Glebe social housing protest Photo: Peter Boyle
Glebe social housing protest Photo: Peter Boyle

The NSW government has taken aim at housing affordability in a new 20-year strategy, pinning its hopes to the private sector while social housing takes a back seat

The great philosopher Suggs once said, “Our house, was our castle and our keep.” This picture of domestic resilience, while desired by so many, is foreign to a higher proportion of Australians now than it has been for the past decade — and not just because we still don’t know what a keep is.

A snapshot of Australian renters released by Anglicare last week found that rental properties were less affordable than the year before, which has become a recurring trend and major drag on low income households. 

“Instead of tackling them head-on, the government has left it to the private rental market to provide housing for more and more people,” Anglicare said in their report. 

“As our governments walk away from their responsibility to provide affordable housing and incomes, more people must fend for themselves in a market that is out of control.”

Speaking of out of control, this week the NSW government released its Housing Strategy 2041, hoping to map a path away from the state’s housing woes with a broadly encompassing 20-year plan. 

For an expertly analytical breakdown of the strategy’s merits and flaws see this piece by UNSW’s Hal Pawson and Vivienne Milligan 

The strategy appears forthcoming in acknowledging the issues facing NSW residents. 

It points to an impending increase in the number of independent young residents, aged 15-24, who face a barrier of, “sustained growth in house prices, along with a decline in real income.” 

There are also the elderly and disabled, according to the strategy, and the “importance of culture and kinship obligations” in improving housing outcomes for Aboriginal people. 

By way of breaking down the hefty problem before it, the strategy identifies four “pillars” to underpin better housing in NSW: supply, affordability, diversity and resilience.

“There is potential for NSW government to increase the delivery of well-designed and well-located affordable housing across the state.” 

You don’t say. 

It also revealed a new “expert advisory panel”, working alongside the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, to try and stop the government from cocking it up — or as the strategy puts it, “ensure the NSW government better plans for, delivers and manages housing in NSW.”

Shaping the government’s more immediate response in 2021-22 are five priority, if mostly facilitatory, tactics including opening up data access, streamlining regulation and planning, driving research, and collaborating with small government.

One of the most immediate changes is the opening up of government-owned land to private developers. 

This aligns with the strategy of collaboration, but also feels like the government wriggling out of its responsibilities.

They plan to encourage developers to build affordable housing, as well as encouraging build-to-rent developments, new “communal living” models (hippie commune anyone?) or providing incentives to build affordable housing in mixed-tenure communities. 

They have acknowledged the need for more affordable housing, but are largely relying on the private sector to deliver.  

Social Housing 

Both NSW and Victoria announced record investments in social housing in their most recent budgets. That this coincided with COVID-19, and the need for stimulus to support jobs was no coincidence.

NSW allocated $812 million for social housing and homelessness services which included Aboriginal housing, with a fast-track COVID-19 recovery plan of creating 1300 new social housing dwellings over the next two years. 

Meanwhile, Victoria pledged $5.3 billion as part of its big housing build plan, which included the construction of 12,000 new public and community dwellings in just twice as long. 

Our aim here is not to shame NSW by holding it up to its neighbour, not entirely anyway. Before COVID-19, Victoria was shown to be spending far less per capita on social housing than any other state. In fact the report shows NSW was spending slightly more per person than the national average. 

However, NSW had the opportunity, like Victoria did, to funnel more of its COVID-19 stimulus into social housing, and it has not. 

Greens housing spokesperson and state member for Newtown, Jenny Leong was reliably scathing of her colleagues’ approach to the social housing issue.

“This strategy is seeking to fund social housing entirely through giving public land to developers. It is a disgraceful move that will see the privatisation of even more public assets,” she said. 

According to Leong, waiting lists for social housing in NSW can take over 10 years and are crammed with over 100,000 people trying to get their foot in the door.

“We need significant investment in public and social housing, not more privatisation,” Leong said. 

“The current model for government spending on social housing is intertwined with a privatisation agenda that sees a sell off of public housing and land under the guise of a redevelopment or upgrade.”

“We are seeing this locally with ‘communities plus’ plans to demolish and privatise public housing in Waterloo, Eveleigh and Glebe.” 

What if we just say no? 

Community groups have started pushing back against this reshaping of their local areas, which ostensibly puts developer benefits front and centre, and some have shown remarkable success. 

At Glebe for instance the government recently backed down on its plan to turn over well located public housing for private housing and a tad more social housing (from 19 to 35) and will now turn over 100 per cent of the Cowper Street and Wentworth Park Road project to 75 new social homes.

Phew, that was easy. Maybe it was the few highly visible protest groups on Saturdays on Glebe Point Road right next to the popular Glebe Markets. Or the constant niggling in the media about poor provision of affordable housing while the lucky ones reap the windfall gains of a red hot housing market, through no particular effort of their own.

Or maybe it was the sting from the nasty and failed attempt to stop public housing evictions from Millers Point and Premier Gladys Berijiklian’s concern that her Teflon coated image will fail her and she will lose her new moniker  as “the woman who saved Australia”, (as seen on a recent magazine cover.)

Elsewhere we hear, in places where the social apartments are quite sunny and lovely but slated for private sector redevelopment anyway, and others where the residents live with damp and mould, but no one talks of rebuilding, the saga continues.

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  1. I wonder how much social housing could have been paid for if we tallied up all the time and money spent by the government trying to foist the responsibility onto the private sector… delivery of public goods by private interests that need to satisfy feasibility requirements is fundamentally at odds with how private interests need to operate. ‘Incentives’ that are built into the system that are supposed to make the delivery of affordable housing viable mostly mean that surrounding residents lose out in some way shape or form (taller buildings next to them etc) and don’t necessarily translate into useful numbers of affordable dwellings or ones that are pleasant to live in – the ‘affordable’ dwellings are the least marketable usually…
    All the while, land values rise and people most in need of these homes continue to be the losers in this system:(

  2. Here in California things are much the same, perhaps even more exaggerated. COVID demand increased home prices at record levels across the US, and rental prices are becoming similarly unaffordable. The result is a huge spike in homelessness.

    California has responded by passing a law requiring cities to create affordable rental units for lower-income people. However, cities are causing backlash, as many do not have open space upon which to build in order to comply.

  3. …According to Leong, waiting lists for social housing in NSW can take over 10 years and are crammed with over 100,000 people trying to get their foot in the door……This coming from a politician that has been scathing of those who have argued against population growth which is after all the reason for the current mess.