Labor must be pushed on its inadequate housing plan

June 14, 2023
Tenants and housing activists want NSW Labor to abandon plans to demolish the Wentworth Park Road estate. Photos: Pip Hinman

Australia’s housing crisis is now acknowledged across the political spectrum. Private rents are rising at record rates, vacancy rates are at record lows, public housing waiting lists are growing while the stock dwindles and homelessness is surging.

Responding to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s decision to raise the cash rate for the 12th time in 13 meetings, federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers said last week: “I don’t want to see working people, for example, who have been denied decent wages growth for the best part of a decade, bear the blame for this interest rate increase today…

“The most vulnerable people in our country are people on low and middle incomes and fixed incomes. They bear a disproportionate share of these interest rate rises. I don’t want to see them blamed for it.”

Chalmers recognised that, in a cost-of-living crisis, the poorer you are the harder it hits. He isn’t prepared to do much about it, but he does object to low-income and working people copping the blame.

For all the talk, by its own admission Labor is not doing much to deal with the housing crisis.

Striking a similar tone at a meeting to discuss Labor’s housing policies, Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek told constituents in early June that she wasn’t there to “sell them a unicorn”. The federal government was taking action, she said, but it was modest and not enough to fix the housing crisis.

New South Wales Minister for Housing Rose Jackson backed this up. As shadow, and now minister, Jackson has often talked about the housing crisis but is yet to spell out solutions.

Federal Labor’s signature policy is the controversial Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023 (HAFF), being debated in the Senate. This $10 billion investment fund would, in theory, generate dividends to help pay for new “social and affordable housing”.

As it stands, a $500 million a year cap on spending would fund a target of 20,000 new “social” and 10,000 “affordable” homes over the next five years.

The mechanism is designed to look and sound like a larger commitment than it really is, and to shift spending off-budget.

Labor’s targets are woefully inadequate: nationally, more than 174,000 households are on public housing waiting lists and there is an anticipated need for another 480,000 public homes over the next two decades.

On top of the HAFF, Labor has slightly increased Commonwealth Rent Assistance (an additional housing payment for renters on income support), introduced tax concessions for NSW Build-to-Rent developments and extended first homebuyer subsidies.

It has abandoned the negative gearing and capital gains tax reforms it took to the 2019 election, and dismissed the Greens’ calls for a rent freeze and rent caps (though some action on rents is apparently on the agenda for the next National Cabinet meeting).

NSW government policies

NSW Labor’s election promises included ending no-grounds evictions and “secret rent bidding”. Yet Chris Minns’ government is stalling on the former — a reform that housing campaigners have pushed for, for years — and abandoned the latter after evidence showed that forcing agents to disclose new rental applications above asking price would lead to “rental auctions”.

Instead, NSW Labor looks set to introduce a bill for portable bonds, so renters don’t have to pay thousands of dollars when signing a new lease while waiting for their old bond to be refunded.

And, like the federal government, there are new first homebuyer subsidies in the form of stamp duty waivers and discounts.

On public housing, or “social and affordable housing”, the NSW government is yet to offer a target for new dwellings or spending.

Labor’s two policies, so far, are a 30% social and affordable housing target on surplus public land and recombining asset and tenancy management responsibilities into one agency.

The latter is a no-brainer; the former raises many questions.

How willingly will government departments and agencies give up their assets? Will the housing authority have to purchase them for full market value? Will developers be enticed into building on sites that are, in all likelihood, complicated or marginal when they must also devote 30% to low-income housing?

How many homes will this add? How many will be “social” and how many “affordable”? And, why not build 100% public housing on surplus public land?

Finally, how does this all sit with the Minns government’s anti-privatisation agenda?

In May, the new premier announced a freeze on the sale of public housing — a welcome decision after the NSW Coalition’s sale of 7628 properties for $3.5 billion.

Yet, just a few days later, Minns revealed he would proceed with the Coalition’s plan to “redevelop” the Waterloo estate. This entails demolishing 749 public homes and replacing them with 847 “social” and more than 2000 private dwellings.

It now appears that NSW Labor plans to go ahead with several inherited redevelopment projects — including 82 Wentworth Park Road in Glebe and Explorer Street in South Eveleigh — despite none of these projects having been contracted out.

Minns has denied this constitutes privatisation. He seems not to realise that the $3.5 billion and 7628 properties he criticised the Coalition for selling included thousands lost in the redevelopment of the Ivanhoe, Airds-Bradbury, Minto and Bonnyrigg estates.

Jackson also recently suggested that Waterloo will remain publicly-owned, despite the redevelopment plans. This shows there is an obvious contradiction between Labor’s rhetoric on privatisation and its actual housing plan.

Public housing

Like its federal counterpart, NSW Labor says more supply is essential. But, in the absence of any serious state investment in public housing, this means more private housing supply. As I wrote in The Guardian on April 16, this alone will have no meaningful effect on housing affordability.

This contradiction is nothing new.

Throughout Australian history, housing has been an exception among essential services, otherwise provided by the state.

Public housing reached a peak of around 9% of housing stock in the 1960s, with governments preferring to help households buy a home (including by selling homes to existing public housing tenants).

Nine percent is, of course, far better than the current 4%. We’ve gone from around one in three rentals being public housing, to around one in nine: public housing has never been offered as an alternative to the housing market.

We need to fight for a system that provides genuine public options and other non-market alternatives.

We’re a long way from that, but there are steps we can take now to help us get there: regulating rents; fixing up vacant public housing; and purchasing private dwellings on the expiring National Rental Affordability Scheme would provide immediate relief for hundreds of thousands.

Existing public land can be used for public and Aboriginal community-controlled housing, rather than private housing and office buildings, through direct investment from federal and state governments.

Governments at all levels can finance, or guarantee, loans for community-led projects, like housing co-operatives and community land trusts.

At state and federal levels, Labor’s solutions to the housing crisis are a mix of inadequate and absent. But they are vulnerable to pressure.

The federal Greens, led by housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather, are doing a great job exposing the inadequacies of the HAFF and putting rent control on the public agenda.

Action for Public Housing’s six-day occupation of 82 Wentworth Park Road managed to win concessions, including a promise from the minister that any redevelopment would be 100% public housing. The Wentworth Park Road campaign will not end until the existing homes are retained, refurbished and re-tenanted.

But, along with NSW Labor abandoning its “secret rent bidding” bill, there are signs that advocacy and activism can force changes.

[Alistair Sisson is a Macquarie University Research Fellow and an organiser with Action for Public Housing. Join Action for Public Housing, the Antipoverty Centre, the National Union of Students and Sydney Socialist Alliance at Sydney Town Hall on June 17 at 1pm to demand homes for people, not for profit — public housing and rent caps now!]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.