when there are insufficient household resources to manage the impact of critical life events and/or housing market factors (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Drivers of requests for housing assistance

Figure 1: Drivers of requests for housing assistance. The diagram illustrates the relationships between the households with insufficient resources and those with sufficient resources. Households with insufficient resources may need to manage the impact of the availability of household resources (such as savings and income) as well as the availability of housing assistance (such as financial assistance and social housing). Households with sufficient resources may need to manage the impact of critical life events (such as unemployment/underemployment), housing market forces (such as security of tenure) and other influences (such as ageing).

Critical life events relate to significant life cycle milestones that lead to transitions, for example, the formation/breakdown of a family, experiencing family and domestic violence, ill health (mental or physical) or changes in working arrangements. Research shows that households that experience a number of adverse critical life events, affecting their social and economic circumstances, are more likely to need assistance in accessing or maintaining their housing (Stone et al. 2016).

Housing market factors such as limited access, unaffordability, insecure tenure, poor housing quality and safety that cannot be mitigated by household resources can be a driver for seeking housing assistance. These factors are influenced by critical life events, for example, the formation of a new household with an increase in the number of people who may face limited housing options as a result of limited suitable stock availability within a specific price range in a preferred area.

Households that experience a critical life event or are affected by housing market factors, rely on the household resources (such as savings, assets, or social networks) to ensure that they are able to access or sustain appropriate housing (Stone et al. 2015). Households with low incomes often lack the resources to insure against any negative impacts arising from critical life events and/or housing market factors leading them to require housing assistance.

Low-income household

A household whose equivalised gross income falls in the bottom two-fifths (40%) of households. This measure does not necessarily indicate eligibility for government assistance targeted at low-income households, and assistance may also be provided to households that do not meet this definition (ABS 2018).

Household transitions

Households may experience changing needs and events throughout the life course which may render them in need of assistance with housing and impact upon a household’s demand for assistance over time. Households need the greatest support at certain life stages such as when they experience unemployment or housing affordability issues (Stone et al. 2016).

Some households may need to access services once, while others might spend more time in the system (AIHW 2019). Those obtaining support may transition between receiving access to social housing, and private rental, home purchase or Specialist Homelessness Services (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Housing and specialist homelessness services transitions

Figure 2: Housing and specialist homelessness services transitions. The diagram illustrates the transitions between social housing, financial assistance—rent, financial assistance—home purchase and specialist homelessness services.

Housing assistance policy framework

Government policies and funding provide support for people whether they are homeless, at risk of homelessness or need support to secure/sustain housing. Governments are involved in housing assistance in three main areas: social housing services, financial assistance (private housing) and specialist homelessness services. Policies and programs operate at both national and state/territory levels.

Brief history of housing assistance

Post-World War II, there was a shortage of affordable and suitable housing due to the Great Depression and the use of labour and building materials for supporting the war effort (Dufty-Jones 2018). This resulted in the government focusing its attention on providing adequate housing as well as replacing slums (Troy 2012; Macintyre 2015).

In 1943, the Commonwealth Housing Commission was appointed by the Commonwealth government to evaluate the condition of Australia’s housing stock. The Commission estimated that there was a shortage of 300,000 dwellings and advised the Commonwealth to provide housing to overcome the deficit in housing. This resulted in the first Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA) in 1945.

The CSHA was an agreement between the Commonwealth-States/territories with the purpose of providing funds for the construction of new dwellings. This resulted in housing provision by governments becoming a more prominent part of the housing landscape. The 1945 CSHA has been updated numerous times and the 2003 CSHA was eventually replaced by the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) in 2009 (Parliament of Australia 2017), and since then superseded by the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement in 2018 (CFFR 2019).

Historically, social housing was built to stimulate the economy, to provide secure accommodation and to help people participate in the workforce (Roger 2016) and was made available to working families on low to moderately low incomes (Groenhart et al. 2014; AHURI 2020). From 1956 to 1973, the focus was to encourage home ownership and to support low-income households in the public rental market.

By the 1999 CSHA, the emphasis was to help families and individuals who could not be adequately housed in the private market. A key feature of this Agreement was that housing assistance should be based on need as opposed to the earlier notion of security of tenure (Parliament of Australia 2001).

With the introduction of the NAHA in 2009, social housing increasingly focused on assisting households with greater disadvantage and higher and more complex needs—those in greatest need, especially those experiencing homelessness (CFFR 2020).

National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA)

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA) came into effect on 1 July 2018. This agreement reformed previous funding agreements with states and territories (the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) supported by the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH)). The NHHA provides around $7.8 billion in Commonwealth funding to states and territories for the period of the agreement for housing and homelessness services.

The objective of the NHHA is to contribute to improving access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum. The agreement covers social housing and support for people experiencing homelessness or those at risk of homelessness (CFFR 2020).

Housing assistance funding

In 2019–20, the Australian Government funding under the NHHA was $1.6 billion. A further $4.7 billion was spent on Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which in real terms has been relatively stable for a number of years. Net recurrent expenditure by state and territory government on social housing was $4.3 billion in 2019–20, a decrease in real terms from $4.1 billion in 2018–19. State and territory government capital (non-recurrent) expenditure on social housing was $1.4 billion in 2019–­20 (SCRGSP 2021).

Types of housing assistance

Housing assistance explored throughout this report includes:

  • the provision of social housing, owned and managed by government and non-government organisations, including:
    • public housing (PH)
    • state owned and managed Indigenous housing (SOMIH)
    • community housing (CH)
    • Indigenous community housing (ICH)
  • financial assistance with rental costs for those in the private market, including:
    • Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA)
    • Private Rent Assistance (PRA)
  • financial assistance with home purchase, including:
    • Home Purchase Assistance (HPA)

The report does not cover the provision of services to assist in obtaining accommodation or sustaining tenancies, provided by Specialist Homelessness Services. For information relating to homelessness services, see Specialist homelessness services annual report (AIHW 2020c).

Definitions of housing assistance programs

Social housing

  • Public housing: Rental housing managed by all state and territory housing authorities. 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. It is accessed by those on low incomes and/or with greatest and/or special needs. Indigenous Australians can access public housing.
  • Community housing: Housing managed by community-based organisations, available to low to moderate income or special needs households. CH models vary across states and territories, and the housing stock may be owned by a variety of groups including government. Indigenous Australians can access community housing.
  • State owned and managed Indigenous housing: Housing that state and territory governments provide and manage. It is accessed by those on low incomes and/or with special need and is available to households that have at least one member who identifies as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin.
  • Indigenous community housing: Housing that Indigenous communities own and/or manage. These organisations may either directly manage the dwellings they own or sublease tenancy management services to the relevant state/territory housing authority or another organisation. This type of housing is made available to households with at least one Indigenous member (AIHW 2020a).

Financial assistance with rental costs

  • Commonwealth Rent Assistance: This is a payment provided by the Australian government to eligible families and individuals who pay or are liable to pay private rent or community housing rent. Commonwealth Rent Assistance is paid at 75 cents for every dollar above a minimum rental threshold until a maximum rate (or ceiling) is reached. The minimum threshold and maximum rates vary according to the household or family situation, including the number of children (DSS 2019). Indigenous Australians who are eligible can access this program.
  • Private Rent Assistance: This is financial assistance administered by each state and territory government. It provides a range of financial assistance to low-income households experiencing difficulty in securing or maintaining private rental accommodation. Private Rent Assistance is usually provided as a one-off form of support—such as bond loans and rental grants—but can also include ongoing rental subsidies and payment of relocation expenses (AIHW 2020b). Indigenous Australians who are eligible can access this program.

Financial assistance with home purchase

  • Home Purchase Assistance: This is a form of government financial assistance administered by each state and territory. It provides a range of financial assistance to eligible households to improve their access to, and maintain, home ownership. Home Purchase Assistance may vary from state to state and some products are not offered by all states and territories (AIHW 2020b).
  • Indigenous Business Australia: This program provides home purchase assistance to Indigenous Australian clients (IBA 2021).

Government assistance for home ownership

The First Home Loan Deposit (FHLD) Scheme became active on 1 January 2020. It provides a guarantee for eligible first home buyers on low and middle incomes to purchase a home (up to a maximum purchase price) with a deposit of as little as 5 per cent and without needing to pay for lenders mortgage insurance. The FHLD scheme has released 10,000 places this first financial year (NHFIC 2020). As part of the 2020–21 Federal Budget, the Australian Government committed an additional 10,000 First Home Loan Deposit Scheme (FHLDS) places for the 2020–21 financial year, specifically for eligible first home buyers purchasing new homes (NHFIC 2020).

First Home Super Saver Scheme, introduced by the Australian Government in the 2017–18 Federal Budget, supports first homebuyers who meet the eligibility criteria to save money for a house deposit using their superannuation fund. They can voluntarily contribute up to $15,000 in any one financial year, and $30,000 in total under the scheme. They receive the tax benefit of saving through their superannuation contribution arrangements (ATO 2021).

The Indigenous Home Ownership Program helps to facilitate Indigenous Australians into home ownership through providing access to affordable home loan finance. The program aims to address barriers such as loan affordability, low savings, impaired credit histories and limited experience with long-term loan commitments (IBA 2021).

The National Disability Insurance Scheme funds Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) for a small number of NDIS participants with extreme functional impairment or very high support needs when deemed necessary and reasonable. SDA funding is used to stimulate investment in the building of new dwellings for NDIS participants (NDIS 2020).

The First Home Owner Grant scheme, introduced nationally on 1 July 2000, is funded by the state and territory governments and administered under their legislation. A one-off grant is payable to first homeowners who apply and satisfy eligibility criteria (Australian Government 2020). Additional schemes may also be in place in states/territories, such as first home buyer exemptions from some transfer duties.

Some of these forms of assistance can be used in conjunction with one another and/or state and territory first homeowner grants and stamp duty concessions.

These types of assistance are not the focus of this report.