Government urged to take on housing affordability as a top priority for the budget

By Joe Montero

Welfare organisations are pushing to the federal government to include funding for housing affordability for low income Australians through the growth of social housing, defined as public and community housing.

There have already been hints that there will be some form of package in the coming May budget.

While there are  those who are struggling the most to find suitable housing they can afford, the pressure of rapidly rising housing costs is hitting a much bigger proportion of the population. It is the second biggest factor, after unemployment, that is exerting a downward pressure on living standards.

Any meaningful policy to address housing affordability will take this bigger picture.

Understandably, welfare organisations focus on those who are in the worst position. That is their role. They are calling for the government to set new social housing targets and raising rent assistance for those on Centrelink payments.

There is also some support for the setting up of a housing bond market that will raise funds to provide loans to not for profit community housing providers. This may work well as part of a plan. But it cannot be a substitute for a more far reaching approach. And this is what is needed if the problem of housing affordability is to be tackled successfully.

The National Shelter and Australian Council of Social Service have proposed a six-point plan to reduce homelessness and improve affordability for low and modest income Australians. It deserves support.

The addition is that this should be on the back of a more ambitious plan to reduce housing costs in general. Negative gearing and capital gains write-offs must be taken on. The federal government doesn’t want to look at this. But without it, there can be no real start in taking on the problem of  housing affordability. These two factors are major drivers of the housing speculation bubble that has sent prices and rents through the roof. The bubble needs to be popped. The incentives need to go.

Removal of these incentives will work to release hundreds of thousands of properties that are purposely left unoccupied, to lower the cost of maintaining them, while receiving generous government payouts. Re-entering them into the housing market will work to pull down prices. Lower prices mean lower rents.

On the back of this, it makes sense to suggest that further government intervention to provide new housing stock, in order to meet the shortfall should be an objective in the short and middle terms, or at least until the present housing crisis is resolved.

For the longer term, housing should be raised to the status of a human right. Doing so, will raise some implications.  One is that everyone has a right to adequate and affordable housing. There is also the implication that everyone has the right to choose the type of housing that best suits them. This means having the ability to opt out from the private market and opt for public or social housing, regardless of whether they are on Centrelink payments or in a full-time job.

Housing should not just be about bricks and mortar. It should be about building communities and this brings the need to carry out development planning within this context. Housing choice is inseparable from choosing what kind of community we want to be part of.

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