Decent housing is a basic human right

August 17, 2007

"Australia has failed to implement the human right to adequate housing", concluded a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council addressing adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.

The special rapporteur visited Australia in July-August last year and held wide-ranging consultations with communities, government agencies, politicians and civil society representatives. He found that "there is a serious national housing crisis in Australia, especially given that it is one of the wealthiest developed countries, with a comparatively small population … Current indicators … show regressive results: reductions in public housing stock, soaring private rental rates, an acknowledged housing affordability crisis and no real reduction in the number of homeless.

"Australian legislation should explicitly incorporate human rights and the right to adequate housing, and the recommendations on housing made to the Australian authorities by various United Nations human rights bodies should be fully implemented."

Among a series of recommendations directed at the Australian government to make housing a national priority, the report called for "a national body that truly represents the voices of indigenous people … a rigorous attempt to tackle problems of housing affordability and housing and land speculation prevalent across the country".

Figures provided by National Shelter illustrate the extent of the crisis:
* 1 million low-to-moderate income households are in housing stress (paying more than 30% of gross income on housing),
* The deposit required for a first home loan is 60% of an average household's income,
* Median weekly rents are between $125 (Tasmania) and $260 (ACT),
* More than 230,000 people are on social housing waiting lists for 380,000 existing units, including 190,000 people waiting for public housing and 10,000 people on waiting lists for government-owned Indigenous housing,
* 100,000 people are homeless, an 18% increase over six years, with 17% of those Indigenous.

Since the late 1980s there has been a shift in government funding from the public to the private housing sector. Public housing provision — once affordable housing for low-to-moderate income families and a genuine and secure tenure option along with private home ownership and private rental — has been reduced to residual welfare housing. The decline in federal and state government funding for public housing has been matched by increased expenditure, through rental assistance, to those on Centrelink payments. This has done more to enrich landlords than to provide secure, affordable housing to the poor. Available evidence indicates that increased payments of rent assistance have done more to inflate rent levels than to increase the supply of private rental accommodation.

In April, the ALP launched a discussion paper, New Directions for Affordable Housing. This is consistent with the call to action of the National Summit on Affordable Housing, formed three years ago by a coalition including the Housing Industry Association, the Australian Council of Social Service, National Shelter, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Community Housing Federation of Australia.

Labor's paper canvassed a range of options, while stating that they do not represent federal Labor election commitments. The paper calls for housing policy coordination so that enough houses are built, reform of government planning frameworks and strategies to reduce costs of housing, and policies to assist first home buyers to save for and attain a foothold in the housing market.

It also raises the need for strategies to increase the supply of affordable private rental properties, for the reform of the Commonwealth Rent Assistance Scheme and proposals to boost the supply of social, emergency and Indigenous housing.

While the holistic nature of the policy discussion that has developed over recent years places housing within the broader framework of economic and social policy, it is not based on a human rights approach to housing. It de-emphasises social housing provision, prioritising assistance for individual home ownership and private rental stock. Public funding is directed towards provision of incentives to institutional and large corporate financers, rather than increasing capital expenditure on publicly or socially owned housing stock.

This reflects a consensus that public housing is a thing of the past, along with other key elements of the welfare state. In recent years, state housing authorities have restricted eligibility and the length of tenure for public housing. Public housing tenants no longer have secure affordable housing. Tenancies are reviewed periodically on the basis of "duration of need", forcing more low-income earners onto the private rental market.

On August 13, the ALP announced a $600 million rental affordability plan. In cooperation with the states, the plan would provide tax incentives and subsidies to institutional investors to build new rental accommodation for 50,000 low-to-middle income earners in housing stress. Rent would be charged at 20% below the market rate. However for this plan to meet the housing needs of the 230,000 on social housing waiting lists, it would require a financial commitment of between $2.5 billion and $3 billion.

From a social justice perspective, the solution to Australia's housing crisis requires an expansion of the social housing sector through a massive national capital works program. Such a program would need to be publicly funded, democratically planned, controlled and accountable to local communities. Innovative, environmentally sustainable housing design, which meets the diverse needs of households, would be a key element of this human rights response.

Models such as those now developing in Venezuela, where the socialist government has announced a new US$700 million project, Mission Villanueve, aiming to help solve a severe housing crisis by constructing new suburbs based on cheap, ecologically sustainable housing to the poor, has the potential to serve as a useful example.

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