A child’s access to safe, stable and adequate shelter is recognised as a basic human need. Shelter is generally considered to be a safe and secure place of one’s own where the routines of daily life can be established, enabling children and their families to engage with the wider community—socially, recreationally, and economically. Having adequate housing is also important for physical and mental health (AIHW 2018).

Shelter is closely linked to the social and emotional aspects of a child’s wellbeing, as it acts as a secure base from which children can engage in social interactions, enhance self-esteem and maintain self-identity.

The housing components affecting children’s development and wellbeing include:

  • home ownership
  • housing costs (related to mortgage repayments or rent) and associated financial stress
  • mobility (frequency of house moves)
  • homelessness
  • overcrowding
  • characteristics of the dwelling, including environmental allergens, cleanliness and disrepair (AIHW 2018; Sartbayeva 2016).

This domain focuses on homelessness, overcrowding and housing stress.

Why is housing important?

Access to safe, stable and adequate housing is important for the health and wellbeing of children. Homeless children can experience schooling disruptions, food insecurity and an increased risk of being homeless as adolescents and adults (Crawford et al. 2015; Fantuzzo et al. 2012; Flatau et al. 2012).

Children living in overcrowded housing have an increased risk of emotional and behavioural problems and reduced school performance as overcrowded living arrangements may disrupt their sleep, ability to concentrate, and reduce space for study (Solari et al. 2012).

Children in families experiencing housing stress (spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs, such as mortgage repayments or rent) are also at risk of adverse health and wellbeing outcomes.

Increased housing stress may compromise parental mental health and reduce the money available to spend on children’s food, healthcare and education (Robinson & Adams 2008; Taylor & Edwards 2012). In contrast, better housing affordability is often associated with better health, academic achievement and school engagement for children (Clair 2018).

The governance supporting children’s access to housing

While parents and carers have the primary role in providing a safe and secure living arrangement for their children, governments determine the policy framework within which the housing market operates and intervene to support housing outcomes for particular groups (Department of Social Services 2019)

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA), which came into effect on 1 July 2018, replaced the National Affordable Housing Agreement and National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

The NHHA is an agreement between the Australian Government and state and territory governments. It aims to improve access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing, prevent and address homelessness, and support social and economic participation (AIHW 2019a).

The Australian Government provides funding under the NHHA to states and territories to improve access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum. This includes funding to prevent and address homelessness and support social and economic participation (Council of Federal Financial Relations 2018). The Australian Government is responsible for monitoring the expenditure of specialist homelessness programs, and monitoring and assessing performance under the NHHA to ensure outputs are delivered on time.

Australian Government responsibilities

Under the NHHA, the Australian Government is also responsible for:

  • financial sector regulations and Commonwealth taxation settings that influence housing affordability
  • income support and Commonwealth Rent Assistance
  • Commonwealth own-purpose housing and homelessness-related programs and services
  • the operations of the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation
  • the collection and publication of housing, homelessness and housing affordability-related data.

State and territory government responsibilities

State and territory governments also provide funding under the NHHA and are primarily responsible for service delivery. These governments ensure housing and homelessness programs are within NHHA scope and are useful to the community.

Under the NHHA, state and territory governments are also responsible for:

  • the collection of data from housing providers and agencies providing services to people who are homeless
  • land use, supply and urban planning and development policy, as well as tenancy legislation and regulation
  • legislation to support community housing operations
  • housing-related state taxes, and state-based policy and services associated with residential development (CFFR 2018).

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) responsibilities

The AIHW plays a role in developing and maintaining the national metadata standards for national data collection on social housing and homelessness.

Data on social housing are provided annually to the AIHW by the states and territories. Data about specialist homelessness services are provided directly to the AIHW by agencies and state/territory government departments monthly for more than 1,500 homelessness agencies to include in the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC).

National housing strategies and agreements supporting children

Along with the NHHA, the importance of safe, stable and adequate housing is acknowledged in several other national strategies or agreements (Table 1).

The priority homelessness reform areas identified by the NHHA are:

  • achievement of better outcomes for people
  • early intervention and prevention
  • commitment to service program and design (AIHW 2018).

The NHHA identifies a number of national priority groups, including:

  • children and young people
  • women and children affected by family and domestic violence
  • people exiting institutions and care into homelessness.

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 (the National Framework) was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in 2009. It is a long-term approach to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children. A supporting outcome for the National Framework is that risk factors for child abuse and neglect are addressed. Unstable family accommodation and homelessness is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect. Assistance through homelessness services has therefore been included as an indicator in the national framework (DSS 2009).

The Healthy, Safe and Thriving: National Strategic Framework for Child and Youth Health was endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) in 2015 and provides a 10-year overarching vision of child and youth health. The framework recognises the importance of adequate housing for children. One of its priorities to support children and young people to live in healthy and safe homes, communities and environments (AHMAC 2015).

Table 1: National strategies and agreements relevant to housing

Topic area



National Housing and Homelessness Agreement


National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020


Healthy, Safe and Thriving: National Strategic Framework for Child and Youth Health

What’s missing?

The sections in this domain include a number of established national indicators; however, consistent national reporting is not available in some areas due to lack of a suitable data source and/or indicator. For more information on national data gaps, see Data gaps.

A number of topics were not included for other reasons but could be considered for future updates.

Children's subjective view of housing and other living arrangements

Subjective data on how children view their living situation, including problems associated with homelessness, overcrowding and housing stress, are limited.

Pathways, transitions and outcomes

Some data are available on the housing outcomes of specialist homelessness services’ clients at the end of each financial year (AIHW 2019b), and on the characteristics of children in contact with specialist homelessness services, and the child protection and youth justice systems (AIHW 2016). However, routinely collected national data are not available on the:

  • pathways into and out of homelessness for children and their families
  • longer-term outcomes of young people who experience homelessness, overcrowding and housing stress, such as housing, health, education and employment.

National comprehensive prevalence data on homelessness

National data on the prevalence of homeless is based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census of Population and Housing, which relies on the self-reporting of living arrangements. Census data are unlikely to capture the true extent of homeless especially among specific sub-populations, such as young people who are homeless and couch surfing and people experiencing homeless due to domestic and family violence (ABS 2018).

Other related factors

Many other related factors are important to the overall health and wellbeing of children, such as housing:

  • tenure
  • assistance
  • quality
  • mobility.

For more information on some of these factors, see: Housing data dashboard.