Affordable housing should be a priority

February 22, 2019
A homeless camp in Martin Place, Sydney, in 2017.

As housing unaffordability becomes an increasingly critical social issue in Australia, it is perverse to find that most MPs own two or more homes.

It is surreal to see some politicians’ real estate portfolios. And while this doesn’t tell you everything about their class interest, it does reveal how Australia is increasingly becoming a two-tiered society when it comes to having access to an affordable roof over one's head.

The official statistics all point in a direction that no advanced capitalist country could possibly be proud of.

Homelessness rose across Australia by 14% between 2011-16. Median mortgage and rents rose over the past decade far beyond median household income and, last year, more than 1 million households were in housing stress — defined as households that spend more than 30% its income on housing costs.

Contrast this with politicians' real estate. The register of MPs interests published on February 12, shows they are an exclusive club of relatively to very wealthy people. There may be a reason for MPs to own two homes. But three — or more — is hard to explain.

The register indicates that: Independent crossbencher Kerryn Phelps has seven properties (the same number as former Coalition prime minister Malcolm Turnbull); Mehreen Faruqi (The Greens) has four; and foreign affairs minister Marise Payne (Liberal), Anne Aly (Labor), Anthony Albanese (Labor) and Barnaby Joyce (Nationals) have three each.

Housing stress

Meanwhile, a growing number of people are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.

At the last census, about 40,000 people were homeless in NSW and 50% of households experienced “housing stress”.

The number of people sleeping rough in NSW was almost double the national average, and the waiting list for public housing is now at more than 60,000.

Over the past decade, rents have risen at almost double the rate of household income.

Western Sydney is now the nation’s capital for housing stress, according to a new report from the University of Western Sydney.

Cate Colvin, a spokesperson for Everybody’s Home, a not-for-profit campaign, told the ABC that housing stress is affecting people right across Sydney, not just in the inner city.

Everybody's Home commissioned a report by the University of New South Wales that found that in six Western Sydney electorates rents had risen by nearly 30% between 2011 and 2016.

Incomes for the lowest income household, however, rose by just 5%.

This helps explain why so many people who lose their jobs later on in life decide to set up home in caravan parks.

The report also found that two-in-five people still have trouble paying their rent even after receiving rent assistance. This is because rent is rising faster than rent assistance.

According to the report, even a rise of as low as $20 a week would improve affordability for many households.

It also found that homelessness had risen by 13.7% in 4 years and 6% of homeless people are forced to sleep on the streets

Youth worst affected

Homelessness is starting to crunch Millennials: Two of every five people who are homelessness are under the age of 25.

This should be a wake-up call, but policymakers are happy to encourage private solutions, such as offspring staying in the family home well into their 20s, something that Baby Boomers (and their parents) never contemplated.

A June 2018 government report confirmed that the most notable decline in home ownership was among young people, hardly a surprise given that wages have flatlined, jobs are increasingly insecure and housing prices, including rentals, are highly inflated.

It also found that the number of households living in community housing run by the not-for-profit housing sector has more than doubled between 2007–08 and 2016–17. But demand has outstripped supply.

Everybody’s Home wants 500,000 social and affordable homes built by 2026.

But the UNSW’s Centre for Social Impact says that there are close to 200,000 people on social housing waiting lists across Australia right now.

According to report author Professor Kristy Muir, almost 80% of new housing stock is being priced at the upper end of the housing market. She said there is an affordable housing supply crisis, not a crisis of housing supply.

Policy crisis

Given that Australia has experienced 27 years of unprecedented economic growth, the housing crisis is a crisis of policy.

The dire lack of low-cost housing is a result of market failure. Not enough low-cost housing is built as it is not profitable enough, compared to investment housing.

All governments, and particularly in NSW where housing stress is the worst, should be prioritising affordable housing and not building cheap houses on the outskirts of cities away from employment, services and public transport links.

There needs to be a huge expansion of funding for public housing. Anyone who wants public housing should be able to access it. Public housing should not be a residual service grudgingly provided only to those who can prove they are extremely poor.

How are we going to pay for and organise this?

Housing is a fundamental human right. Decisions about housing have to be taken out of the hands of greedy developers and speculators and put it in the hands of communities.

We have to eliminate capital gains tax exemptions and negative gearing, which inflate the market, and make vacant housing available to those who need accommodation.

We also need to end the sell-off of public housing and restore and expand it.

Furthermore, we need to mandate that 20% of all new apartment blocks be public housing and make government responsible for covering the costs of heating and cooling.

Finally, we need to cap public and private rent at 30% of residents’ income and develop alternative housing options, such as co-housing, cooperatives and communal housing.

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