Housing crisis beyond meaning

It’s been a long time since there has been much of a focus on affordable housing by the Federal Government. For many years, Government policy has been skewed toward housing as just another investment instrument, with tax concessions encouraging a speculative bubble which was great for many of those who got into the market and a disaster for those left behind. At the same time, State Governments have cut budgets and run down public housing stock, creating the situation today of interminable waiting lists and the spectre of homelessness alongside some of the wealthiest communities on the planet.
The consequences for the housing affordability sector were laid bare last week in an informal roundtable which I hosted for service providers in Western Australia. When homelessness advocates, community housing providers, migrant settlement and crisis support agencies get together they paint a bleak picture. This is a sector that has been in crisis for so long that the word barely holds meaning; people simply should not have to work under this kind of stress and official neglect.

On the upside, we have a Prime Minister with an interest in homelessness that I believe goes beyond the shallow demands of the media cycle, and an energetic Federal housing Minister who has shown a willingness to try out new ideas. In addition, we have a dynamic Senate where Government legislation is being tested with a degree of scrutiny and rigour which simply didn’t exist in the last years of the Howard regime. With goodwill and hard work, this could be a time in which we make genuine progress in restoring housing affordability to all Australians.

The signs thus far have been mixed, to say the least. The National Affordable Rental Scheme (NRAS) will be in the Senate within a week or two and may pave the way for a rapid expansion of affordable rental stock – if 20% below current inflated rentals can be considered affordable. However, we are continually dismayed by the one-sided focus on first homebuyers, with the radical increase in the first homeowners grant (FHOG) and the introduction of first home savers accounts. Neither of these costly initiatives are means tested, and the FHOG in particular has been sharply criticised for simply leading to an increase in house prices and digging more young families further into vast and potentially unsustainable mortgages in fringe areas far from services, employment and public transport.

The first homeowners grant can be used to illustrate some principles by which we should judge the worth of any affordable housing initiative.

Firstly – is it targeted at people in greatest need? Does it address home ownership or broader conceptions of housing security? Does it address longer term issues of affordability including rising energy and water costs and car-dependence? Does it provide for greater diversity in housing supply?

In an age of peak oil, climate change and global instability, we need to remind ourselves that housing is a human right, and that affordability cuts much deeper than the initial price of the house for those who may qualify for a mortgage. We need to target state and commonwealth housing assistance toward energy- and water- efficient affordable housing, close to services, employment and public transport, and we need to make sure that every dollar we spend is going to areas of greatest need. It is time to look toward more innovative models of community housing, shared equity, mixed equity and social co-op developments and so on, and move toward a model of universal security of tenure rather than chasing the mirage of home ownership for all.

Central to this broader conception of affordability is the sustainability of the housing sector – the dedicated people around the country like those who told us their stories last week, who need and deserve to be properly resourced to look after those most vulnerable in society. What was apparent very early in the conversation is that we have the policy tools and the institutional knowledge we need to make substantial inroads into housing affordability. What we need is for those in Government to trust this accumulated wisdom and resource it accordingly.