‘I feel like I’ve failed’: The psychological toll of the rental crisis


It’s a crisp autumn morning in Perth and 26-year-old Madi is sitting in a patio in pajamas and holding a hot cup of coffee.

You can see a gray sky through the tree branches swaying in the wind.

Madi got up early for a phone interview with ABC RN all in the mindand she’s outside because she doesn’t want to wake up the rest of the house.

She recently moved in with her partner’s family, and while she’s grateful to have a roof over her head, the situation is far from ideal.

“No matter how accommodating everyone is, and no matter how loving and affectionate they are, you feel like you’re stepping on someone’s territory and invading their space.”

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Madi and her partner moved out of necessity, after dozens of rental applications were rejected.

They joined queue after queue of desperate home seekers, competing fiercely for even the most expensive dives. In an old, dark, dusty place, it felt “like someone had died there,” she remembers.

And you’d be lucky to find anything longer than a six-month lease on offer.

But even though they both had full-time incomes, Madi and her partner were rejected again and again.

Madi felt like she was begging for a house or having to “sell herself” to real estate agents “as a product or a service.”

“It kind of made me feel less human.”

Worse yet, he began to feel like everything was his fault.

“It’s really crushing.”

His story is increasingly familiar.

And the psychological toll of the rental crisis can not only depress you, but research suggests it can affect your own sense of self and even distort your view of the future.

Housing crisis linked to poor mental health

In 2011, University of Melbourne social epidemiologist Rebecca Bentley conducted her first investigation on the link between the housing crisis and mental health.

He looked at the psychological effects of rising rents and mortgages on low- and middle-income people.

Professor Bentley was involved in some of the first studies looking at the link between housing stress and mental health.(Supplied: Alina Golovachenko)

When this group began spending more than 30 percent of their income on accommodation, they were more likely to be at risk for conditions such as anxiety and depression.

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“We actually saw, at a population level, a negative impact on their mental health,” Professor Bentley says.

“It was definitely an issue that affected low-income households or middle-income households more. But now I think it’s much more global.

“Even people who earn a decent income still struggle in the housing market.”

Homeownership is increasingly out of reach, while at the same time, median rents are at a record high and vacancy rates at an all-time low.

Professor Bentley’s research has found that renters are more likely to suffer from negative mental health due to housing stress.

And more recently she has found “double precariousness” (a combination of insecure housing and employment) is linked to even worse consequences for mental health and wellbeing.

A generational issue?

A study released last year Increasing housing stress over the past two decades has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of people returning to live with their families.

And while some do well in this environment, the same can’t necessarily be said for many who return in their 30s or even 20s.

“We looked at their mental health and found probably one of the biggest negative impacts on mental health. [linked to housing stress]” says Professor Bentley.

But while we hear a lot about younger generations being particularly disadvantaged when it comes to housing, Professor Bentley says it’s not so black and white.

Madi: a young woman with blue-green hair, standing in front of a tree.

Madi has been renting since she was 18 years old.(Supplied)

It’s true that, as a group, they have found that renters are more likely to be affected and these tend to be younger.

But for people in their 50s and 60s who, for whatever reason, are having trouble finding affordable housing, the repercussions can be more significant.

“It actually affects them more than younger people,” says Professor Bentley.

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This is probably because older people are less able to increase their income or move elsewhere, he adds.

The psychology of housing insecurity

While Professor Bentley’s research highlights the role of housing-induced financial stress on mental health, other research focuses on the psychological dimensions of housing insecurity.

“The ability to live safely is really the foundation for the rest of our lives,” says Priya Kunjan, from the RMIT Urban Research Centre.

But since housing became “commodified” after the Industrial Revolution, increasing numbers of people have been affected by insecurity.

When people can’t afford rising rents, they face the uncertain quest of finding a new home they can afford, Dr. Kunjan says. And if they have to move away from their original home, this comes with its own stresses.

Priya Kunjan: A person with short dark hair and a dark blue shirt standing in front of an ivy-covered wall.

Priya Kunjan delves into people’s experiences of poor housing.(Supplied)

In ongoing ARC-funded research into “substandard housing”, Dr Kunjan interviewed a small but diverse sample of Victorian tenants and found that they placed enormous value on staying within their community.

Dr Kunjan found that when people had to move, they made an effort to stay at least in the same suburb, so they could maintain their connections with neighbours, for example.

“The fact that the prices excluded them from those areas was a huge disjuncture for people.”

Lack of control and ‘learned helplessness’

Dr. Kunjan found that tenants felt affected by their lack of agency: “It’s just the feeling that their lives, their housing, were at the mercy of the whims of others.”

And this is something that, according to psychologists, can be bad for us.

When people feel like they have no control over their lives, this can lead to self-doubt, even in the most positive people, says clinical psychologist Gene Hodgins of Charles Sturt University.

Gene Hodgins: A photograph of a middle-aged Anglo man in a plaid shirt smiling, standing in front of a tree.

Clinical psychologist Gene Hodgins says repeated hits can change the way we think about ourselves.

Repeated rejections of, for example, rental requests could lead to “learned helplessness,” says Dr. Hodgins.

“It’s almost like a coping mechanism of ‘why keep trying if you’re going to keep getting a bad result?'”

And this, in turn, can lead to depression and anxiety, which makes things worse.

Without enough self-esteem, we might also generalize hopelessness to other areas of our lives, such as whether certain jobs are worth applying for, says Dr. Hodgins.

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All of this resonates with Madi.

“I feel like I’ve failed.”

Her experience looking for a place to rent left her feeling like she had no autonomy and didn’t know what else she could do.

“You know, I have the job. I’ve tried to save money. I’m trying to be an active member of my community. I’m trying to do all the things that I would expect of myself and that I think my family or the community at large would expect of me “.

Forcing compromises and warping the future

Dr. Kunjan found that housing-related stress could not only lead people to compromise their health or the activities that brought them joy, but it could also distort the way they think about the future and their place in it.

Having no idea where you will be in the future can put someone in “limbo” waiting for their life to begin.

A stack of cardboard boxes taped together.  There is a plant in the box above.

Living without limits can make it difficult to see the future.(Supplied)

And this can influence decisions such as whether to start a family or invest in local relationships.

Madi tries not to think too much about the future, but her constant worry about finding affordable housing makes her dreams seem less attainable.

“I’ve always worked in social services or community service-based jobs, and that’s what makes me happiest,” she says.

“But now I’m thinking about something like mining, or getting into mine management, just to have the opportunity to get a house or have financial freedom.”

It’s something I would never have thought of doing before.

“I have no inclination to do so except that I feel it is necessary at this time.”

Still, Madi recently had a stroke of luck and managed to find a rental at a friend’s house for “couple prices.”

“I call it my goose that lays the golden eggs,” he says.

Now she and her partner can stop living in storage containers and get their dog back without having him cared for elsewhere.

But his gratitude is also tinged with sadness.

“My heart is still full of empathy for those who do not have friends and family in a position to support like ours.”

Listen to the full episode about how the housing crisis is warping people’s vision of the future and subscribe to all in the mind Explore other topics about the mind, brain, and behavior.

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