When our kids were growing up, we had a few favourite Christmas traditions. Some we inherited from my partner’s Lithuanian family, such as celebrating the Kūčios (Christmas Eve) banquet which consisted of 12 dishes, and others were classic Australian, like escaping for a week at the coast.
We loved doing these things every year because they reminded us of how lucky we were to have each other, and to have a home and gifts for our children. But there are some things we have never done.
We have never missed out on Christmas dinner because we couldn’t afford to buy food for our special meal. We have never been unable to buy gifts for our children because our money couldn’t stretch that far. Sure, a couple of years were a little tight, but we were still able to pay for housing, utilities, food and other essentials, and have money left for special Christmas treats.
Nothing hurts parents more than seeing their children miss out. I don’t mean not getting everything on their Christmas lists. I’m talking about being surrounded by the abundance of Christmas, in the stores, on the TV and in the homes of their friends, and knowing it’s something their family can’t take part in. For many Canberra families, there is very little money left once they have paid their rent. Extras such as school excursions, family outings or holidays and new clothes are out of reach not only at Christmas, but all the time.
Canberra’s housing affordability crisis is an invisible problem, because a family that has a roof over its head is not homeless, and is therefore not regarded as needing emergency support. As long as a family is surviving, there is little concern about whether or not it is thriving.
However, the latest release of the Rental Affordability Index found Canberra is one of the toughest cities for low-income renters. It found that single parents, single-income families, young people on benefits and pensioners were all spending close to a third of their income on rent. Some single mothers were found to be spending as much as 60 per cent of their income on housing.
This is the first time the affordability index has included data for Canberra, and it indicates an improvement in affordability in the past five years for average income households. But for those at the lower end of the income scale there is no good news, with 37,000 Canberrans living in low income households, including more than 8,000 children, according to a report released in October by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra.
Canberra is a prosperous city and a caring one. We showed this just recently when we came together for the highest national vote to support marriage equality. None of us wants anyone to be left behind. But as long as the families struggling to deal with the cost of housing are invisible, we are letting our most vulnerable miss out – not just at Christmas time, but every day.
This is the time when the Government is making decisions about its spending for the coming financial year. We need to demand, as a community, that our Government dedicates real funding for a solution – not a $1 million innovation fund, but a $100 million investment in housing that low income earners can afford, without having to miss out on the things that most of us take for granted, especially at Christmas.