Home is where the tent is
When disability support worker Julieann Bailey comes home to her husband Richard and 16-year-old son Dylan after work every day, she doesn't unlock the door. She unzips the tent.
Her two beloved dogs Gizmo and Patch greet her at their nylon and polyester home at Country Capital Caravan Park just outside Canberra in Sutton, NSW.
By the end of June, the family had applied for more than 150 rental properties and only received three responses.
The working poor story
Anglicare Australia is calling on the federal government to increase rent assistance to address homelessness nationwide.
The Commonwealth Rent Assistance scheme offers as little as $92 a week for a single person on Jobseeker and as much as $455 for a couple on the minimum wage with two children.
The founder of renter advocacy group Better Renting, Joel Dignam, says the payment is a "relatively straightforward [and fast] way of improving people's financial position".
Labor spruiked a series of housing policies during the 2022 election campaign, including building 30,000 new social housing properties and setting targets for state and territory land supply.
But Mr Dignam says that's little comfort to Australians living in poverty now, unable to pay rent.
Australian National University (ANU) housing expert Dr Ben Phillips says about half the people on the rental assistance payment are still in rental stress, but the program is just a small portion of the federal welfare budget.
"You can get pretty good bang for your buck in terms of lowering poverty, or depth of poverty, in Australia by investing a little more in that particular payment," he says.
Too poor to rent, too 'rich' for help
The Bailey family understand this all too well. They say they cannot compete in the private rental market - but because Ms Bailey works full time they are not eligible for housing support.
"When you go to the inspection, [people are] even offering all this money in advance plus $200 extra a week. It's crazy," Ms Bailey says.
Some renters are offering up to seven months rent in advance to secure properties.
They can't afford a caravan and, as pet owners, many campgrounds refuse them entry.
Not quite the Lodge
Ms Bailey works on Canberra's south side and, with Parliament House looming in the distance, she sometimes passes a yellow mansion guarded by a low cream brick gate and short black spikes.
The Lodge, the soon-to-be home of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, sits on 4.4 acres and boasts six bedrooms, a study, a sitting room, drawing room and billiards room.
But when she gets home, Ms Bailey dons her new warm dressing gown, ugg boots and a beanie to brace herself for another cold winter night in the tent.
They are desperate for stability. Mr Bailey wants a job and Dylan wants an education - nearly impossible for a family constantly on the move.
And they are not alone.
School, meals skipped
Anglicare says while more than a third of Australians are now renters - some permanently - many aren't able to access affordable and stable housing.
The charity's frontline workers report young people missing school, women staying with abusive partners, pensioners skipping meals and shivering in unheated homes, and families being uprooted again and again.
In extreme cases children are being removed from loving families and placed in foster care because their parents can't secure housing.
High competition for rentals makes it easy to discriminate based on race, demographic background and pet ownership. Aboriginal people are disproportionately disadvantaged, Anglicare says.
Even those with roofs over their heads complain a lack of heating or cooling, mould and pests can make life "untenable".
The working poor
A 2022 Anglicare report on renting found there are effectively no affordable properties available in Australia to people on welfare payments.
Only one rental out of 45,992 listings across the country are affordable for a single person on Youth Allowance and only seven for someone on Jobseeker. All are rooms in share houses.
A person on the minimum wage can afford under two per cent of rentals and age pensioners can afford just one per cent of properties or rooms advertised.
But Anglicare executive director Kasy Chambers says the biggest change is among minimum wage earners.
"Across the board, affordability for workers on the minimum wage has halved," she says.
"A couple with two parents working full-time can afford just 15 per cent of rentals, down from 31 per cent 10 years ago. That includes rent assistance and tax benefits."
When food is a luxury
Ms Chambers says the high cost of petrol, electricity and groceries added to the struggle.
"We see lots and lots of people coming into services for food parcels for assistance with their utility bills, petrol, dental costs, or cost of glasses," she says.
"Unfortunately, one of the most elastic parts of people's budget is actually food. So we see lots and lots of people who skip meals."
People also stop paying car insurance, filling their doctor's prescriptions, and parents go "years without dental care" to prioritise their children.
It's getting better: expert
ANU housing expert Dr Ben Phillips says, while a "controversial" view, it's not clear housing or living costs have increased.
"In fact, for me, they've gotten better because unemployment rates are so low; they're a lot lower than what they were, say, 12 months ago or even a couple of years ago."
One of the most elastic parts of people's budget is actually food. So we see lots and lots of people who skip meals.- Kasy Chambers, Anglicare executive director
Dr Phillips says most renters - who tend to be lower income and are more likely to be unemployed with lower levels of education - are already signed onto contracts.
While there's a public and policy focus on first home owners, renters present a bigger social issue, he says.
"So the double whammy of having high housing costs and having lower incomes, that's where the essential problem is for renters."
One of Labor's key election housing polices was a Help to Buy scheme under which the government would provide an equity contribution of up to 40 per cent of a property.
'Really weak' investment laws
Better Renting's Joel Dignam says the lack of affordable rentals is a culmination of factors, including a lack of social housing and "really weak" rental and investment laws.
"Rental laws are really weak when it comes to rent increases. Unlike other jurisdictions around the world, in Australia landlords can issue rent increases of basically any amount," he says.
Tax incentives reward property investors, preventing low income earners from entering the housing market, and instead driving up rent prices.
"Rents that landlords charge are determined by supply and demand, and they basically are set as high as a landlord can get," Mr Dignam says.
Canberra leads the way
Anglicare says the ACT scores high on rental protections and can set an example for other jurisdictions.
Recent reforms in the territory include restricting no-cause evictions, limiting rental increases, requiring minimum property condition standards, and allowing tenants to keep pets.
But Corelogic data from June suggests Canberra remains the country's most expensive city for renters - the median rent for a house was $759 per week, while a unit cost $573.
The capital had a rental vacancy rate of 1.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2022.
Are long-term leases the answer?
Housing and social welfare experts are calling for massive reforms to halt an increasingly dire rental affordability crisis.
Anglicare believes a program they've been running for years may be the solution.
Anglicare Sydney offers older people tenancies in unusual places, like old pubs, stations, bank buildings, and guest houses.
It is called head leasing, and means tenants take on longer-term leases with a guaranteed rental price and commit to return the property in good condition.
Sometimes a property will be modified for the tenant - for example, with a handrail or ramp.
"In many countries, these features are not part of specialised programs. They are simply how the mainstream private rental market works," Anglicare says.
"Property managers would be empowered to manage the property to the satisfaction of the tenant, without having to seek permission for small actions.
"Investors would be offered a much more secure and predictable income with fewer demands on their time."
'Something that's ours'
The Baileys want the 'Australian dream' - a home of their own where they feel stable.
"Even if it's just an empty block of land, we just need something that's ours," Ms Bailey says.
In the end, just as we were finalising this Young and Regional series in early July, the generosity of their community - not the private market or government assistance - got them help.
Ms Bailey's "kind" boss gave them a lifeline. She helped them secure a rental and, for now, they have a warm bed, showers and a toilet.
"We're one of the fortunate ones, really," Mr Bailey says. "[But] we're not the only ones. And if we can get some light on this story and get it out there, then maybe the government will do something about it."
My story: Lanie Tindale
Like many Canberrans, I'm very fortunate when it comes to housing. But there is another side to the political heart of Australia which remains hidden - out of public sight and mind. Hopefully these stories can help shine a light on those dark corners where, for many, each day is a struggle.