Homelessness is often seen as the result of personal factors. But, according to Peter Mares, author of No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia's Housing Crisis, homelessness and housing stress are systemic problems as the housing market is not providing for people's needs.
Recent years have seen both falling levels of home ownership and a decline in the availability of public housing. More people have to rent privately, and rising rents have resulted in increased rental stress.
Those who can afford to buy a house face rising land prices and the need to borrow more money. The average household debt has risen to 200% of annual household income.
In his book, Mares poses the question: "What if our housing system is designed in such a way that it will inevitably produce an ongoing crisis for at least a significant segment of the population?...
“If this perspective is accurate, then chronic homelessness and housing stress are not failures of the system that can be fixed with a bit of tinkering, but a constant and necessary by-product of an arrangement that is geared to generate significant additional wealth for the top tiers of society while leaving the poor and disadvantaged to live in a perpetual state of crisis".
Mares, who addressed a meeting in Brunswick on August 8, talked about past efforts to solve the housing crisis.
In 1942 Frederick Oswald Barnet and Walter Oswald Burt published Housing the Australian Nation. In it, they argued that private enterprise had not solved the housing shortage, so the government needed to help people.
In 1943, the federal government established a commission of enquiry, and shortly after the end of World War II the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement was ratified. Under this agreement the federal government helped state governments to build public housing.
In recent years, the building of new public housing has declined drastically. Some existing public housing has been transferred to community housing organisations, but the combined total of public and community housing has declined as a proportion of all occupied dwellings.
Meanwhile, homelessness has risen. Homeless people are put in temporary accommodation in caravan parks, cheap motels and rooming houses, but such accommodation is often substandard and potentially damaging.
Mares called for raising public investment in housing. To fund this, he suggested the introduction of death duties and a property tax, which could replace stamp duty.
He noted the existing situation is expensive for the federal government, which pays rent assistance to recipients of government benefits living in private rental accommodation. Rent assistance has not prevented an increase in rental stress, since landlords are free to raise the rent.