What councils could do to address housing and homelessness

August 20, 2020
The inequality in housing results from governments treating housing as a commodity rather than a human right. Photo: Michael Coghlan Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The underlying crisis in affordable housing has become a lot worse under COVID-19. The regulations putting a stay on evictions did not stop some landlords, and its expiry in several weeks is likely to lead to more people becoming homeless.

Despite all the talk, most landlords refused to negotiate a rent decrease, opting to defer the debt. It means that many thousands of people will be forced to pay off months of debt, despite not having had a secure income.

An April Anglicare rental affordability snapshot, designed to highlight the experience of looking for housing while on a low income, found a majority of rental properties were considered unaffordable for those surviving on welfare, or who had a low-income, despite the rise in JobSeeker allowance.

Throughout the pandemic, federal and state governments have consistently prioritised commercial renters and landlords over residential renters.

When renters have received some support, it has involved a “negotiation” between them and a landlord — hardly a level playing field.

Genuine support for renters during the pandemic would start with a suspension of rents and a ban on evictions.

The Renters and Housing Union in Victoria is campaigning for a number of measures including: an extension of the moratorium on evictions until September next year; an amnesty on rental payments to allow renters to be able to stay in their homes; to forgive all accrued rental debts with no penalty; all new and existing rent reduction agreements to be below 30% of tenants’ income until the pandemic ends; penalties on landlords, agents and agencies who refuse to renegotiate rental agreements; and penalties for those who infringe renters’ rights.

For those who have lost their jobs or income and are trying to pay off a mortgage, all loan, credit and mortgage repayments should be a suspended for six months with no accumulation of interest.

Houses as commodities

Because governments have been forced to house thousands of homeless people in hotels, motels and empty student accommodation, it is very clear just how much available accommodation exists.

This temporary housing for homeless people needs to become permanent. It also begs the questions: why are people homeless to begin with and why aren’t governments building public housing instead of giving handouts to hotels and landlords?

The inequality in housing results from governments treating housing as a commodity rather than a human right. This is what is causing housing prices to rise, whether you pay rent or a mortgage.

Some people naïvely believe that by allowing developers to build more high-rise, the cost will come down. But if this was true, housing in our biggest cities would be affordable.

Skyrocketing housing prices is a result of speculation, where property developers buy up properties and land, and manipulate the market by land banking. This leads to opportunities for corrupt rezoning deals between developers and local councillors, and political parties. This has happened in Casey Council and in Phillip Island in a rezoning bid which involved Liberal party leader Matthew Guy.

Developer greed

Land development must be taken out of the hands of private developers. Buying properties as investments, rather than as places to live, means that it may be more profitable to leave it empty.

There are a large number of vacant flats in Melbourne and Sydney, some of which have been so for years. They should be turned into public housing.

Governments must stop giving handouts to private landlords and pass the buck to housing associations and invest in affordable public housing, with secure tenancies.

The relentless sales pitch about how the public sector has failed, and how much better the private sector is has justified decades of inadequate maintenance, the demolition of public housing stock and sell-offs.

Investment needed

Governments must invest in public housing because, unlike private tenancies and community housing, public housing tenancies are permanent and rents are capped at 25% of income, unless people earn over the income threshold. For those who pay full rent and lose their job, rent drops to 25% of their income.

Because public housing has secure tenancies, strong communities can develop. When people live together long enough to get to know each other it leads to collaboration and mutual support: you know who to ask to look after your kids in an emergency; who you can borrow money from until your pay comes through; and who can give you a lift to the doctor.

It also creates a stronger basis upon which to fight for better amenities.

Community housing, also known as “social housing”, is not as secure as public housing. While it is better than private rental, fewer people on Centrelink payments can afford it because rents are 30% of one’s income. If you pay full rent and lose your job, it is not common for your rent to be reduced.

What can councils do?

This is why local government needs to fight for public housing. While local councils cannot resolve the whole problem, they can take measures including: allocating council land to build affordable housing with a preference for the state government to build.

I am running with socialist councillor Sue Bolton, who has a proud history of consistently opposing the government’s efforts to privatise public housing. She supported the campaign against the homeless ban in 2017 and the Bendigo Street occupation in 2016, when activists occupied empty houses in Collingwood demanding they be converted to public housing.

Bolton has also played a role in getting Moreland City Council to join the homeless street count to ensure that the number of rough sleepers is accurately counted.

The Sue Bolton Moreland Team is campaigning for an increase in public housing and, on council, Bolton is advocating mandatory planning laws to force property developers to allocate 20% of all new housing developments to be affordable for low-income residents.

We want affordable housing in Moreland and we believe that the solutions lie in taking housing out of the market. Rent caps need to be imposed on private rentals.

Councils can also add their support to those calling for the elimination of capital gains tax exemptions and negative gearing — policies which help inflate the market and deny lower-income people home ownership.

[Jacob Andrewatha is running with the Sue Bolton Moreland Council team in South Ward. For more information visit the campaign page.]

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