‘Going backwards’: What it’s like on the hard side of Hawthorn

Even with living costs a key focus of the state election campaign and more than a third of the electorate renting, those on struggle-street aren’t necessarily front of mind in discussions about the seat of Hawthorn.

The focus is more on the area’s median house price of $2.5 million and median weekly household income of $2313 (the state average is $1759) than discussions of poverty.

Swinburne University student Nidzam Hussain, from Malaysia, says the poverty crisis facing international students in the electorate of Hawthorn is extreme.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Some of those doing it toughest in the electorate can’t vote, but can be found at the seat’s biggest employer, Swinburne University: international students and non-permanent residents.

A food bank offering free meals to international students reveals how tough conditions are for some. The university’s student union started the food bank during the pandemic, and this year 1019 students visited it 3720 times.

Nidzam Hussain has lived in Australia for seven years, coming from Malaysia for an undergraduate degree and now a master’s degree at Swinburne. He has worked a variety of casual jobs to pay the rent – which has rocketed since his arrival.

“When I arrived, $200 a week was relatively expensive,” says Hussain, who until recently was part of Swinburne’s student union. “Today you’d be really lucky to get $200; my friends are paying $300 or more per week, not including utilities.”

The latest Domain Rental Report, covering the September quarter, backs his assessment of the market, showing the average asking rent for a unit in the suburb of Hawthorn is $370 a week and Hawthorn East is $395 a week. Those rates have both increased about 5 per cent in the last 12 months, but are slightly below the Melbourne average of $425 a week.

Hussain says few Australians understand how difficult some students find it in this area. “We have a poverty crisis,” he says. “We don’t have a social safety net; we don’t have access to Centrelink or to Medicare or a youth allowance. We need to fend for ourselves financially.”

When Hussain first came to Australia, students asking for free food “wasn’t really a thing”. Now, he says, it’s common.

A Monique Ryan flyer left under a Hawthorn front door in April or May and found by state teal candidate Melissa Lowe six months later, indicating the house was empty the entire time.Credit:Melissa Lowe

Outside the university, the wealth in this area is so extreme that in the suburb of Hawthorn alone, 1777 out of 11,483 dwellings were empty on Census night last year – 15.5 per cent of the suburb, compared to a national average of 10 per cent of houses in a suburb being empty.

Recently teal candidate Melissa Lowe was knocking on doors in Hawthorn, trying to meet voters. At one house where she got no answer, she knelt down to leave a “sorry I missed you” flyer.

“I looked down and there was a Monique Ryan one there already,” says Lowe. Ryan’s campaign finished just short of six months ago.

For younger voters in the seat of Hawthorn, which covers that suburb along with Camberwell, Surrey Hills and Canterbury, moving from being a renter to a first home buyer is tough.

There is a sense the economic security their parents benefitted from is long gone.

Carey Ciuro works in information technology and will complete a master’s degree at Melbourne University next year. He rents an apartment in Hawthorn, attended the local Carey Grammar, and later went to Swinburne.

Ciuro considers himself lucky to have a secure full-time job while studying. “While the cost of living is definitely a concern, right now I’m okay,” he says.

But he has all but given up on saving for a house and is no closer to having a deposit than a few years ago. “I’m actually going backwards.”

The Labor MP for Hawthorn, John Kennedy, points to the state government’s rental reforms, a $250 power saving bonus for all Victorians, sick pay guarantees for casual workers, a cap on council rates, free kinder from 2023 and free TAFE as measures that will help.

Liberal candidate, and former MP for the seat, John Pesutto, promotes his party’s policies of reducing daily public transport fares to $2 and extending access to rebates for solar panels and batteries to renters as well as increasing housing supply and cutting stamp duty for first home buyers.

Lowe is a local expert on housing affordability; she owns an apartment in Hawthorn but rents a house just outside the electorate. She and her partner had planned to downsize to the apartment before COVID-19 struck.

Instead, they rented a house to accommodate their adult children during the pandemic. Since then, they have been asked to leave three houses – racking up expenses she estimates at $8000 each time, once all set-up costs are considered, including removalists, utilities and bonds.

“People should be able to get longer leases. There are a lot of protections for landlords, and I know because I’m one,” she says.

This story is part of our in-depth local coverage of the key seats of Hawthorn, Melton and Richmond at the November state election.

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