It’s another week with more headlines about the fact that the ACT has some of the highest rents in Australia, and some of the worst rates of youth homelessness in Australia. While it is important to explore new ideas around how we can respond to the affordability crisis, we sometimes forget to focus the importance of some of our tried and tested approaches – particularly the provision of public housing.
Public housing has historically been a cornerstone of our response to affordable housing. The importance of government investing housing stock and protecting those on low incomes by capping the rent at 25% of income, rather than at the level of market rent, cannot be understated and is the only way that many families on the lowest incomes can afford a roof over their heads. It is a proven program that is operated by all Governments across Australia, and the subject of agreements between the Federal Government and state and territory governments.
Over the last decade there has been a real shift in how public housing is managed in the Territory without a lot of discussion about the reasons for this, or implications of this change. This has included changes to how much public housing stock is built, how it is allocated, how it is funded and how the complex task of managing expensive capital assets has been managed. Given where we are now at in relation to housing affordability in Canberra, maybe it’s time to analyse the impact of our current approach to public housing, and reflect on whether or not we can create a different future where everyone in the ACT has access to a safe and affordable house.
I was pretty shocked to learn how rapidly we have seen the decline in the proportion of public housing stock being built in comparison to private housing in this city. This was recently highlighted in the ACT Legislative Assembly as part of a motion brought forward Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur. She highlighted that while public housing accounted for about 12% of total stock in 1991, it is now just 7.1%. And the future doesn’t look rosy, with the recently announced affordable housing targets for 2017/2018 committing to ensuring a mere 3.5% of new housing would be allocated to public housing. While the Government has assured the community that numbers of properties have remained stable over the last period, Government reports note a decline of 387 properties in 2017 from the number in 2011.
This is all against a backdrop of a shift from a situation where public housing was a pretty normal housing tenure for people across the social spectrum to one that is highly targeted. This is a big change given that in Canberra, access to affordable housing was historically seen as a key element of supporting this growing city and this mixed tenancy model meant that there was a proportion of market renters that were able to supplement income for ACT Housing and offset the low rents being provided by those with the very lowest incomes.
Now public housing is very much the landlord of last resort. We currently outstrip every other jurisdiction in relation to targeting public housing, with 99% of allocations going to those people with the greatest needs. Even with this targeting, it’s going to take you a long time to get public housing if you are in desperate need. If you are assessed as eligible on the priority list – that is homeless, leaving a domestic violence situation, a family with complex needs, suffering a disability or chronic illness, it will take almost a year (average of 346 days) to get housed. If you are ‘high needs’, you are likely to need to wait almost two years (or 638 days). Others will wait for an average of more than two and a half years (972 days).
A key reason for this shift is because there has been such an increase in local households who are in severe housing stress. In addition to a decrease in public housing numbers, this has come about because of a perfect storm of skyrocketing private rental costs, increases across a wide range of other living costs (such as energy) and the fact that wages are not keeping pace with these large increases. If you are dependent on a government pension or allowance, the Anglicare Rental Affordable Snapshot released each year found there are virtually no accommodation that is affordable in the private market.
This has real-life consequences. While the last census information found our homelessness rate had dropped, homelessness and housing stress is still real for many Canberrans. It found that just over 40 people in every 10,000 people in the ACT reported being homeless. While this is down from 48.7 people in 2011, this is still significantly higher than the ACT homelessness rates reported in 2001 (30.4) and 2006 (29.3).
There is no doubt that ACT Government has some big challenges in managing public housing stock – particularly around renewing its aging properties and it should be recognised for the investment that it has made in the renewal program. There is however a real question as to whether or not we are investing enough to ensure that we have an adequate amount of housing stock to ensure that all our residents are able to put a roof over their heads. It is vital that at the very least we continue to invest in a decent amount of social housing, including both public housing and housing managed community-based organisations to ensure that we don’t slide further backwards.
I think it is time to invest more heavily in providing public housing so everyone has a place to call home. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is a board director of CHC Affordable Housing (a community housing provider) and a member of the management committee of the Early Morning Centre – a homelessness service provider. She is also an active member of the ACT Greens who ran in the 2016 Territory election.