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The truth is, governments have the power to solve social housing shortages and homelessness. But once social housing becomes a bloody-minded numbers game of delays, deficits, and denials, it invariably degenerates into the dark art of political obfuscation.

We don’t confront our problems anymore. I mean those entrenched social problems that just won’t go away — like poverty and homelessness.

Despite the endless efforts of many charitable organisations, our political leaders approach such problems with unwavering timidity. They duck and weave like seasoned boxers — avoiding answers like they would a right hook.

As George Orwell observed in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”

It’s no wonder politico-media speak acts like a sedative rather than an inspiration. Frivolous tinkering and a multitude of reviews just won’t do. Doodling is not the same as doing!

Have we become a society fearful of telling the truth?

Truth one: we have an acute shortage of social housing. Current social housing need — households unable to access the market without some form of assistance — is estimated at 1.3 million, which equates to about 14 per cent of all households. Expectations are that this will rise to 1.7 million by 2025.

Truth two: more than 116,000 people were homeless on census night 2016. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounted for 20 per cent of all homeless people. Mindful that they comprise only 3 per cent of Australia’s population.

Truth three: Australia fairs poorly when it comes to social housing as a percentage of total dwellings. In a comparison of OECD countries, Australia’s percentage of social housing is only 4 per cent. Austria, United Kingdom, and France top the list with 20 per cent, 17 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

The hard truth: governments have the power to rectify truths one, two, and three, and the private sector is willing and able to pool their resources and work collectively with all levels of government to see this through.

A history of delays, deficits, and denials

Australia has a long history of mediocre endeavours to institute a universal and efficacious blueprint for the delivery of social housing across a diversity of environments and groups, and in the context of culturally sensitive communities.

Once it becomes a bloody-minded numbers game of delays, deficits, and denials, getting social housing done invariably degenerates into the dark art of political obfuscation — in the political sphere, the truth is infinitely flexible — reducing both form and function to an irritating distraction.

Form follows culture

It’s a well-worn cliché in today’s techno-driven world; still, American architect Louis H. Sullivan, in his 1896 essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, had much to say about form and function:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

Form, then, is not only functional but spiritual. More appropriate in today’s multicultural mélange is form follows culture. People live in culturally specific ways. Luka Zevnik put it plainly: “culture provides form and shape to the self to the extent that the relevant social world is arranged and practised differently.”

Thus, the form of social housing should capture the functional and spiritual needs of its intended occupants.

To do this, we need to study the essence of a collective group of peoples — how they feel, think, and act — to the degree that what we create is culturally sensitive, not merely “appropriate”. And as fundamental as that might seem, for culturally diverse peoples, it is often misunderstood.

When we think of social housing — apart from homelessness and housing affordability, which are “wicked problems”, and overcrowding which is a consequence of the cultural and housing numbers deficit — a safe and secure home that is energy-efficient, sustainable, and easily maintained is the functional imperative.

The imperatives of culture, community, and kinship is the spiritual imperative, and the axiomatic elephant in the room.

Built to last: beyond zero emissions and sustainability

Form follows culture should not be at the expense of innovation. Gone are the days when houses were built to last around fifty years: we must now design and build recyclable homes with the expectation that they will last 200 years or more.

The meaning of “sustainability” and “sustainable growth”, as bandied about by governments, has rendered it, more or less, redundant. It has run its course. That is, sustainability infers that we maintain the status quo — it’s too late for that. Our environmental indiscretions are cumulative; we need to reverse the damage through regeneration.

Regenerative homes bear little resemblance to the homes that you and I grew up in. Rather than having a net-zero impact on the environment, regenerative housing has a net-positive impact. It is a system in itself that uses materials and mechanisms — manufactured locally, of course — that clean the air and rejuvenate the environment.

The goal is a mutually beneficial relationship between people and nature that restores the ecosystems in which we live.

Regenerative housing means reinventing how we live on our planet. And what better way is there to mobilise the essence of the idea than through a nation-wide social housing building boom that will also generate a multitude of specialised and incidental jobs?

Designing for climate change: where we build will be severely constrained

The impending climate change calamity has no obligation to bend to cheap talk and feckless schemes. Mindful that Australia is one of the highest GHG emitters per capita.

With a footprint of 17 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person, it is more than three times the global average of 4.8. Ignoring or denying this fact won’t make it go away.

Over the next decade, large swathes of Australia’s currently inhabitable landmass will likely become uninhabitable by today’s standards. Inclusive of the current social housing shortage, this will require social housing for our internal refugees on a significant scale.

The broader implications extend to social housing for climate refugees from our near Pacific Island neighbours on a similar scale.

Designing for climate change means that proximity and design must be adaptable to future climatic change. This warrants that we live with greater simplicity, and flexibility of place and space.

Because of diminishing water stocks, rising temperatures, sea-level rise, and intensifying droughts, firestorms, storm surges, and storminess, where we build will be severely constrained.

As a fundamental exercise in rationality and reform, the previous failures of poor build quality, inferior and non-recyclable building materials, incoherent maintenance schedules, poor site selection, and indifference to a changing climate, must be critically addressed.

Rebuilding the natural world by reinventing how we live

First, before building homes in a multicultural society, inclusive of an indigenous culture that has endured for more than 65,000 years, there is a need to build trust. Prior to embarking on an ambitious social housing program, establishing a relationship built on trust and respect is crucial.

Second, top-down bureaucratic initiatives are unlikely to succeed. Housing policy and process must be supported by local implementation strategies. Involving local communities in the design and implementation, and construction and ongoing maintenance of social housing, is an excellent place to start.

Third, and above all, as proffered by Lisbeth Lipari: listen with alterity — the otherness of others. “Without this listening, there may be speaking, and there may be acting, but there can be no genuinely engaged response.”

Acknowledged is that reinventing how we live on planet Earth is no easy task. Living with modesty and prudence won’t be everyone’s first choice.

But post this global pandemic, an ideal opportunity exists to launch an integrated and regenerative nation-wide social housing program. One that not only houses less fortunate people in a culturally sensitive way, but also acts as a powerful mechanism to regrow, rebuild, and regenerate our sorely ravaged natural world.

Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all. If you’d like to support this platform for your work, here is where you can become a member, for whatever regular amount you can afford. Our Spinifex column is so named, by the way, because it’s for the pointy or “spikey” end of sustainability – the people who are doing the tough and inconvenient work of fast tracking sustainability. Spinifex, the plant, may be inconvenient or even annoying at times but is in fact highly resilient, essential to biodiversity, and holds the topsoil together.
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