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Skyrocketing rental costs pushing older women into shared housing

by Narges Mohammadi

AUSTRALIA/Yasha Watkins and Faye Paliadelis are pensioners who are doing something in their retirement they never thought possible.

They’re house sharing.

And it’s not by choice — they say skyrocketing rents on the Gold Coast have forced them into it.

“We’re women that have worked here all our lives, paid our taxes, raised our children, our children are paying taxes,” Faye says.

“Yet here we are in a position where we have to depend on each other to keep a roof over our heads.”

Across Australia, rent inflation is at record levels, and as the former Reserve Bank governor recently acknowledged, that’s changing the way we live.

“As rents go up, people decide not to move out of home or don’t have that home office; they might get a flatmate,” Philip Lowe told Senate estimates in May.

But for single women over 55, finding a flatmate is easier said than done.

“Sharing is not something older women would want to do,” says researcher Therese Hall, who has interviewed dozens of women under housing stress on the Gold Coast and northern New South Wales as part of her doctoral thesis through the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

“They’d rather have their own space, especially women who have lived on their own for many years.

“These women have given up such a lot before they’ve got to this stage. They’ve given up an expectation of a home of their own in which to age in place, and many of them have given up housefuls of furniture and a lot of their personal items accrued over their lifetime.”

‘We would probably end up couch surfing’

Yasha, who is on an age pension, says making the move into shared accommodation and being forced to downsize was challenging.

“It’s traumatic to lose a lot of things,” she said.

“I quite often find myself saying, ‘Oh I used to have one of those,’ but it’s the only thing that makes moving house so much easier.”

Yasha, who is 71 and a cancer survivor, also had a tough time finding the right flatmate, living with different people and moving six times over the past three years.

“I looked at ads, went and met the people, moved in, six weeks later I’ve got to move out because of fears of somebody has a crossbow, machetes, was mentally unstable, people leering at me across the room,” she says.

Yasha was introduced to Faye through a mutual friend earlier this year, and they both say the arrangement is working well. Although they feel the Gold Coast unit they’re renting together is too small and expensive.

“We grabbed this because there was nothing else, there was just nothing else,” explains Faye, who is 66 and on a disability pension.

“It would be nothing for us to become homeless. You know, if they put this rent up, we would probably end up couch surfing — and that’s not a nice option to have.”

Yasha says the rent takes up about 60 per cent of her weekly pension, but she’s learned to get by.

“I’ve lost six kilos so far – I really have to count my pennies,” she says.

‘Essentially strangers to each other’

Other women in a similar situation and looking for a flatmate often turn to the numerous social media networks that have emerged over the past few years as rents have gone up, with an estimated 10,000 participants Australia-wide.

“Women in these groups have things in common – they’ve got their gender, they’ve got their age and they’ve got their circumstances – but they’re still essentially strangers to each other,” Therese Hall explains.

Retired businesswoman Helene Newson set up her own Gold Coast network this year. She says the group tries to avoid dwelling on the negatives.

“We’ve all got a lot of stories about why we’re here and what’s happened to us in life or bad sharing situations … I’ve had to say to them, can we please keep it positive,” she says.

“A lot of them are not prepared, but they’re having to be prepared and to accept reality because what’s the alternative?”

“The rents down here on the Gold Coast are absolutely ridiculous — they’re charging $500 to 600 [a week] for a granny flat.”

The federal government recently announced it would build 30,000 new affordable social homes across Australia over the next five years.

But Helene says policymakers should also look at changing social security laws to encourage age pensioners with secure housing to officially lease out rooms.

“The people who have rooms to offer don’t want to declare it if they’re on a pension, don’t want to declare their income, so they’re asking people not to go on a lease,” she says.

All agree finding a flatmate is not the ultimate solution to this housing crisis for older single women.

But it’s working for now for Yasha and Faye.

“I always try and think of the positive side of things,” Yasha says.

“There’s always got to be a silver lining.”

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