Introduction

Many people cannot afford to rent or buy a home, so government programs provide Australians with assistance for housing. The support programs are diverse, ranging 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 access government services and payments to assist with the cost of housing.

Commonwealth Rent Assistance is a non-taxable income supplement, generally paid fortnightly to eligible recipients (DSS 2022a). It is paid at the rate of 75 cents for every dollar above the rent threshold until a maximum rate of payment is reached. Rent thresholds and maximum rates vary depending on the household or family situation, including the number of children (DSS 2019).

Australian Government real expenditure (adjusted for inflation) on Commonwealth Rent Assistance increased from $4.7 billion in 2016–17 to $5.3 billion in 2020–21 (SCRGSP 2022).

Private rent assistance is provided by state and territory governments to low–income households experiencing difficulty in securing or maintaining private rental accommodation. In 2020–21, it assisted about 62,900 unique households, a decrease from 94,100 in 2013–14 (AIHW 2022).

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 organisations that provide dwellings for rent to eligible occupants at 80% or less of market value rent (DSS 2022b).

As at 31 March 2022, there were 28,100 financial incentives issued through the scheme for dwellings that were tenanted or available for rent (DSS 2022c).

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 and 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 that state and territory governments provide and manage. 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 occupants.
  2. Community housing (previously termed 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 2022).

Who receives rental market housing assistance?

As at the end of June 2021, 1.5 million income units (a person or group of related persons in a household whose income is shared, see glossary) were receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance, a decrease from 1.7 million income units in 2020 (AIHW 2022).

Of the 1.5 million Australian individuals or couples (the reference person) receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance, as at the end of June 2021:

  • 44% were Single with no dependent children
  • 3 in 10 (30%) were aged 25 to 39 years
  • 28% received JobSeeker Payment as their primary payment type (AIHW 2022).

In 2020–21, there were about 62,900 unique households receiving private rent assistance; a decrease from 94,100 in 2013–14. Of these:

  • nearly 3 in 10 (29%) were provided to households with the main applicant aged 25–34, and 1 in 6 (17%) were aged 15–24
  • 18% were provided to Indigenous households
  • 55% were earning a gross income of less than $700 per week (or around $36,400 per year) (AIHW 2022).

As at 30 April 2021, around 54,800 occupants lived in 30,000 dwellings accommodated under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Of these:

  • 55% were aged 18–54
  • 5.8% identified as Indigenous
  • 10% had a disability
  • 33% received rent assistance (DSS 2022d).

Impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic has had social and economic impacts on Australia since March 2020. In response to the impacts from the pandemic and the increase in the unemployment rate, the Australian government made temporary changes to social security payments. These modifications increased both the number of people who were eligible for income support payments, and those that received it (Parliamentary Library 2020).

The main income support payments available for individuals aged 16–65 who are able to work yet unable to support themselves are JobSeeker and Youth Allowance (Other) (see glossary) (Services Australia 2022b). Working age people, in specific situations, may also be eligible to access Disability Support Pension, Parenting Payment and Carer Payment (Services Australia 2022a, 2022b, 2022c).

To receive Commonwealth Rent Assistance, a person or family must qualify for an eligible social security payment that exceeds the base rate of Family Tax Benefit Part A, or an eligible Department of Veterans’ Affairs service pension, or income support supplement. The recipient must also pay or is liable to pay more than a minimum amount of rent for their principal home to qualify (DSS 2019).

There was an increase in the number of households receiving rent assistance from 1.3 million in March 2020 to 1.5 million in June 2021. The total Commonwealth Rent Assistance recipients increased from 1.3 million in 2018–19 to 1.7 million in 2019–20. This was driven largely by the increase in the number of households receiving JobSeeker Payment (DSS 2022a).

  • The number of recipients receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance who were also receiving Jobseeker increased from 291,500 in March 2020 to 644,300 in June 2020; falling to 418,000 in June 2021.
  • Newstart/JobSeeker Payment and Youth Allowance (Other) increased from 769,600 in June 2019 to 1.6 million in June 2020; falling to 1.1 million in June 2021 (DSS 2021; DSS 2022a; AIHW 2022).

Social housing occupants

Across Australia in 2020–21, there were around 790,000 occupants living in Australia’s 3 main social housing programs:

  • 70% were in public housing
  • 24% were in community housing
  • 6% were in SOMIH (AIHW 2022).

Most social housing occupants were female (55%) in 2020–21 (AIHW 2022). Factors such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial difficulty can put women at risk of homelessness and in need of social housing (AIHW 2021).

Of the 401,200 households in Australia’s 3 main social housing programs:

  • About 1 in 7 (15%) included an Indigenous member at 30 June 2021, compared with 14% at 30 June 2019.
  • Over one-third (36%) reported having an occupant with a disability at 30 June 2021, compared to 37% at 30 June 2019.
  • Around 3 in 5 (57%) consisted of single adults at 30 June 2021, compared with 56% at 30 June 2019 (AIHW 2020; AIHW 2022).

In 2020–21, 37% of public housing occupants and 33% of community housing occupants were aged 55 years or over. Almost 1 in 3 (31%) of occupants in public housing and 34% in community housing were aged 25–54. Also, 21% of public housing occupants and 20% of community housing occupants were children aged 0–14 (AIHW 2022).

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, the proportion of newly allocated dwellings provided to households in greatest need has been increasing since 2013–14. Of the newly allocated households in:

  • Public housing; 81% (around 12,300) were provided to those in greatest need in 2020–21, an increase from 74% (about 15,300) in 2013–14.
  • Community housing; 86% (about 11,800) were provided to those in greatest need in 2020–21, up from 75% (around 9,300) in 2013–14.
  • SOMIH; 65% (about 300) were provided to those in greatest need in 2020–21, an increase from 59% (about 440) in 2013–14 (AIHW 2022).

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

  • In public housing, around 6 in 10 (58%, or 7,100) were provided to those experiencing homelessness in 2020–21, down from a peak of 59% (9,100) in 2013–14.
  • In SOMIH, 66% (200) were provided to those experiencing homelessness in 2020–21, an increase from 47% (190) in 2019­–20.
  • In community housing, 48% (5,300) were provided to those experiencing homelessness in 2020–21, up from 43% (3,100) in 2013–14 (AIHW 2022).

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; the proportion of social housing households has steadily declined since 2011, from 4.8% to 4.2% in 2021 (AIHW 2022). In terms of the number of dwellings:

  • At 30 June 2021, there were about 440,200 social housing dwellings, an increase from 408,800 at 30 June 2006.
  • The number of public housing dwellings declined from around 341,400 at 30 June 2006 to 299,500 at 30 June 2021. This decline was offset by an increase in community housing dwellings, from 32,300 to 108,500 over the same period.
  • The number of ‘other’ types of social housing dwellings (SOMIH and Indigenous community housing) decreased from 35,100 to 32,200 over this period (AIHW 2022) (Figure 1).
     

The line graph shows that the number of public housing dwellings have declined from around 341,400 dwellings at 30 June 2006 to 299,500 in 2021. During the same time period, there was an increase in community housing dwellings, from around 32,300 to 108,500. The number of other types of social housing dwellings has declined from around 35,100 at 30 June 2006 to 32,200 in 2021. During the same time period, the total number of social housing dwellings has increased from 408,800 to 440,200.

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.

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 2021, there were 163,500 households waiting for a public housing allocation (an increase from 154,600 at 30 June 2014), and 12,100 households were waiting for a SOMIH dwelling (an increase from 8,000 at 30 June 2014).
  • Of those on the waiting list at 30 June 2021, 41% (67,700) new public housing applicants were classified as being in greatest need, an increase from 28% (43,200) at 30 June 2014. For SOMIH, the number on the waiting list classified in greatest need was 54% (6,400) at 30 June 2021, up from 48% (3,800) at 30 June 2014.
  • In 2020–21, 44% of newly allocated greatest needs households in public housing and 45% of newly allocated greatest needs households in SOMIH (as defined by state and territory specific public housing criteria) spent less than 3 months on waiting lists (AIHW 2022).

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.

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’. At 30 June 2021, the proportion of social housing dwellings with households living in overcrowded conditions were:

  • 4.2% in public housing, down from 4.6% in 2014
  • 25% in SOMIH, an increase from 10% in 2014
  • 3.9% in community housing, similar to 4.1% in 2014 (AIHW 2022).

A dwelling is considered underutilised when two or more bedrooms are surplus to a household’s needs. At 30 June 2021, the proportion of social housing dwellings with households living in underutilised conditions were:

  • 17% in public housing, relatively stable over the long term
  • 27% in SOMIH, an increase from a low of 23% in 2014
  • 11% in community housing, the same as 2014 (AIHW 2022).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on housing assistance, see:

Visit Housing assistance for more on this topic.

AIHW (2020) Housing assistance in Australia, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

AIHW (2021) Specialist homelessness services annual report 2020–21, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

AIHW (2022) Housing assistance in Australia, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 29 June 2022.

Council of Federal Financial Relations (2018) The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, Federal Financial Relations website, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (Department of Social Services) (2019) Housing support—Commonwealth Rent Assistance, DSS website, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (2021), Department of Social Services Annual Report 2019–20, DSS, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (2022a), Department of Social Services Annual Report 2020–21, DSS, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (2022b), Housing support—About the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), DSS website, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (2022c), March 2022 – NRAS Quarterly Performance Reportational Rental, DSS, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

DSS (2022d), Housing support—NRAS Tenant Demographic Report - as at 30 April 2021, DSS, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.

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

Parliamentary Library (PL) (2020) The impact of COVID-19 on JobSeeker Payment recipient numbers by electorate, PL website, accessed 24 June 2022.

Services Australia (2022a) Carer Payment - Services Australia, SA website, accessed 29 June 2022.

Services Australia (2022b) Disability Support Pension, SA website, accessed 24 June 2022.

Services Australia (2022c) Top payments, SA website, accessed 24 June 2022.

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) (2022) Report on Government Services 2022, Productivity Commission, Australian Government, accessed 24 June 2022.