Time’s up – we need good affordable housing
Photo: Alex Proimos

There’s been a deafening silence on affordable housing and homelessness from the Morrison government. 

There’s a minister with the word “homelessness” in his job title, but the homelessness advocacy sector is still waiting to hear anything.

National Shelter has written several times to Luke Howarth, assistant minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, but there’s been no reply.

Chief executive of National Shelter, Adrian Pisarski, says phone calls to his electoral office have not been returned.

The new minister has no prior form in the housing space, Pisarski told The Fifth Estate, however, the other key minister dealing with housing, Michael Sukkar, assistant treasurer and minister for housing, was involved with the development of the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation (NHFIC), which will be overseen by treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Pisarski says the NHFIC appears to be the only significant initiative the government has to address housing for the most vulnerable. This enables community housing providers to access low-interest finance for new projects or acquisitions, however, Pisarski says it is not going to make a major dent in the nation-wide shortfall in affordable housing supply.

“We’re glad it’s there, but it is only one element out of about ten that are required.”

The Feds are buck passing to the states – but only WA is doing a decent job

The federal government often appears to think housing is something the states have to sort out. However, Pisarski says the majority of states are failing to address the issue. The stand-out exception is Western Australia.

“It has the best housing strategy in the country, and it does things no other state government does.”

The reason, he says, is because the WA government still has its own land development agency.

 Other states have been busy selling their public housing stock to developers, or in some cases to the not-for-profit and community sector, and not replacing it with new state-owned stock.

South Australia,  hasd been cannibalising its public housing by selling some of its stock to the private market so it can afford to maintain what it has left, thanks to a lack of sufficient federal funding.

Pisarski says Victoria has the lowest level of social housing in the country. 

While the government has been  tinkering with tenancy laws to address housing stress, the changes don’t go far enough.

In New South Wales, the budget handed down this week allocated nothing for affordable housing. Not. One. Dollar.

This seems simply staggering given the state government’s spruiking of how the budget is delivering infrastructure to make NSW a healthy and prosperous place to live.

How exactly does that work, without sufficient affordable housing for all, we wonder?

Health and education don’t work without housing

Lead moderator for The Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership and author of No Place Like Home, Peter Mares, told The Fifth Estate that in general, while as a nation Australians have agreed to the concept of public education for all and also healthcare for all, we are yet to agree on housing for all.

Yet health, education and housing are like “three legs of a stool”. Take away one, and the whole thing falls down. When people are homeless, our investments in education and healthcare are far less likely to deliver a proper social return.

There is a chronic shortage of appropriate and affordable housing that is contributing to homelessness. To address it we need a three-stage approach.

First stage – supported crisis accommodation

The first stage is the supported, crisis accommodation that can assist people with needs including trauma, substance abuse, family violence or intellectual limitations.

Second stage – transition

This stage ideally helps people reach the next stage of transitional housing, which then gives them a year or two to rebuild their lives through study, assistance with addressing any issues or gaining employment.

Third stage – secure, affordable

The third stage is secure, affordable housing including entering the private rental market so people can live full lives.

While initiatives such as Melbourne City Mission’s innovative Frontyard supported crisis accommodation are showing effective action, there’s a major shortfall in available housing for stages two and three, Mares says.

“At every stage, there’s a blockage.”

Many aiming to move out of the supported or transitional housing space into private rental, encounter obstacles including affordability, or lack of references and background that make them “desirable tenants” for the real estate agencies.

Many of these people would qualify for social housing if there was enough to go around.

We need more affordable and social housing, he says.

“We know from examples like Finland that ‘housing first’ works.” 

The policy requirements are actually quite clear – it is the politics around housing is the problem: investment properties are now “less about rental” returns and more about capital gains and assets instead of homes. 

There needs to be a role for private investors like Morrison’s “Mums and Dads and policeman and nurses who just want to build a nest egg”, but these nest eggs might be more helpful in terms of providing housing if the investors looked to long terms rental returns.

This is the German model, Mares says.

Australia has “gone to the speculative end” of the playing field. and our weak tenancy laws also help to entrench this situation, as do the rules around capital gains tax and negative gearing.

There is a clear need to renew public housing, Mares says. Much of Victoria’s current public housing stock is ageing, poorly equipped for adapting to climate change and not secure. It is, however, an asset. 

But the government is selling some of this well-placed public land for private development in exchange for only a small increase in the number of public housing dwellings. Mares observes there is also often a real decrease in the number of bedrooms per dwelling.

It might also be economically unsound as a trade.

“There is an opportunity cost in giving up well-located public land. You can’t get it back.”

Security is essential

This is something City West Housing in Sydney recognise as a major benefit for their family tenants, more than half of which have young children or teenagers.. Recent tenant surveys and research have shown there are intergenerational benefits gained from secure, stable and affordable housing.

“It’s critical we listen to the stories of children as we discuss, debate and plan for more urban affordable housing in our cities,” chief executive of City West Housing, Leonie King says. 

“People tend to think you don’t get families living in the inner city, but obviously you do, and as Nelson Mandela said, how we treat children reflects our soul as a society,” 

“We’ve seen that removing housing stress is immeasurably important to a family’s balance and security.”

The organisation has just released a video telling the stories of some of the young people living in its properties, and how stable housing has benefited them. The video also includes experts in the field of health and welfare.

One of the key messages from City West is that when low or moderate income families have to move frequently due to housing stress, unemployment or rising rents, there are flow on consequences for their children in terms of disruption to education, social networks and participation in community-based activities.

“Over the last 25 years we’ve had the privilege of providing quality, affordable homes to thousands of people working and living in the City of Sydney,” King says. 

“As we look ahead to the next 25 years we want to remind people that stable homes, stable lives, and stable access to schools, workplaces, retail and community facilities are important. 

“This stability creates new possibilities for health and wellbeing, employment, education, nutrition and diversity that impacts individuals and society today, and importantly, future generations as well.” 

At the other end of the spectrum, older people are also likely to experience negative consequences from insecurity of tenure or lack of affordability.

An article in The Conversation this week highlighted the contrast between private sector tenants and public housing tenants in terms of loneliness and social isolation.

Alan Morris, research professor, University of Technology Sydney and Andrea Verdasco, research associate, University of Technology Sydney, found that older people renting in the private market were more likely to be isolated and experience loneliness due to both economic constraints and the fear of being forced to leave their current address. Low incomes also often mean people are in poorly-located areas with limited access to services or social outlets.

By contrast, the majority of public housing tenants interviewed reported feeling a sense of security, belonging and engagement. Knowing the neighbours and the area and having less financial stress all had positive benefits.

While there is no mainstream economic metric for loneliness, the authors note recent studies have shown it is one of the major health hazards of our time. It contributes to morbidity, mortality and health costs associated with substance issues, depression, suicide and dementia.

Vigilanti co-founder, Eddie Ma, has incorporated ideas around security of tenure in his Equity Housing Model concept for City of Sydney Housing Challenge.

He tells The Fifth Estate that one of the major issues in terms of renting is that the current approach to renting does not treat renters as customers.

Unlike a hotel, where a guest can expect to be well-treated and obtain a satisfactory standard of amenity, renters are not treated like valued customers.

“We need to make rental a business transaction,” Ma says.

In terms of the lifetime rental proposal, he is looking at one of the seniors living models, where occupants purchase a “life lease” rather than a freehold title. This gives them many of the benefits and responsibilities of ownership such as freedom to modify or improve the dwelling and responsibility for maintenance, as well as security of tenure.

However, as they are not purchasing the land – which in places like Sydney is the big ticket price item for a property – the cost is far lower than a freehold dwelling purchase.

Ma says his initial analysis suggests an apartment gained via a similar life lease for all age groups could cost 50 per cent of the current cost of a new strata apartment.

He explains that the other side of the whole affordability discussion is “housing permanence” for occupants. So as part of further developing his housing challenge concept he will be looking at ways social housing can deliver more permanence without the current tenant concerns around gaining employment potentially costing them their lease.

Pisarski flags the issue of working tenants also, in that former Australian models of public social housing used to provide homes for both working people and those on welfare. The rents paid by working tenants, geared to a percentage of income, subsidised the cost of providing the lower cost rents for welfare recipients.

As people’s incomes changed through life, the rent changed – not the address.

Now social housing is constrained to only those with the lowest incomes and the most complex needs, Pisarski says, leaving too many people out in the cold of the market and at the same time undermining the financial viability of social housing as a category due to the low rents.

While “place-making” is a pretty popular buzzword for planners and designers, according to Ma, “housing permanence” is the key to building communities. This is something he’s observed at close range, with Vigilanti’s work with the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group on its submission to the NSW Land and Housing Corporation to ensure the redevelopment of the estate addresses the needs of existing residents.

Ma says some of the residents “might not have much” but they know the neighbours, and there are very strong community bonds.

The 20-year old community gardens at the estate have been one of the bonding elements, but Ma says if the residents had been living there under more temporary arrangements, the gardens would probably never have come about.

“If you don’t know you are going to stay in a place, you won’t invest in [a garden],” he says.

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  1. Speaking from Western Australia where the housing strategy may look good but in practice is not working. Supported Crisis accommodation all full and next steps non existent. Person I support just discharged to unsuitable temp accom in caravan park after 2 months in mental health ward… no supported accom available…no housing available. Whoever informed you that WA is leading the way is misinformed and out of touch with real situation here.

  2. There seems to be a great reluctance to confront our high population growth – one fueled by high immigration – has created the housing “boom” that pushed house prices beyond the reach of many.