There’s a long list of things the Albanese government ought to do to fix the housing crisis. Views are mixed on what should go on the list and in what order. There is, however, no ambiguity about the desperate need for a massive increase in social housing and no ambiguity about the position of housing and homelessness peaks on the urgent demand, not to stop at the housing bills that are currently being held up by the Liberals, Nationals and Greens, but to start with them, by passing them and getting them done.
When faced with the choice between bricks and oughta, it’s a luxury to say I’d rather the oughta than the bricks. Happy those who can afford such a luxury! What the housing and homelessness peaks seem to be saying on the other hand, with remarkable unanimity, is: We’ll take the bricks… and we’ll fight like hell for the oughta! In doing so, they are not giving the Labor government a free pass, not giving it permission to rest on its laurels, and certainly not anointing this legislation as the last word on how we change the neoliberal trajectory which turned housing into a plaything for the prosperous, when the concrete reality screams out that it must be treated as a human right for the people.
In a shared Statement by the Community Housing Industry Association, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Association, Homelessness Australia, the Property Council of Australia, Industry Super Australia, Everybody’s Home, and National Shelter, they said what needed to be heard, namely the bleeding obvious: ‘This is the worst housing crisis in living memory and the time has now come to pass this legislation.’
The three pieces of legislation they were referring to are the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023, National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill 2023 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Housing Measures No. 1) Bill 2023. These are in addition to the $2 billion social housing accelerator to be immediately distributed to states and territories.
All of this, not unlike the Rudd government’s historic injection of 20,000 new units of social housing, doesn’t even get close to meeting demand. But that doesn’t mean it should be rejected. At least not according to the major social housing and homelessness advocacy peaks who, I think it is fair to say, know a thing or two about priorities. Again, their shared statement, made on 18 June 2023, is worth listening to:
Time is now of the essence. The parliament rises for the winter break this Thursday and will not resume until August. Australia cannot afford to delay its response to the housing crisis any longer…. UNSW City Futures Research Centre analysts have found 640,000 Australians are in housing stress with the number tipped to hit one million by 2041.
The National Shelter Rental Affordability Index showed a 14 per cent decline in rental affordability in the last year, with an even steeper decline in affordability for lower income households.
‘It is not okay to block the funding for even one home that creates the space for someone to begin to feel human, let alone 30,000 new social and affordable dwellings over the next five years.’
I can see why there is so much passion for the oughta. I have written and spoken on it here and elsewhere and I don’t know anyone who cares about housing justice who is happy to stop with the bricks that are currently on offer, the quantum of which is woefully, woefully inadequate. Anyone who tells you otherwise just isn’t paying attention to the current and projected shortfalls in social housing. But as the late Tom Wright, sheet-metal worker and trade unionist, used to say, ‘You’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.’
And last Friday night I was struck by what we’re working with and what we’ve got when, at the soup van, I had a conversation with someone I’ve known to be sleeping rough and who recently got a public housing flat. That’s brilliant, I said, when they told me their news, although I personally felt ashamed that they had to wait some time for this and had to sleep on the streets of the nation’s affluent capital in the meantime. So how’s it going then? Good, they said, really good. I’m slowly rebuilding. For now I’m just trying to get my health sorted and bit by bit, I’m getting there, chipping away. And how’s the music going? I asked. Haven’t been doing too much busking for now but it’s so good having somewhere safe to keep my guitar. Infected by their good mood, I then indulged in a dad joke, complaining to them that I hadn’t played my air-guitar for ages since one of the strings broke.
I share this story for a few reasons. The Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) stand-off might be about the politics of perception, but the bricks that make abodes are about the politics of the personal. And when you get to hear a story like this one you feel in your gut the practical urgency in getting even a modest funding pipeline built so that these stories become not the exception but the rule. People experiencing housing deprivation are not just people experiencing housing deprivation. They are people…. with stories, traumas, aspirations, pleasures, and problems. Homelessness doesn’t just mean the absence of housing; it means having to put all your visceral energy into survival, with little or nothing left to heal your trauma, to nurture your aspirations, to enjoy your pleasures or to address your problems, given that you don’t have a place to call home.
Building social housing in a chronically broken housing system is not unlike rebuilding a life in social conditions that tend to break lives rather than supporting them. And like rebuilding a life after experiencing homelessness, rebuilding our national social housing capacity will require a lot of chipping away and small wins after decades of neglect. For homelessness, like the neoliberal period in which it has flourished while the financialisation of housing became the norm, is itself a form of trauma.
Frankly, there’s not enough room here to list all the oughtas when it comes to making sure that no one is denied a place to live, to heal, to learn, to connect, to participate and to live. And they don’t all necessarily fall under the ‘housing policy’ rubric, considering the interdependence between housing security, income security and full employment, not to mention the brutality of the Reserve Bank’s current go-to arsenal. But it is not okay to block the funding for even one home that creates the space for someone to begin to feel human, let alone 30,000 new social and affordable dwellings over the next five years, which is what the HAFF is set to deliver, guaranteeing an annual dispersal of at least $500 million per year for their construction.
And no, we cannot stop there as far as public funding is concerned. And we also need to harness the institutional investment potential of Industry Super Funds and others who are committed to being part of the social project of undoing the vandalism of the neoliberal era and building a social democratic alternative that meets people’s practical needs, framing housing in a way that mirrors our strong belief in the role of government in guaranteeing access to public education and public health (both of which, it needs to be said, have also suffered at the hands of neoliberals). We also need to build on the work of state, territory and local governments. As Hal Pawson, Vivienne Milligan and Judith Yates pointed out in their critical 2020 work, Housing Policy in Australia: A Case for System Reform:
‘Housing policy’ is often too narrowly defined. Housing policy instruments span taxation and regulation as well as explicit government expenditures in various forms…
A national housing strategy must encompass the powers and responsibilities of both main tiers of government, as well as those of local councils. It must span essentially artificial departmental boundaries within governments, and it must relate to the full range of housing stakeholders beyond officialdom.
We need to revisit the reforms to capital gains tax discounts and negative gearing that Labor took to the 2019 federal election. As things stand, we continue to give, through a range of subsidies and concessions, to those who have the most at the same time as we deny the bare minimum to those who have the least.
And with regard to the initiatives of states and territories, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr made an essential intervention in the debate on rent stabilisation, pointing out that the ACT model, which limits rent increases to inflation plus 10 per cent, works because it is accompanied by a marked increase in supply as well as robust rules on upgrades, repairs and rental standards, remarking that the HAFF would actually provide significant means for the supply increases needed to enable other jurisdictions to consider a similar rent stabilisation model.
But at the end of the day, as Macquarie University’s Alistair Sisson has pointed out: ‘the best form of rent control is public housing.’ And as my colleague, Matt Lloyd-Cape, Director of the Centre for Equitable Housing at Per Capita, astutely observes: ‘If you want rent control, support more public housing. If you don’t want rent control, support more public housing.’
As reported in Per Capita’s Housing Affordability in Australia, the proportion of social housing in Australia has dropped from 5.8 per cent at the turn of the century to just 3.3 per cent of total housing stock. In stark contrast, Austria enjoys an outstanding rate of 37.7 per cent social housing. Australia is not Austria. Australia is not even going to become Austria when it grows up. While there is much to learn, and be inspired by, in the historical achievements of the early twentieth century period of social democratic government known as Red Vienna, we err when we fantasise about transplanting a model from another time and place without paying attention to what is going on around us, or what was going on in Vienna then!
I am often reminded of the joke about the person who, upon asking someone for directions to a certain destination, is told by their interlocutor: Well, I wouldn’t start from here! When the chips are down, there is one incontrovertible rule for any reckoning of the concrete steps we need to take to address the current housing crisis in Australia: we are starting, not from anywhere else but here; here, where over thirty years of neoliberalism has resulted in the deliberate destruction of public housing; here where homelessness has increased by 5.2 per cent over five years; where at the height of the pandemic, in 2021, women made up 81.7 per cent of this increase; where First Nations People are 15 times more likely to experience homelessness than non-Aboriginal people; where current unmet demand sits at 216,846 units of housing and where it is estimated that by 2037 there will be an additional demand for 547,036 units.
Let’s leave the final word to the housing and homelessness advocates:
The new institutions it [the obstructed legislation] will create, such as Housing Australia and the Housing Supply Affordability Council need to start their important work. We need a robust national response that has a significant expansion of social and affordable housing as its central pillar.
We also need better planning systems for our cities and the roll out of annual state housing targets for social, affordable and at-market housing through the national housing accord.
As advocates, we intend to build upon the new legislation by campaigning for additional resources in the years ahead. We know that the current legislation on its own will not fix the housing crisis. But it does create the institutions necessary to make a start.
We consider this package a floor, not a ceiling. This is especially true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whose housing needs have been consistently neglected, leading to severe overcrowding and poor health. The time for repairing our housing system has arrived.
Published by John Falzon in Eureka Street, July 2023