Greens campaign for rent freeze, housing affordability

September 7, 2022
Housing is a human right
Housing is a human right, but governments treat it as a commodity.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s crass attempt to make a joke comparing The Lodge — a 40-room mansion with tennis court, pool and a private chef — with “public housing” shows how removed he is from the concerns of ordinary people.

As interest rates approached a seven-year high on September 6, The Guardian, citing analysis by financial data firm RateCity, reported this will mean an additional $144 a month in mortgage repayments for each $500,000 borrowed.

Australian Broker reported in August that “nearly half of Australian homeowners are under mortgage stress, with 45% of households spending more than they are earning”.

This comes on top of “rental stress” — defined as spending 30% or more of income on rent — which affects millions.

A survey commissioned by Savvy indicates that 1.4 million people may be in some form of rental stress, and 1.1 million may be experiencing “extreme” rental stress.

“When combined, the total number of Australians spending 30% or more of their income on rent amounts to 14%, or a possible 2,719,000 individuals nationwide,” Savvy reported.

The ABC reported similar figures in April.

This is the context in which Greens housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather has called for a two-year rent freeze.

“Over the last 12 months, rents have increased seven times faster than wages in capital cities, forcing millions of Australians into severe rental stress while some regional areas have seen rent increases at even higher rates,” he said on social media on August 25.

“By freezing rents for 2 years and capping rent increases after that, we can give wages and incomes a chance to catch up, and protect millions of households from potential eviction.”

Albanese mocked the rent freeze idea, saying: “It’s not clear to me, short of nationalising property, how that could be achieved. I haven’t seen any proposal, nor have the Greens raised with the government that at all.”

However, the proposal is workable and clear.

The Greens are proposing National Cabinet coordinate a nationwide freeze, with state and territory governments using their respective rental tenancy acts.

Chandler-Mather replied to Albanese on September 7, saying: “Scotland froze rents in the private rental market without ‘nationalising all property’ ”.

“There’s a reason Scotland is freezing rents,” he continued, “because it works and it is exactly how you protect renters from unfair and massive rent increases.

“Now that Scotland has shown the way, it is time for the federal government to finally start treating this once-in-a-generation housing crisis seriously.”

Chandler-Mather said the Victorian government has frozen rents in the past and the federal government also froze rents during World War II.

Greens MP Amy MacMahon moved for a two-year rent freeze on August 31 in Queensland parliament. MacMahon’s bill amending the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act 2008 would make it illegal for landlords to charge more in rent than was charged on August 1. This would not change under a new tenant or if the house were renovated. After two years, a 2% rise in rent would be permitted every two years.

Queensland Labor’s housing minister Leeanne Enoch rejected the Greens' plan, describing it “extremist”. She suggested renters would be disadvantaged because a rent freeze might “see a further reduction of housing supply in the private rental market”.

This reflects the major parties' position of not supporting any laws that put downward pressure on housing prices.

Socialist Alliance co-convenor Sam Wainwright told Green Left that “This view is fundamentally at odds with the measures needed to achieve housing affordability for the majority of the population.

“We think parliament must cap private rents at current levels for 10 years and public and social housing rents should be no more than 20% of a renter’s income.”

Wainwright said other measures needed that reduce the overall price of housing could include: expanded public housing; ending tax concessions like “negative gearing” for investors; and an expansion of renters’ rights.

Wainwright said that while some homeowners will not be affected by the price drop on properties, those with large mortgages will be hit and they need to be protected.

The biggest winners from the rise in house prices are the corporate investors and the big landlords, “like the parasite on 2GB who wanted sympathy while admitting to owning 283 investment properties”.

Wainwright said these big investors need to be made to pay to ensure policies that protect housing justice for all.

Greens Brisbane City councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan is campaigning for financial penalties on investors who leave properties vacant for extended periods.

On September 6, he moved for council to undertake a public consultation with the aim of introducing “a separate, higher ratings category for residential investment properties that are left vacant for at least six months”.

His aim is to ensure that investment property owners “have a stronger financial incentive to either rent out vacant dwellings or sell them”.

He said higher rates or charges would not apply to owner-occupier homes or tenanted investment properties.

The Liberal National Party majority on the council voted against his motion, but it was supported by Labor and an independent councillor.

Sriranganathan said a minority of property investors prefer to “leave investment properties empty rather than renting them out”. They do this “because they’re more interested in making big money from selling the property at a higher price than they bought it”.

Brisbane City Council already has different ratings categories for commercial, industrial and rural properties, as well as owner-occupied homes compared to investment properties.

Sriranganathan is right to say that creating a new category that distinguishes between investment properties being rented out and investment properties that are left empty long-term is “reasonably straightforward”.

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