1 May 2018

ACT homelessness down but housing crisis needs bricks and mortar now

| Ian Bushnell
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Housing dream is a nightmare for many.

The fall in the number of homeless people in the ACT, revealed in Census data released last week, is welcome but it should not be a cause for satisfaction from the ACT Government.

The fact that there were still 1596 people homeless on Census night on 2016, down from 1738 in 2011 or 8.1 per cent, in the national capital remains a disgrace.

Housing and Suburban Development Minister Yvette Berry said that the data showed important progress in a vital area of the ACT Government’s commitment to equity and fairness for all in the community.

“It reflects the hard work of the amazing people in the ACT’s housing and specialist homelessness service sectors and a concerted effort by the government to provide them funding certainty and stability,” she said.

If the Government was really committed, we may have seen more of a drop than just eight per cent. This is an issue that now goes back a long way, when housing prices and rents began going through the roof 15 years ago.

Nationally, the figures show an increase in homelessness of 13 per cent, and historically, as government sold off public housing and cashed in on the property boom across all jurisdictions, the casualties have been the unemployed, pensioners, and low paid. As housing costs eroded and incomes and wages flattened, more and more middle-income people have also been sucked into this downward spiral.

The homeless are just the tip of an iceberg that is impacting social cohesion and the economy that politicians hold so dear.

Many of the people, the so-called key workers, that keep things running or serve you at the supermarket are seeing much of their income disappear into rent. One recently widowed woman I know is paying half her income from two jobs to keep a roof over her family’s head.

God help you if you lose your job and have to be put through the Centrelink wringer to obtain some meagre support, which will be totally inadequate.

Even those on what may be considered good incomes face continued insecurity in a vicious rental market in which rising rents and the threat of having their home sold from under them become utterly dispiriting.

And even as the Government announced it had reached half way in its public housing renewal program, it is still not enough.

The waiting time for public housing in the ACT remains anywhere from a year to three years depending on your circumstances, which need to be dire. At last look, there are more than 1700 applications in the queue.

For those clinging on in the private rental market, the outlook is grim, with median house rents at $540 and apartments not far behind at $430. For them, it’s multiple jobs if you can get them, ongoing insecurity and the hope of owning their own home receding into the distance.

It’s been called a market failure, and when that occurs, it is up to government to intervene.

We have had some innovative social or community housing projects in the ACT and interstate, such as the Common Ground venture, but these are rare. We need many more if the Government is serious about equity, and it needs to heed calls for more land to be released for such developments.

The ACT along with the other states and territory, need to negotiate funding agreements with the Commonwealth for more public and community housing that will begin to redress the shortfall and imbalance in the housing stock.

Not only must more housing be built, it must be diverse, affordable, near employment, secure and appropriate.

But with the memory of the National Rental Affordability Scheme still strong, it is important that funds are directed to where need is greatest.

The ACT Government had an opportunity several years ago under the scheme to do something about housing in the ACT and chose to direct funds to on-campus university student accommodation, which came to the attention of the Auditor-General and was criticised in the media as a rort that simply boosted university property portfolios and filled the pockets of developers.

The Government argued the new student accommodation, some of which went to overseas students and was more expensive than units off campus, assisted the housing situation by relieving pressures on the rental market.

Ms Berry says the Government is on track to deliver a new housing strategy and will this week release the results of its consultation period last year, as well as make a ministerial statement on homelessness.

But the time for talk is over. We need to see some concrete action.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Share them with us by commenting below.

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