older man

What’s needed to help older tenants age in public housing?

The proportion of public housing tenants aged 55 or older across Australia has risen from 20 per cent in 2006 to 37 per cent in 2016, resulting in the need for changes to public housing policy and practice, new AHURI has revealed.

17 Nov 2021

The research, ‘Ageing well in public housing’, examines how public housing authorities can support older tenants to age well in their homes, and was undertaken for AHURI by researchers from University of South Australia, University of Tasmania and University of New South Wales.

‘We found older tenants’ experiences in public housing are variable,’ says lead author of the report, Dr Debbie Faulkner, University of South Australia. ‘For some tenants, the tenure provides a range of qualities, supports and experiences that they highly value and which promote ageing well. For other tenants, particularly people in less well functioning or disruptive communities where antisocial behaviour issues are prevalent, their public housing experience has been detrimental to their quality of life.’

Public housing authorities (PHAs) hold significant responsibility for the environments in which older tenants live. Being able to live in environments that support and maintain a person’s intrinsic capacity and functional ability is seen by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the key to healthy ageing. Older tenants’ abilities to age in place are reliant on the policy and practices of the housing system, and especially the support of those workers within the system with whom they have direct contact.

The professional participants (frontline workers, tenancy practitioners for example) in this study raised (and reinforced) a range of issues around the needs and expectations of older tenants, particularly related to personal and family issues and their need for care or additional supports. Notably, many professionals pointed out the lack of family supports and some prevalence of abuse by family members and others in the community among their older public tenants highlighting the importance of practitioner support within the public housing system.

The researchers also interviewed older people who were in or had lived in the public housing system to explore how older Australians have been supported during their tenancies and what they feel is needed to successfully age in place. In particular, they found tenants saw their public housing dwelling as their home: connected to a sense of psychological safety, comfort, happiness and a deep sense of place.

Based on Australia’s population demographics, the ageing of current tenants and the increasing numbers of older people facing adversity in the private rental market (including risk or reality of homelessness), demands on PHAs from older people are only expected to increase. PHAs have enacted policy and practice changes which impact on older people including tighter targeting of eligibility criteria to need; development (though limited) of accessible and appropriate stock; (mostly voluntary) downsizing and rightsizing programs; and improving connections with formal and informal supports for older tenants.

While most states and territories have ‘ageing well’ informed frameworks in place, which universally reference housing as an important life domain, in most jurisdictions there remains a disconnect between such frameworks and housing policies. PHAs are struggling to maintain the type of functioning housing and support system older people need and this raises the question as to whether public housing continues to be an appropriate housing option for older people to age well.

‘Indeed, it is concerning that some jurisdictions are moving to an asset management driven model and away from case consideration or a social landlord style model of support and care’, says Dr Faulkner. ‘This study confirms the invaluable role tenancy support or practitioner roles play in improving tenancy experiences and sense of agency for older people. For PHAs, moving towards a social landlord model and working in partnership with other providers can be seen as a better pathway to meet the needs and expectations of older tenants.’

Read this report

Ageing well in public housing