Victoria's severely stressed public housing system is under threat from the state's Liberal government, with cutbacks and sell-offs being discussed under the guise of “reform”.
A recent auditor-general's report forecast the Department Of Human Services (DHS) housing division's cash “running out in 2012-13”, noting they'd had “no clear long-term objectives” for at least a decade, and had cut back on preventative maintenance, causing property degeneration which then cost more money to fix. The government has been aware of these problems for at least six years, “yet this has not spurred action”.
There are 38,000 people on Victoria's public housing waiting list, a figure that has not improved over a decade. Priority applicants wait several months, others several years, some forever. And with the population increasing, it's getting worse.
The Liberals have not done a better job than their Labor predecessors of improving the mess, putting “no new funding into public housing” and with no plan to build any new homes, DHS released two discussion papers, inviting public comment. It sent public housing tenants a letter misleadingly stating “no changes will be made to your tenancy as a result of the release” of the papers. However, changes will be made based on the feedback about them.
In Pathways To A Fair And Sustainable Social Housing System, the DHS uses words such as “inequitable” and “unfair” in ways Big Brother would be proud: the system is “not fair” because people in public housing are more comfortable than people not in it.
Its “example” solution: “transition to the private market” (that is, evict) all tenants except for age pensioners and the “profoundly” disabled. Throwing out some low-income tenants to house others is robbing the poor to give to the poorest.
The other report, Social Housing — A Discussion Paper, was written by a multinational firm of auditor-accountants in language non-accountants won't fully comprehend.
How many public housing tenants would have the vocabulary, analysis skills, spare time and dogged persistence needed to make a detailed response — how is your knowledge of “abatement”, “greenfield areas”, and “shared equity”? How could tenants with English as a second language, or with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities, understand this? It appears the department doesn't really want tenant feedback on the report.
Almost all the options given involve deals with private enterprise in one form or another, meaning some money would be funnelled off for profit. With the department almost broke already, it may need to be taken from tenants by raising their rents.
Privatisation would make tenants eligible for federal government rent assistance. The clear intention is to shift expense from state to federal government. If the federal government fell for this trick, “higher rents [would] be charged”.
A greater proportion of public housing tenants could be housed in the extreme outer suburbs. This would leave tenants with little access to jobs, public transport or social services, and would destroy communities. Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson has likened similar public housing “reforms” in England to “Kosovo-style social cleansing”. Tenants could be made homeless for years during redevelopment, as is already occurring in Britain.
Many options in the discussion papers involve community housing providers such as co-ops. Some exist already, run by unpaid tenants. One such volunteer has described their dealings with DHS housing as a “bureaucratic nightmare”. With few new volunteers, existing ones were forced to keep working: quitting would result in the committee lacking a quorum, which would mean the department would evict all the co-op's residents.
The few applicants reaching interview stage had to compete with each other for committee approval, being rated on “feel” rather than primarily on demonstrated financial or housing need.
Greens and socialists have demanded capping rents, no evictions, increased investment in public housing and an end to the sell-offs. The Greens want to create a state public housing commissioner “to be a watchdog and ombudsman”. Campaigning group Fightback! is pushing for changes in law to decrease the rampant property speculation that results in up to 18% of homes sitting vacant while profiteers wait for prices to rise.
Countries like France, Sweden, Hong Kong, and Singapore have properly funded public housing. Why not here? Victorians need to speak up now, and keep a very close eye on DHS housing over the next few weeks.
There's still just time to quickly make a submission to their enquiry, which ends next Tuesday July 31 at 5pm:
[Email FOPHVic@gmail.com to join Friends of Public Housing, or visit their Facebook page. Steven X Stevenson is a Melbourne writer and public housing tenant. His email is email@example.com.]