Housing crisis demands vision from councils

August 26, 2020
Planning and vision are needed to ensure the most vulnerable are not left without a roof over their heads.

The City of Greater Geelong’s final report into affordable housing is inadequate to meet people’s needs for safe and affordable shelter.

The Social Housing Plan 2020–2041, released in February, was supposed to address a growing social and economic issue. Housing affordability in the private rental market has declined over the past 10–15 years, despite a significant rise in the supply of houses. The report noted that the number of affordable rental properties had decreased from 80% in 2000 to 20% in 2018.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ rental report in March showed that the median weekly rent had increased in metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria. It found that the annual rate of the rise was both above that of the previous year and above the long-term average annual increase.

Close to 20% of those living in the northern suburbs of Corio and Norlane are under housing stress — defined as housing that costs more than 30% of gross household income. A contributing factor is the rise in private rentals.

As rent goes up, so too does the risk of homelessness, as landlords evict those who cannot afford to pay.

Corio and Norlane encompass 40% of all social housing tenants in the City of Greater Geelong, including those who live in public housing managed by the state government and community housing managed by not-for-profit organisations.

While “public housing”, “community housing”, “social housing” and “affordable housing” are clearly defined terms, they are often used interchangeably,  generating confusion and inaccuracies.

“Community housing” is not public housing: it refers to public housing stock, public land or publicly subsidised housing that has been outsourced to not-for-profit organisations to manage and maintain under state government regulation. It is yet another example of government abrogating responsibility to the private sector.

The City of Greater Geelong’s housing plan refers to how it will support “social housing”. Does that mean it will invest in state-owned and -operated public housing, or does it mean that rate payers will again end up subsidising the not-for-profit private sector?

The City Council’s report reads like it would like to become a community housing provider.

Community housing is less affordable: it hand picks tenants and is less inclined to deal with behavioural issues that might arise, meaning less secure tenures for people who need secure housing.

Of more concern is that the council has identified 42 council-owned sites it deems suitable for residential development.  It has proposed that any residential development must include a minimum 30% allocation for social housing.

This may sound good, but what it actually means is that the council is proposing to sell off publicly-owned land to private developers with a minimum guarantee that 30% will be used for “affordable” social housing. This may be public housing or it may be not-for-profit privately-owned housing.

We don’t need to go too far back in history to know that private development, even if not-for-profit, cannot be trusted to deliver.

The G1 development on the former St Mary’s School site in central Geelong was to include private apartments, social housing and office space for Barwon Health. The first stage of the development in 2016, overseen by Common Equity Housing (CEHL), included 13 CEHL affordable apartments and 46 Barwon Health apartments.

Stage 2 of the project was supposed to include a further 134 dwellings for both private and social housing. Instead, CEHL, a registered charity, sold stage 2 to private developers which transformed it into a $50 million private residential project where apartments sold for between $295,000–$479,500 and two apartments sold for $1.3 million.

Even not-for-profit charity status organisations cannot always be held to account.

Local councils do have limits on their budgets, but what if five local governments across the Geelong, Surf Coast and Colac Otway region banded together to demand state and federal support to build public housing on council-owned land?

This sort of planning and vision would help ensure the most vulnerable are not left without a roof over their head.

[Sarah Hathway is running for the Socialist Alliance in Windermere Ward in the City of Greater Geelong in the upcoming local council elections. Get involved in the campaign through her Facebook page.]

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