Public housing: privatised by stealth


Sources in Victorian public housing say proposed changes to the system will increase rents for tenants and replace government-funded public housing with more expensive privatised housing.

Public housing in Victoria is being dismantled and privatised by stealth, without open and genuine public consultation.

Housing associations are building new dwellings, economic stimulus packages are being awarded and public land is being sold and transferred at breakneck speed. The government is hugely invested in this massive logistical exercise, and is rushing it through without any real discussion and before the true impact can be known.

Most public tenants are unaware of any future changes or how it will affect their lives, because the Office of Housing is not adequately informing them. Tenants are shifting to housing associations and being told, “everything will stay the same”.

Public tenants are to be moved across to private housing associations or housing providers, and a small “skeleton” department will be kept as part of the Office of Housing for dealing with extremely high-needs tenants only.

In the transition stages, the government will manage some of these housing association-owned properties. But these properties will soon be solely managed by the housing associations, and all complaints will then need to be addressed to them.

Information given by the Office of Housing in its factsheet on housing associations is that they charge between 25-30% of combined household income as rent. The housing associations are offering places at the same or similar rental rates as public housing — for now.

But the government is encouraging housing associations and housing providers to apply for the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which will allow them to charge rents of up to 20% less than market rates.

The government is also offering generous financial incentives and tax breaks for these housing associations, housing providers, construction companies and entrepreneurs.

Generous land packages have been sold. Sometimes the titles of public housing properties have simply been transferred across to private housing associations or providers.

A huge amount of what was formerly public land is already in the hands of the private sector. The public needs to know the full extent of these sales and transfers. This is theft and a permanent loss of public resources and social capital.

The government is keen to offload public housing onto the private sector.

Most public tenants are unaware that, once they move into so-called “affordable housing”, their rents may be increased later. They are also unaware that, after 10 years, there will be no government-guaranteed security of tenure.

Twenty percent less than market rates cannot be considered “affordable housing”. The government lies when it says it is building more “affordable housing”. Market rates go up all the time and people who need housing will pay whatever it takes.

The proposed rent increase will create extreme poverty and hardship. Many of society’s most powerless, disadvantaged, and vulnerable members live in public housing. In future, it is they who will suffer most from these changes.

Secure, affordable, appropriate housing should be a fundamental human right.

The present public housing system charges rent at 25% of combined household income. This is fair and equitable. This system protects the rights of the unemployed as well as those who are working part time.

Its flexibility protects the rights of people with chronic or episodic disabilities if they become unwell. Many people with disabilities live in public housing and work part time.

Public tenants are in danger of losing the protection provided by linking rents to 25% of combined household income — and there is no public debate happening about it.

Sources in public housing say that, to keep pushing people to “social housing”, the Office of Housing will periodically screen all tenants, to check if their income and assets exceed financial thresholds. If so, public tenants will be forced to leave their public housing homes and transfer to one of the so-called “affordable social housing” dwellings.

Security of tenure is also under threat. Public housing offers a great deal of security to tenants at the moment. But housing associations and housing providers are not required to provide security of tenure beyond 10 years.

It has been calculated that 10 years is the amount of time it is believed it will take to clear the public housing waiting lists.

After 10 years public housing will be virtually fully privatised. The government will have dropped its responsibility for ensuring that its most vulnerable citizens are getting a “fair go”.

After 10 years, there is nothing to stop the housing associations from selling off their housing stock and making a final massive profit.

We cannot rely on housing associations to have a social conscience; protection of the right to housing is properly a public — a government responsibility. Public housing is at a crucial crossroads.

Open investigation and public debate needs to happen now, before truly affordable, secure, decent, equitable public housing disappears from our society and is no longer part of the heritage we leave for our children and grandchildren.