10 May 2021

Cheap public housing headlines can exact an exit price

| Ian Bushnell
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Mark Parton

Canberra Liberals housing spokesperson Mark Parton: a tenant’s story was not so straightforward. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Public housing – it’s a highly charged, headline-grabbing issue, but often more complex than your average opposition member might admit.

With the government spending a billion dollars over a decade on its renewal program, the ACT housing market on fire and demoralising waiting lists, keeping a watch on public housing provider Housing ACT is a good thing.

There is enough going on for both media and opposition to get their teeth into.

But not all reports that emerge from wannabe tenants or those unhappy with their accommodation or treatment are as simple as they seem at first glance.

In a previous life, I spent my fair share of time fielding calls from people complaining about Housing ACT, telling desperate families they would have to join the queue or that their property was uninhabitable because it needed repairs and a tradie hadn’t been seen in months.

It didn’t take long for hapless bureaucrats, worried about a bad story, to get on the front foot to fix the situation, testament to the media’s power to hold power to account and make things happen.

But there can be unintended consequences for those bypassed on the waiting list, for example.

And it is a situation that favours the media-savvy, or those desperate enough to spin a convincing yarn which, in the modern world of social media, news churn and competitive outlets, lends its self to those seeking a quick win.

A quick video, an emotional appeal and the usual government scandal, it can all make for a compelling story.

Liberal housing spokesperson Mark Parton thought he was on such a winner recently, but word has it he was crestfallen after the facts of the case he tried to champion were laid out.*

Like the lives of the people he often tries to help, the situation was much more complicated than he realised, something Housing ACT, not a perfect beast for sure, has to manage all the time.

Let’s hope he can continue to keep the government honest on such a crucial issue, but do his homework.

We should all remember that the carnival will move on, but the often vulnerable folk in public housing are left behind after the media attention wanes.

There are lessons for both journalists and politicians in this – ask the right questions, check the facts, don’t assume who is a victim or oppressor, or rush to judgment. Getting it wrong only makes it harder when a more deserving case emerges that is really worth the headlines.

By all means, hold government to account, but remember that reality is often more complex and untidy.

For Housing ACT, that means managing thousands of properties, tenants with multiple issues, and juggling finite resources, including ageing stock it is loath to spend precious funds on, especially if it can be cashed in to build more homes elsewhere.

That doesn’t make it immune from criticism, just not the heartless bureaucracy many make it out to be.

The issues remain – insufficient properties, many shut out of the private rental market and a need for better management of what is available.

It’s a story that needs to be told; we just have to be careful how we tell it.

*Region Media has chosen not to detail allegations made by Mr Parton regarding public housing.

In an article published by the ABC, Housing ACT has rebutted a number of statements from Mr Parton which they say are factually incorrect, including that notices to evict are a last resort, issued only when a property is unsafe or uninhabitable, that families are not evicted into homelessness and that the agency will offer tenants relevant support services to find suitable accommodation.

Further, the allegation that the house in which the tenant lived contained lead has also been retracted.

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This article just provides another reason (again) why the government should own almost zero public housing and what it does own should be reserved for those who truly are unable to operate in the private market.

It is far too easy to make this area a hotbed of lazy political pointscoring to create the impression of major problems to shift votes.

Instead the government should simply provide most people who qualify with rental vouchers to supplement their own funds. This will allow individuals to choose the housing that suits their needs the best, rather than what Housing ACT can provide them.

Mike of Canberra4:13 pm 10 May 21

The current shambolic state of ACT public housing represents a serious situation that needs to be addressed now. The lives of people in both public and private housing are being impacted by the abysmal performance of our local politicians, both government and opposition. ACT Housing’s pitiful “poor me, they’re so mean to us” stance is unbelievable. Mark Parton’s cherry picking of housing tenants who allegedly are hard done by is equally astounding. Our Assembly politicians are elected by ACT residents to represent and protect our interests. If this is the best they can do, we really are in a sorry situation.

Public housing isn’t exactly rocket science. How hard could it be to enforce your own tenancy provisions? How hard is it to act against recalcitrant tenants and evict those who refuse to abide by these laws despite repeated warnings and many chances? Why should public housing be in expensive areas, with extremely high rates and taxes? Couldn’t the money saved by abandoning such areas be put into repairs, maintenance and exploring housing options in more affordable areas?

As for Mr Parton, if he’s serious about wanting to be the ACT housing minister, it is time for him to demand a complete audit of public housing in the ACT, and then to construct some decent policy options for the management of the portfolio. If he does not have the ability to do this, the Opposition should find someone who can. Cherry picking tenants and their alleged problems as he has done can only result in exactly the problems he has blundered into.

It’s way past time for all our politicians, especially Berry, Vassorotti and Parton, to start doing their jobs properly and earning the money the hard-pressed rate and taxpayers of the ACT pay them.

consumeradvocatecanberra3:47 pm 10 May 21

Good on you Mark for stating the bleedingly obvious. What I would like to see is evidence based figures from Housing, preferably to Tuggeranong and other Community Councils explaining the status of every house in their care. Then we can see what is reality and what is being done about it by Government to fix things. No quick panaceas but I note tenants frequently complain about those whose lifestyle is not “up” to theirs. When will tenants be graded according to the quality of life they lead. Yobbos get priority Z, mum and dad pensioners get priority B, homeless get priority A for those homes uninhabited or not treated well by the Bogan types. Seems they have rights over the rest of the well behaved tenants. Not good enough!

ChrisinTurner1:13 pm 10 May 21

If the ACT government continues to demolish more public housing dwellings than it creates, the problem cannot be solved. Public housing should not be limited to the absolutely desperate.

There not demolishing more than they build/buy.

Biggest issue is they are not building/buying enough to keep up with demand.

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