The systematic running-down of public housing by Labor and Liberal governments over the past few decades is not news. However, in Western Australia the situation has become particularly desperate.
In July, in response to questions in parliament, the McGowan Labor government revealed that it had slashed the total number of dwellings by more than 1300 or about 4%. These homes have been boarded up or demolished and simply not replaced.
Meanwhile, the state is facing its worst shortage in the private rental market since 2007, when the mining boom sent property prices sky-rocketing.
Reducing the stock of public housing and pushing out the waiting list at this time is a brutal blow for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community, and can only worsen the homelessness epidemic.
Even before COVID-19, there were about 15,000 individual applications and an official wait time of 97 weeks. However, according to housing advocates, this equates to as many as 50,000 people and the effective average wait is more like seven years.
The real demand is likely to be much higher.
The WA Housing Authority sends a written letter to people on the waiting list every year and if they do not respond they are removed. Furthermore, many low-income people can neither afford housing in the private market nor are they poor enough to qualify for public housing.
Anglicare estimates that as JobKeeper and JobSeeker get wound back and the recession really begins to bite, the waiting list will double.
When news of this dire situation first broke, the government countered that it planned to build 550 new homes. Perhaps stung by the criticism of this completely woeful figure, in October it released a new housing strategy with a revised target of 2600 new dwellings by 2030. That would still be a pitifully small net increase of only 1300 in ten years.
The stated aim of the government is to reduce the concentration or “ghettoisation” of public housing in favour of a “pepper and salt” approach, in which it is indistinguishable from privately owned dwellings, with many smaller dispersed clusters of housing plus mixed private-public developments with a maximum of 10% public housing on the higher density sites.
Many housing advocates favour this approach, but it only works if the government actually maintains and increases the total number of public housing dwellings and rolls out new developments. It hasn’t, meaning that the policy has simply been used as cover for a reduction.
In Fremantle, we have lost at least 160 public housing dwellings across four sites over the past decade as existing public housing stock has been bulldozed or sold off, with another 200 soon to go.
“Mixed developments” on the larger sites retained by the state will only yield about 100 replacement dwellings. However, even these sites remain vacant lots, one for several years now.
It’s a similar story in the regional city of Geraldton where more than 700 people are on the public housing waiting list, and yet 116 homes remain boarded up, awaiting either repair or demolition.
With almost no new capital from the state to enable the Housing Authority to keep up with population growth or the spiralling housing affordability crisis, its only means of renewing housing has been through joint builds with private developers or through selling-off land in higher-value gentrifying areas such as Fremantle.
The stubborn refusal to invest in this sector is all the more extraordinary considering WA is running a surplus — thanks to a spike in iron ore prices.
In contrast to the crumbs for public housing, the government has topped up the already bloated budget of Main Roads WA with billions of extra COVID-19 stimulus dollars for road building.
It’s in the endless pipe-line of money for new freeways that we find the real housing policy of the McGowan government. It’s an effective subsidy to the developers and builders behind the project home industry that is driving Perth’s urban sprawl as it devours the remnant bushland on the fringe of the city.
There is an endless march of car-dependent housing estates: big homes on small lots; black roofs; no backyards and not a tree in sight. Even the government’s public transport initiatives, mostly extensions to the existing rail lines with new stations surrounded by vast car-parks, are designed to sustain rather than curb this urban sprawl.
The government has developed a close relationship with the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA), the peak body of the suburban project home section of the building industry.
Correctly anticipating Labor’s landslide win in the 2017 election, major Perth land developer Nigel Satterly hosted a $1000 a-head fundraising function for the party in mid-2016.
The relationship has remained tight, with ministers and the Premier given star-billing at the regular UDIA lunches at Crown Casino.
Unlike NSW, in WA both Labor and Liberal have ruled out banning political donations from property developers.
The recent announcement by the Victorian government that it will invest $5.3 billion in 12,000 new dwellings gives a small taste of what could and should be possible. This needs to be put into some context: decades of under-investment means that Victoria has a public housing waiting list of 100,000 people.
However the fact that the stock of housing is at long last being expanded again in one state needs to be used to apply pressure on every other state government to do the same.
In Australia, under the logic of neoliberalism, public housing has been transformed from a mainstream affordable option for working people offering the same security as home ownership, into a tiny shrinking pool of welfare safety-net housing.
Not only has this destroyed lives, but it stands as a warning. The politicians that have done it will do the same thing to other universal services like public education and healthcare if we let them get away with it. They are already trying to.
Guaranteeing everyone access to affordable and dignified housing needs to be seen as a basic obligation of government. It’s an idea that has to be re-conquered in the public imagination.
[Sam Wainwright is a co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance WA and a councillor at the City of Fremantle.]