Families waiting for public housing frustrated as almost 1,400 government-owned properties sit empty in WA

When I was a landlord, I did from time to time have tenants leaving my property in a mess. I usually had the place habitable again within a week -- usually by bogging in myself to do a cleanup. When government is the landlord, however it commmonly takes months to get the property ready for new tenants. It stays vacant meanwhile. An old-old story about government inefficiency

Families experiencing homelessness in regional Western Australia say public housing is sitting empty and boarded up for months and even years at a time — forcing some into overcrowded and unsafe living conditions.

Geraldton woman Dena Comeagain and her two-year-old son Boston have been relying on family members for a place to live since July, after a series of private rentals they were living in were sold.

Ms Comeagain is on the priority housing waitlist, but she could still be waiting over a year for a house.

She said the past few months — moving between crowded houses and not knowing when they would have a place of their own — had been unsettling.

"It's taking a toll on me now; everything is, with being homeless," Ms Comeagain said.

"I just want to get up and go, but I can't because I have nowhere else to go.

Ms Comeagain's frustration builds when she sees empty public housing boarded up around Geraldton.

As of June, there were 191 vacant public homes in the Midwest and Gascoyne, which includes the regional centres of Geraldton and Carnarvon.

There were 1,380 houses across the state sitting vacant.

In December last year, the Midwest-Gascoyne had the highest rate of vacant public housing in WA at 13.7 per cent — three times the state average.

The December figures, which were provided to WA parliament earlier this year, show empty public housing has been climbing over the past three years.

Statewide, empty public housing increased from 2.5 per cent in December 2020 to 4.2 per cent in December 2022.

Ms Comeagain said she had called the Department of Communities about empty properties she thought could be suitable for her and Boston.

"I am angry when they keep telling me the same yarn over and over ... that's their job, to get the people so they can be fixed, so people can be housed."

Ms Comeagain is not alone in her frustration.

A report to a parliamentary committee on the Funding of Homelessness Services in WA, released in June, found there was a significant number of public housing properties in Western Australia that were vacant or under-utilised.

The parliamentary committee heard anecdotal evidence of properties that had been empty for many months, and even years.

Ten people under one roof

Housing advocates are also concerned that lack of public housing is a factor contributing to unsafe overcrowding.

Over the past few months, Ms Comeagain and Boston have stayed with family members, and at times there have been 10 people living under one roof.

Ms Comeagain she found the overcrowded living difficult, especially after hearing about the death of a 10-month-old baby in the Midwest in July while awaiting public housing.

"I could be in the same situation. I'm a single mother and I'm living the same way those girls were with their babies," she said. "We want to break that cycle.

"[The Department of Communities] should be able to house people so they can have a safe home for their babies."

Ms Comeagain craves stability. "Having a safe haven for my baby, putting him in daycare and getting my life back on track, getting a job again and just being stable," she said.

Potential health issues

Veteran housing advocate Betsy Buchanan said it was difficult for families in desperate need to see empty houses. "I think it's it makes them feel very powerless and very unheard," Ms Buchanan said.

She said overcrowding led to many health issues. "It means that the children get very ill ... that places huge stress on the entire family and the mothers and grandmothers often feel personally responsible, when the overcrowding is really triggering a lot of the illness," she said.

A Department of Communities spokesperson said the number of vacant public housing properties in the region had dropped by 50 since last December, with 35 properties and 12 units being refurbished.

Another 12 "untenable" properties were demolished to make way for a road reserve.

The spokesperson pointed to damage caused by tenants as a factor contributing to properties being vacant, alongside the lingering impact of Tropical Cyclone Seroja and the collapse of the department's property maintenance contractor in the region, Pindan, in 2021.


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