The news this week was grim for anyone caught up in Canberra’s brutal rental market, as rents continue to climb and the availability of both houses and units shrinks.
Canberra is just too popular apparently, with an influx of professionals and graduates, some looking for a safe haven, soaking up what vacant housing there is.
If a lease is coming to an end or the landlord has decided to cash in on the ACT’s hot property prices, it can be a terrifying time for tenants embarking on a Hunger Games-type quest to secure a roof over their heads, particularly for those who don’t draw the kinds of salaries the public service and national organisations pay so they can’t compete with rents being offered in application bidding wars.
Nonetheless, they may end up in unsuitable properties or with leases that will bleed them dry, leaving them exposed to unpaid energy bills or suffering through Canberra’s winter chill or searing summer, skipped meals and a limited wardrobe.
And they’re the ones in work. God help those on fixed incomes such as the unemployed and pensioners.
Is the market capable of doing its job in Canberra?
For many, the answer has been no for a long while. The Labor-Greens government continues to tout its 10-year, $1 billion Housing Strategy but that seems to be left in the dust as rents stampede away.
Welfare groups say the ACT needs 3,000 additional affordable dwellings, making the government’s promised 400 more public housing dwellings a paltry offering.
There needs to be a new injection of public funding and more dedicated land releases for affordable housing, they say, both of which were missing from Andrew Barr’s latest budget.
The government seems to have drawn a line about what it can do, steadfastly refusing to adjust its housing strategy for a deteriorating situation in the ACT.
With governments deploying deficits to save their economies and interest rates so low, why not take the opportunity to bolster such critical infrastructure like housing that people can actually afford?
Mr Barr delivered a better than expected bottom line, perhaps he could have thrown some of that saved money at a problem that is not going away and, in fact, is just getting worse.
His response on Budget day was a mix of home truths and blame-shifting.
“My biggest concerns are not the financing but the supply side capability to actually build the houses, land availability and planning challenges,” he said.
“Any new public housing almost anywhere in Canberra attracts a degree of concern from sections of the community and often a media circus.”
All true but still no excuse for ignoring the situation.
But he also appeared resigned to the limits of his powers.
“There will always be a waiting list … I would rather a housing waiting list of 3,000 than a wait time between six months and two years than 60,000 and a wait time of 10 years or longer,” he said.
Mr Barr insisted that the ACT builds more public housing per capita than any other jurisdiction.
That may be so, but that self-congratulatory pat on the back does not help the growing numbers of Canberrans, who actually do a lot of the work to keep this city functioning, in over their heads or only a job or even a shift loss away from the street.
The ground is shifting, and the ACT Government needs to move with it.
And if the work of government and the businesses and associations that support it are pulling people into the national capital and putting a torch to the rental market, then governments, both ACT and Commonwealth, need to pick up more of the tab too.