Raising the Roof on Housing Insecurity

Using the stories of society’s most vulnerable to effect positive change for renters.

Single, older women who rent and have had low incomes throughout their lives often live in fear of eviction — and sometimes have to rely on charity for food. Western Sydney University’s Associate Professor Emma Power has gathered first-hand accounts from these women to lobby for changes.

The gender wage gap means their superannuation is inadequate, and private rentals are out of reach, explains Power. “Single, older women are one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people in the country.”

One of the most striking accounts she has heard was that of a Sydney-based tenant in her late 60s. The tenant had asked her landlord to repair a leaking roof. By the time he acted, after two years of requests, her rental accommodation was mouldy and 40% was uninhabitable. The landlord then increased the rent by 20%, which forced the tenant to move.

While recent amendments to the NSW Residential Tenancies Act 2010 now mandate minimum standards to be maintained throughout a tenancy, it is still very difficult for less wealthy, older tenants to negotiate for repairs because they fear rental increases or retaliatory eviction.

Need to know

  • Single, older women are one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people in Australia.
  • Emma Power conducted interviews to find out more about experiences with housing.
  • She is lobbying for changes to NSW tenancy laws and housing support structures.

Power interviewed 46 female Sydney-based renters, aged from 55 to their early 80s. Participants were either on Newstart (an Australian government income support scheme for unemployed people), the disability or aged pension, or had very low or erratic earnings.

The soaring Sydney property market meant that a large proportion of their income was absorbed by rent, so many cut down on electricity, heating or food. Some relied on food handouts.

Power described one woman who worked in a low paid community services job. In winter, when heating bills were high, she relied on a church’s weekly food pantry.

Power has advocated for changes to NSW tenancy laws so that rental housing standards are specific and measurable, as they are in New Zealand. She would also like to see JobSeeker increase, more social housing and an end to evictions without grounds. In 2020, Power published a report for policy-makers trying to drive such changes. It has been cited in Parliamentary debates in NSW.

In March 2022 the NSW Parliament established an enquiry into homelessness of people aged over 55. At these hearings, Power highlighted the importance of social housing and the struggles from being continually displaced.

“When I met older women who’d been offered a place in social housing, I asked them what it meant to them,” she said. “Their response was nearly always the same…affordable rents in social housing brought them the capacity to plan. They still had to manage their money carefully, but they now had the capacity to independently buy food and cover essential bills.”

Power is now interviewing more people accessing income support payments to better understand how they use social networks and crisis support to make ends meet.

Associate Professor | Doctor Emma Power

Emma Power is an Associate Professor in urban geography at Western Sydney University. Her ‘Cities of Care’ research programme develops new insights into the caring potential of cities, focusing on the needs of low-income and older households, including income support recipients.

An ARC DECRA Fellow, her work has brought attention to the housing experiences of low-income households and single older women at risk of homelessness in Australia. Current projects investigate: the infrastructures that support low-income households to make-ends meet; heat adaptation in social housing; and the social value of affordable rental co-operative housing in Australia.

Emma contributes to public policy debates nationally, appearing in radio and print media across Australia, and through opinion editorials in The Conversation, and Parity, the national homelessness journal. She is joint Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Housing Policy and co-founder of the Housing Journal Podcast.

Emma is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Housing Policy and co-founder of the Housing Journal Podcast.


This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.