Community housing cannot solve the housing crisis

Written by Sue Leigh for FGFP Victorian Steering Committee .

Anyone walking through the CBD of an Australian city cannot fail to notice the increasing numbers of rough sleepers huddled in doorways and outside stations.

There were 105,237 homeless people, according to 2011 data from Homelessness Victoria, but these shameful numbers are less than the 160,000 households on public housing waiting lists according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and these waiting lists show only those who are eligible. What the figures don’t  show are the increasing numbers of the working poor living in insecure, often poorly maintained private rental homes, who haven’t a hope of earning enough to buy their own homes.

This April Anglicare released its Annual Snapshot of housing affordability and found that, out of 75,410 rental properties Australia wide only 21 would be affordable for a single person on Newstart. Over the last ten years rents have increased by 52% but the minimum wage has risen by only 36% with this ratio even wider in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne where a one bedroom flat can easily cost $300 per week.

Private rental means constant insecurity in the form of rent rises and forced moves when the landlord decides to sell or renovate. Meanwhile the criteria for obtaining public housing has become increasingly restricted and is now only for the marginalised and those with high needs and even these groups may be subjected to long wait times and/or can only be assisted with the support of over stressed community organisations.

Public housing has fallen from 331,000 units in 2007-2008 to 317,000 in 2013-2014(AIHW).  In Victoria public housing accounts for only 3% of housing stock as opposed to 30% private housing.  In the face of a continuing housing crisis public housing stock continues to be sold off or placed in the hands of other agencies.

Emmanuel Gruzman and Tony Gilmour of the Housing Action Network in Tasmania writing in Parity (2015) said:

Of course we could just use public money to build social housing that could be rented out affordably over the long-term………However, unless we can find a local Jeremy Corbyn – the newly elected leader of Britain’s Labour Party who favours good old-fashioned council housing we will need to rely on market solutions.

There appears to be a consensus amongst federal and state governments that the answer to the housing crisis is so called social housing managed by community organisations and not the state.  It is hard to understand how this move towards relinquishing responsibility for housing those on low incomes came about.  Australia has always had a belief in the Aussie dream of home ownership but, although this dream is no longer a reality, there is still an idea that people should all be able to save and buy a house and that public housing is welfare and somehow shameful.

Keith Jacobs writing in The Conversation (Feb 5 2015) talked about one of the myths surrounding public housing:…..that public housing is a failed policy that reinforces welfare dependency……

There is a different attitude to public housing in many overseas countries such as Sweden, where responsibility for housing its citizens is viewed as part of the duties of an ethical state and housing is for all citizens. Large public housing programs founded on an ideology that sees access to public housing as a right not charity creates vibrant communities rather than ghettos of the marginalised. It can be done, the town of Medicine Hat in Canada has housed all its homeless in a “housing first” program that found that it was cost effective to house the homeless as the people housed were then able to deal with their problems, had fewer health problems requiring hospital admissions and were more likely to find jobs.

A further reason for not funding public housing appears to be based on  the conservative ethos of shrinking the state’s involvement in caring for the community and the resulting privatisation of services making the state reluctant to invest in public housing but willing to subsidise philanthropic ventures such as community housing organisations.  Community organisations can be used to take numbers from the public housing waiting list, thus enabling state and federal governments to shirk their responsibility to provide stable and secure public housing. Over the last 10 or 15 years partnerships have become the mantra of the states and territories. For example the DHS Victoria website states that:

Partnerships with registered housing agencies is a key way the Victorian government provides affordable housing for people who are unable to afford or access the private rental market.

So does this policy stand up? Are community organisations able to lift tenants out of housing stress? The answer is yes and no. Community housing organisations have provided a certain amount of affordable housing but they have not been able to meet the increasingly huge demand. Community housing organisations competing for funding are faced with few alternatives other than to make pragmatic choices that do not necessarily coincide with the needs of the people they’re intended to serve. They are able to charge higher rents than the 25% of income charged to public tenants and provide less security of tenure.

As the numbers of community housing organisations become more responsible for the provision of affordable housing many are fast becoming more like companies with, no incentive to campaign for more public housing. Some housing is now being managed by huge organisations such as Community Housing Ltd. Community Housing Ltd. is now an international charity with developments both in Australia and overseas. It manages 110 remote Aboriginal communities in the Goldfields WA, 1,910 properties in Victoria and in Tasmania they have just leased 1,200 public housing units which they have renovated and manage.

Housing associations rarely have vacancies so that homeless people are often provided with transitional housing or are faced with living in rooming houses. It would seem from this that the idea of “through put” and trying to move people on is more important than providing stable, secure housing. Vinci Petersen, the CEO of  Launchpad community housing organisation in NSW, admitted that most of the young people they house are in short or medium term accommodation and cannot be moved on because of the shortage of affordable housing thus creating a “bottleneck”.

Some community housing organisations such as Homeground Real Estate are looking to the private rental market to get people housed. This is seldom a stable and permanent option.  This project by Homeground manages properties at market rent or less than market rent for landlords who are willing to forego some profit in the interest of providing housing that is more affordable.  It also asks for philanthropic landlords to donate housing to be managed by Homeground.

Another solution adopted by community organisations is aimed at supporting people on low incomes to maintain their existing tenancies in private rental under the STAR (Sustaining Tenancies at Risk) and PRA (Private Rental Advocacy) programs. For example, Rural Housing works with tenants to help them maintain themselves in private rental whilst admitting in their annual report that “the demand for housing is much greater than supply as increasing numbers of households struggle financially in the private rental market”.

At a conference in NSW(Housing Affordability a Challenge for Older Women, August 2015) there was a call for subsidised rent. More rental subsidies would seem to be a way for governments to give more money to public landlords and save themselves the expense of providing more public housing. This begs the question as to why social housing providers should be using their resources to do the management work for private landlords.

Community housing organisations are increasingly using market rent as a guide when assessing rents rather than client incomes. Mission Australia in a recent article in Parity (2015) advocated for mezzanine housing at 40-60% of market rent. Using market rent as a guideline is not a just ratio at a time when market rents are unaffordable and 40-60% would place many low income earners in housing stress. The rent for low income people should be assessed in the same way as public housing based on % of income not the market.

This country’s housing policy has failed. It has failed Indigenous communities living in overcrowded, substandard housing; it has failed those struggling to pay exorbitant rents or mortgages they can’t afford; it has failed the homeless, the couch surfers the rough sleepers.  Partnerships between local governments and community organisations have blurred the line between charity and the right of citizens to affordable, secure housing.  Philanthropy and piecemeal market subsidies are no substitutes for a comprehensive public housing policy.

Cash strapped Community housing organisations have had to come up with all sorts of creative ideas in order to house some of the homeless.

FGFP says it is time for charitable organisations to stop playing the government game of competing for funding and use their collective power to demand more public housing.



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