Kristin O’Connell: Labor’s housing deal will do ‘basically nothing’

August 30, 2023
Kristin O'Connell graphic
The reforms agreed upon by the national cabinet do not go far enough. Inset: Kristin O'Connell. Image: Green Left

Federal Labor claims to have secured “the most significant housing reform in a generation” after getting agreement from national cabinet on August 16.

It includes a “new home bonus” of up to $3 billion for the states and territories if they build 1.2 million homes over five years; a new uniform national standard on renters’ rights; limiting rent rises to one a year; and banning “no grounds” evictions.

Federal Labor also committed $500 million for amenities around new housing developments — an incentive for states to work hand in glove with developers.

Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell told Green Left that the changes will “do basically nothing”. She said the substance of the reforms are “things that most states and territories already have in place”.

The Australian Greens and housing activists are also doubtful that the deal will stop soaring rents. Greens housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather said the deal “spat on” nearly 8 million people who rent.

O’Connell said restricting rent rises to once a year will not slow them. “I copped a $90 a week increase last year and the fact that it was after more than 12 months didn’t really affect my capacity to pay that.”

Landlords can easily find ways around the ban on “no grounds” evictions, she said, by claiming they are planning to renovate or thinking of selling.

“The underlying problem with all these tweaks is that renters don’t have any ability to assert our rights.

“It doesn’t matter what regulation is in place if the onus is [still] on tenants to hold landlords and real estate agents to account.”

Rent controls

Labor is rejecting the Greens’ proposals for rent controls and rent freezes, echoing property developers’ assertions that such measures would reduce housing supply.

O’Connell said a rent freeze is not a radical idea, but governments do not want to introduce rent controls “because ultimately they want to uphold the structures in place now, because that is how they stay in power.

“We have been copping such obscene rent increases that … a rent freeze doesn’t really help, because we already can’t afford to live.

A retrospective rent cap in which “people who have imposed unfair rent increases have to unwind them” is needed. If landlords can’t afford to cap rents at fair prices, governments should introduce a buy-back scheme and guarantee the tenant’s right to stay.

She said the debate over rent caps is “ignoring the fact that there are many levers that need to work in concert to protect tenants and prevent the kind of ‘catastrophe’ that people claim will unfold if we introduce a rent cap”.

Housing supply

The national cabinet said housing supply is key to solving the housing crisis: build more homes and bring down prices.

O’Connell said more homes will not improve affordability. “Up to 2016, when the number of households increased by 10%, the number of dwellings increased by 12%. Yet, during that period, rents far outstripped wages.

“Just having more houses does not improve affordability. It’s all about what type of houses there are and right now we have no supply of houses for those on low incomes.” Property developers “want more land opened up so they can have more land banked”.

Community housing organisations are also “excited” by the plans, because they are “asset-driven organisations that want to see approvals for development”.

“What we actually need is a really massive investment in public homes: that includes buying existing homes and adding them to public housing stock.

“Public housing benefits us all and it should be an option that everyone has, regardless of income.

“Even so, those things can’t be done overnight, so that's why private rental market regulation is so important.”

O’Connell said JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and other welfare payments need to be urgently boosted so people can afford to pay for food and bills as well as rent.

This would be better than boosting Commonwealth Rent Assistance, through which “the government is transferring $15 billion a year of income support payments directly to private landlords”.

Labor’s housing bill

O’Connell said Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) bill, which the Greens have refused to pass in the Senate without significant changes, is “fundamentally flawed”.

The debate around the HAFF is a distraction from pushing the case for public housing and talking about significant rental reforms. “It is dependent on ever-growing property values and the marketisation of property” and there is no way to improve it so it can pass. “Pass it or don’t pass it,” she said. “It’s not going to do enough and we need to focus on fighting for what we need.”

[Watch the full interview with Kristin O’Connell. Follow the Antipoverty Centre on Twitter.]

Video: Kirstin O'Connell: 'There are common sense solutions to the housing crisis'. Green Left.

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