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Healthy built environments – considerations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Posted by on August 21st, 2019 · Indigenous, Planning, Wellbeing

By Professor Susan Thompson, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. 

For over 60,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples enjoyed a remarkably harmonious relationship with the natural environment that provided all their physical and spiritual needs, keeping them healthy, happy and well. This was abruptly and forcefully destroyed when the colonialists invaded Australia in 1788. The legacy of this dispossession continues today with significant gaps between the health status and life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples compared to other Australians.

And while this is a complex situation, with differences in health status across urban and rural communities, chronic disease rates are problematic for all Australians. Accordingly, planners have a role to play in addressing specific risk factors for chronic disease – especially obesity, lack of sufficient exercise, access to nutritious foods and social isolation.

Understanding needs and priorities

In an attempt to understand how these risk factors affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the needs and aspirations of the Awabakal community in NSW’s Hunter Region were investigated in a collaborative consultative exercise. The outcomes were written up in a report entitled ‘Healthy Country Healthy Mob’ (McGuinness, et al, 2011). While the outcomes are specific to the Awabakal people, the report is useful for planners collaborating with other Indigenous communities to create health supportive environments.

In relation to accessing healthy food, the study found that for many it was often difficult to consume the daily recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables to meet basic health requirements. These challenges were exacerbated by the high cost and poor quality of fresh produce. Consulted participants suggested that the development of, and support for, community gardens would be one positive way to help alleviate some of these issues.

Achieving at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day was also challenging for a large percentage of respondents. Improvements to the quality of footpaths, their connectivity, and the provision of shading and attractive features, were nominated to help encourage regular walking. Similarly, with cycling, participation rates would increase with more continuous off-road bike paths and lanes.

Findings around community belonging, neighbourliness and connection with the environment were also interesting. There was a strong sense of neighbourhood attachment, especially for families with young children. Volunteer rates tended to surpass those of the non-Indigenous population. Nevertheless, connections across the generations – the very young and the elders – needed improving, with suggestions for culturally appropriate events, as well as providing suitable public meeting spaces (McGuinness, et al, 2011). The location of new roads needs to be carefully assessed by planners to ensure that existing communities are not isolated or separated from easily accessible meeting and gathering spaces. Acknowledgement of traditional owners, incorporation of Aboriginal art in the region, and the protection of significant sites – be they natural or built environments – were all identified as ways of improving community connection and respect for everyone in the Hunter.

Positive visions for change

 The work undertaken in the Hunter demonstrates a positive vision for change through a collaborative and respectful process, which planners can emulate elsewhere. Another example  is the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership based in Walgett in western NSW. This is a community-led, rights-based, strengths-focused and holistic project where academics, from a range of UNSW faculties, have joined with the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) to bring evidence-based solutions to real world challenges to improve health and well-being for Aboriginal people in Walgett. Built Environment Faculty colleagues, led by landscape architect Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard, are investigating a range of projects with the DEG, including specific healthy planning initiatives, to support community food gardens and conduct a healthy built environment audit of the town. We are excited and honoured to be part of this partnership.

 

Note on article image: Indigenous art is a powerful way of expressing connection to Country and community – this  mural has been completed along Sydney’s inner west GreenWay to celebrate the traditional owners of this land. The location of the mural is often referred to as the boundary between the lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. Artists: Uncle Kev, Tim Phibs (lead), J.P. Simon.

Reference

McGuinness, R., Miller, K., Bromley, M., Neal, S., Eastwood, L., O’Sullivan, E., Townsend, D., Licata, M., (2011) Healthy Country Healthy Mob: Summary Report of the Awabakal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Consultation for the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie Liveable Communities Assessments. Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council and Awabakal Newcastle Aboriginal Cooperative, Newcastle.

Building defects: City Futures’ submissions to the NSW government

Posted by on August 12th, 2019 · Construction, Government, Housing, Housing conditions, Strata, Sydney

By Caitlin Buckle, City Futures Research Centre.

The public discussion around building defects has been heating up lately. In response, NSW Fair Trading have proposed a number of reforms to the building process, and the NSW Parliament’s Public Accountability Committee commenced a parliamentary inquiry into the regulation of building standards, building quality and building disputes. City Futures has shared our perspective on these issues in two written submissions, which can be accessed here.

The NSW Fair Trading  discussion paper ‘Building Stronger Foundations’ was open for submissions until the 24th July, outlining a range of possible reforms. The reforms up for discussion included:

  • the appointment of a Building Commissioner (who has since been appointed);
  • registration and greater responsibilities for building designers; and
  • ensuring an industry-wide duty of care is owed to subsequent home-owners.

The terms of reference for the parliamentary inquiry cover a broader range of issues relating to building defects, including other consumer protections like insurance, and the role of strata committees. Submissions closed on the 28th July.

Our submissions drew on findings from over 10 years of research into strata living, including past research projects Governing the Compact City and City Living, and our current project focused on building defects in apartments (Cracks in the Compact City). The submissions emphasize the emotional and financial challenges faced by owners and tenants of defective buildings. We outline our support for extending the duty of care owed to home-owners, and greater oversight of strata development by the Building Commissioner. There remain other issues that the reforms should also address, however, such as the need for extended timeframes for building defect claims, and the difficulty owners and purchasers face in trying to obtain information about a building’s quality.

Public hearings are currently being held as part of the parliamentary inquiry, with CFRC’s Hazel Easthope and Laura Crommelin invited to provide evidence on the 16th August.

Focus on managing social housing waiting lists is failing low-income households

Posted by on August 6th, 2019 · Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Social housing

By Abigail Powell, UNSW and Chris Hartley, UNSW. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A need to manage waiting lists, rather than ensuring positive outcomes for tenant households, strongly influences social housing policy, newly published research finds. This situation is not only a result of operational policies, but also a shortage of social housing stock that is suitable for tenants and a lack of viable alternatives – namely affordable, safe and secure private housing. Eligible applicants who don’t have a “priority need” can wait up to ten years to be housed. They face strict eligibility checks just to remain on the waiting list.

Since the large-scale post-war expansion to house working-class families, the social housing sector has shrunk relative to the rest of the housing system. More than 140,000 people are on public housing waiting lists.

Importantly, this figure does not capture unmet demand such as people sleeping rough and very low-income households in housing stress who are not on waiting lists.

Waiting lists also don’t include hidden demand such as people suspended from waiting lists or excluded by their visa status.

The supply of social housing stock simply does not match the growing numbers of households experiencing housing affordability problems. Between 2011 and 2016, government spending on social housing fell by 7% from A$1.42 billion to A$1.32 billion. Today, social housing is provided to over 800,000 tenants in more than 400,000 households – 76% in public housing, 20% in community housing and 4% in Indigenous housing.

The expansion of public housing (delivered by state and territory housing authorities) to community housing and Indigenous housing (delivered by non-profit community organisations and Indigenous organisations) has transformed social housing. Community housing has increased by 121% between 2008-09 and 2017-18. This growth includes tenanted stock transfers from public housing.

 

Against this background, policymakers are increasingly seeking to promote housing “pathways”. Operational housing policies are intended to improve tenant housing and social outcomes (such as well-being and economic participation), but also to manage long waiting lists and make the system more efficient.

These policies shape housing pathways, determining how tenants and households move into, within and out of social housing. But these pathways are also influenced by household relationships and a household’s changing needs. What a tenant or family need from their housing changes when, for example, relationships break down, new relationships begin, children are born or children leave home.

Our research sought to better understand the policy context behind housing pathways and their impacts on tenants’ experience.

Getting in

Pathways into social housing begin with application, which is a centralised process in most states and territories (apart from the Northern Territory). Prospective tenants apply once through a single portal, with information shared between government housing departments and community housing providers.

The success of an application depends on a range of eligibility criteria (see Table 1), starting with income and assets. Even if a prospective tenant meets the income criteria, priority is given to people and households with specific or complex needs. What constitutes “specific or complex needs” varies, but generally includes disability, poor physical or mental health, experience of family violence, exiting institutions, or being homeless or at risk of homelessness (the most common pathway into social housing).

Other criteria include citizenship and residence status (including restrictions based on permanent residency/citizen status), age and tenancy history.

Table 1: Summary of common eligibility criteria.
Source: Powell et al 2019, Author provided

An applicant’s place on the waiting list is continually checked. If an applicant is found to be ineligible, or simply does not respond, they may be suspended or removed from the list.

Staying in

Most states and territories have policies on the eligibility of tenants to continue in public housing. Criteria include income levels, use of the premises, and household change. What criteria are reviewed, and how often, varies widely.

Eligibility reviews mean tenants fear any extra income might result in an end to their tenure or having to make higher rent contributions. This potentially undermines their preparedness to undertake education and training, or take up work opportunities that might lead to greater independence.

Moving within

Policies allow tenants to apply for a transfer if household circumstances have changed. A dwelling might no longer be suitable – for example, as a result of overcrowding or family violence.

In practice, however, supply constraints make this challenging. Policies that transfer public housing properties to community housing providers result in tenants becoming less mobile as moving between public and community housing is not possible.

Landlord-initiated transfers can also occur. For example, property or housing estate renewal might require tenant relocation. A transfer might also be a result of tenant conduct or changes in eligibility status.

Moving out

Exits from social housing may occur when a tenant chooses to move to private housing or is evicted. Eviction may result from issues such as neighbourhood disputes, anti-social behaviour, rental arrears, a lease coming to an end, or changes to eligibility.

Tenants who are no longer eligible for social housing based on their income may also be evicted. These tenants often still have limited capacity to take on and manage a private rental tenancy.

Policy levers to help with moves out of social housing include: selling dwellings to tenants; providing private rent subsidies; rental transition programs; financial planning; and client-based needs planning. Some policies also target private landlords with a goal of increasing housing affordability and therefore pathways out of social housing.

By far the biggest obstacle to moving out of social housing, however, is the lack of affordable housing alternatives.

What this means

While operational policy establishes formal pathways (by setting eligibility criteria and so on), what happens in practice may be different, as service providers can interpret and implement policies in different ways, with different effects for tenants.

Further, what is known about the housing pathways of tenants moving in, within and out of social housing is based on partial evidence. It comes from social housing providers themselves (missing information about events prior to and following occupancy), or from survey research seeking to fill some of the data gaps. Many blind spots exist in the housing pathways evidence base.

Optimal policy development requires clear, up-to-date evidence on how we might understand social housing pathways within a changed housing policy and housing assistance context. We also need to consider what advances in administrative and longitudinal data can tell us about how policy innovation might improve social housing pathways.

Abigail Powell, Associate Professor at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW and Chris Hartley, Research Fellow (Housing and Homelessness) at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW

 

Private renters are doing it tough in outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne

Posted by on July 31st, 2019 · Affordability, Economy, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Private rental, Sydney, Tenancy, Wellbeing
In low-rent outer suburbs, almost one in six households could not afford to keep their house cool and went without meals. ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

By Alan Morris, University of Technology Sydney; Hal Pawson, UNSW; Kath Hulse, Swinburne University of Technology, and Violet Xia, University of Technology Sydney. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Private renting continues to expand at the expense of home ownership, newly released ABS statistics show. More than one in four Australians (27%) are now tenants of a private landlord (2017-18). Only one in five lived in private rental housing in 1997-98.

Our research looked at private renters in middle and inner suburbs and low-rent outer suburbs (200 private renters in each area, 600 in total) in Sydney and Melbourne. Geographical differences in income sources and deprivation rates might be expected. However, the variations in financial stress revealed by our study were startling. In low-rent outer suburbs, much higher proportions, for example, went without meals or had to pawn or sell something to get by.

Household incomes

Not surprisingly, tenants in the inner/middle suburb areas and the (low-rent) outer areas had a very different profile of income sources, as Table 1 shows.

In areas with medium and high rents, wages or salaries were the main source of income for more than four out of five respondents (83%). In the outer suburban, low-rent areas, this was true for barely half (56%). A third relied mainly on state pensions or benefits.

In more than a quarter of tenant households (28%) in low-rent areas at least one member was an unemployed job-seeker. Only 8% of households in the medium/high-rent areas included an unemployed member.

Finally, once again indicating the typically more deprived situation of the outer suburb group, a much greater proportion of these tenants, 62%, received Commonwealth Rent Assistance compared to 21% in the other areas.

Signs of financial stress

Respondents were asked: “Over the past year, have any of the following happened to you/your household because of a shortage of money?”

We found levels of financial stress varied greatly between areas. Among low-rent (outer suburban) tenants almost two-thirds (63%) experienced at least one of the eight possible financial stress indicators listed in Table 2. That’s twice the proportion for the inner/middle-area cohort (32%).

Benchmarking both of these figures against the nationwide rate of 20% (based on the all-tenure national comparator on the incidence of financial hardship) illustrates the pervasiveness of economic stress among private renters in all areas of our major capital cities. But in outer suburban low-rent areas of Sydney and Melbourne the risk of financial hardship is more than three times the national norm among tenants. Our earlier research also noted this.

Comparing the two tenant groups revealed statistically significant differences on every financial hardship indicator – see Table 2.

Strikingly, almost one in six households living in low-rent areas went without meals. A similar proportion had to pawn or sell something to get by.

One in three tenants in these areas turned to family and friends for financial help. Almost one in four (23%) sought help from a welfare or community organisation.

Exposure to multiple forms of financial stress indicators was also much greater in low-rent areas. One in five (19%) tenants here reported enduring four or more financial stress indicators versus 6% in medium/high-rent areas. For households in this position, damaging impacts on their quality of life and probably physical and mental health are likely.

A common theme to financial stress

We found that being reliant on government benefits was associated with multiple indicators of financial stress, irrespective of area. More than one in three (37%) such households experienced four or more of the financial stress indicators. Alarmingly, poverty resulted in 26% of this grouping going without meals in the last year.

Employment status was a significant factor irrespective of area. In households where a household member was either looking for work, out of the workforce or retired, 27% of these households had four or more financial stress indicators. In households where at least one person was employed full-time, only 5% had four or more stress indicators.

The ongoing trend of increasing housing cost pressures on lower-income Australians over the past decade provides the context for the high incidence of financial stress, particularly among tenants in low-rent areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Latest ABS data reveal that, for the least affluent fifth of households, typical spending on housing increased from 23% of income to 29% over that period. In contrast, typical spending on housing by the top fifth was unchanged at 10%.

The case for increasing benefits

Our study brings home that everyday life is an enormous battle on various fronts for many benefit-reliant and other low-income tenants in Sydney and Melbourne. Even if they can find a tenancy in a low-rent area to keep housing costs down, their likelihood of after-housing poverty, including energy poverty, is high.

At the most extreme end of the scale are the one in five tenants in the outer low-rent areas (one in ten across all three areas) who experienced severe financial stress (four or more indicators of financial stress). After paying for their housing, many of them lack money for essentials.

Being located on the urban fringe, and therefore often remote from services and/or employment, compounds such hardship. Not surprisingly, the incidence of financial stress is highest among government benefit recipients. This finding highlights the urgent need to increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance to offset some of their housing costs, and also to increase key income support payments, such as Newstart and the Disability Support Pension.The Conversation

 

 

Those left to pick up the bill shut out of building crisis debate

Posted by on July 24th, 2019 · Cities, Construction, Government, Housing, Housing conditions, Law, Sydney, urban renewal

By Prof Bill Randolph, Director, City Futures Research Centre. This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald.

The news that the Australian Building Ministers Forum is now acting on the recommendations of the Shergold-Weir report into building defects is a welcome sign that at long last the failings of the development industry to control building quality have started to be taken seriously. But it’s taken a series of shocking revelations, accompanied by pictures of distressed residents clutching cats and children as they file out of their condemned homes, to spur politicians and the bureaucracies that support them into action.

In an industry dogged by complex state-based legislation, inconsistent and weak compliance regimes, poorly integrated regulatory frameworks, competing incentives and competency gaps among trades, poor record keeping and sheer competitive pressure, the development industry has pretty much been given a free reign to set its own standards and police itself. The success of the development sector in pushing back regulatory oversight, lobbying for increasingly permissive planning frameworks and avoiding responsibility for poor quality building has had an inevitable and predictable outcome. This approach has failed the consumer.

The scramble to apportion blame between the complex chain of actors involved in the recent building scandals exposes the risk-shifting behaviour rampant in the industry. The now widespread “design and construct” sub-contractor procurement approach, which relies on builders to adapt the designs and specifications as they go, has further disrupted the capacity of the sector to deliver a quality outcome. .

The proposals of the NSW government in its recent Building Stronger Foundations discussion paper to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to non-compliant certifiers, ensure ‘building professionals’ are registered (always assuming anyone will insure them) and appointing a Building Commissioner, all sound good in theory but may prove more difficult to implement in practice without significant resourcing and real teeth. Calls to bring back suitably qualified and independent Clerks of Work or consulting architects or engineers to oversee a development from start to finish may offer an alternative solution.

Missing from current debates has been the key role the finance sector has played in requiring pre-sales before developers can access development finance. This marketing approach lays the seeds of much of what subsequently happens. In buying “off-the-plan”, the buyer is committing to buy an apartment on the basis of very limited information about what will actually be built – often little more than that contained in a glossy brochure. Would you buy a new car under similar conditions? Of course not.

“Information asymmetry” in favour of the developer is a fundamental feature of the apartment market and a clear sign of market failure. Even for purchasers of existing apartments, it is often very difficult to obtain clear, comprehensive or reliable information about the state of the building. Nor is it feasible to have an entire high-rise inspected before settling on a purchase and yet apartment owners are entering, largely blindly, into joint ownership of these often massive and complex buildings, based on little else but trust in a system that has now been shown to have failed dismally.

The lowly position of the consumer in the process was graphically exposed last week. In the list of the government ministers and industry heavyweights who attended the Building Ministers Forum, there was no one representing the most important stakeholder of all – apartment owners. Neither were strata managers nor strata solicitors at the table. It is indicative of the whole shambles that those who are left to pick up the bill and deal with the consequences are not included as part of the solution.

While the implementation of the Shergold-Weir report’s recommendations will improve building quality control in the longer term, there’s nothing the ministers’ communique or the NSW proposals for the many owners who are experiencing, or will soon face, the trauma of dealing with substantial defects in existing buildings. An obligation on the development industry of a legally enshrined “duty of care” to subsequent owners, also proposed in the NSW government’s discussion paper, is a positive move. But given the costs involved, legal action should be a last resort. Further reforms are needed to make the process of cost recovery by owners as simple and streamlined as possible, without delaying actions through disputes or uncertainty over the appropriate respondent, and without the potential for developers to “phoenix” themselves and escape their responsibilities.

What’s needed is a wholesale revamp of the culture of the apartment development industry that puts the needs of the consumer first, not a distant last. The industry needs to embrace a culture of change or face a continued crisis of trust.

There’s a lot resting on getting this right, not least the capacity of Sydney to accommodate the 8 million people it’s expected to house by 2056. We can only hope the development industry takes ownership of its failings and, with the help of the proposed reforms, puts its house – or perhaps its apartment – in order.

Build to rent could shake up real estate but won’t take off without major tax changes

Posted by on July 8th, 2019 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Construction, Economy, Government, Housing, Housing conditions, Housing supply, International, Law, Planning, Private rental, Sydney, Tax, urban renewal

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In the wake of slumping demand for apartment building, it’s little wonder the multi-unit housing industry has been eagerly eyeing a possible new residential product: “build-to-rent”.

In fact, the latest figures show that apartment-building construction starts were down 36% in 2018 from 2016. But how much will this little-known built form solve our housing problems?

Build-to-rent won’t be a silver bullet solution for Australia’s housing affordability stress, but it does have potential to tick the box on several important public policy objectives. These include widened housing diversity, enhanced build standards, and a better-managed, more secure form of private rental.

But for this to happen, Australia’s tax settings need adjustment.

What is ‘build-to-rent’?

This refers to apartment blocks built specifically to be rented, usually at market rates, and held in single ownership as long-term income-generating assets.

The enduring owner might be, for instance, an insurance company, an Australian super fund, a foreign sovereign wealth fund, a private equity firm, or the building’s developer.

Although new in Australia, build-to-rent is quite common in many other countries. Under its North American name, “multi-family housing”, the format has generated more than 6.3 million new apartments since 1992 in the US alone. And in the UK, a build-to-rent sector has led to 68,000 units built or under construction since 2012.

A scattering of build-to-rent schemes are already underway or completed, mainly in inner Sydney and Melbourne. And they may prove to be the forerunners of a new Australian residential property sector – but that is far from guaranteed.

In Australia, our private rental market is almost entirely owned by small-scale mum-and-dad investors, so this kind of housing would be a largely new departure from typical Australian real estate.

Potential benefits

The build-to-rent development model, involving a long-term owner commissioning an entire building, creates an incentive for higher, more enduring quality than the standard “build-to-sell” apartment development approach.

Importantly, build-to-rent is a long-run investment that caters for rental demand, which tends to grow steadily.

This means the model is largely immune to the fickle changes in housing demand resulting from typically short time horizons and primarily speculative instincts of individual buyers traditionally dominant in our market.

So at its full potential, this new housing product could introduce a valuable counter-cyclical component into the notoriously volatile residential construction industry, helping to offset damaging booms and busts. In other words, build-to-rent can create stability in the Australian property market.

How build-to-rent can incorporate affordable housing

Optimistically, some have claimed build-to-rent could also provide an “affordable housing” fix for many lower-income earners who are doing it tough in our existing private rental market.

But this could be possible only with the aid of major government funding or planning concessions.

Ideally, housing at rents affordable to low or moderate income earners would be included in predominantly market-rate build-to-rent schemes. Indeed, one major construction industry player recently advocated this as a standard expectation.

So how should affordable housing be provided in this case?

To find out, our analysis compares the cost of developing affordable housing by a for-profit company with development under a not-for-profit community housing provider.

Thanks to that non-profit format, and the tax advantages that go along with it, community housing providers can, in fact, construct affordable rental housing at significantly lower cost than their for-profit counterparts. Less subsidy is therefore needed.

Nonetheless, government help in some form will be essential to enable an affordable housing element. The most painless way for this to happen, from the government perspective, is through allocating sections of federal or state-owned redevelopment sites to community housing providers at discounted rates.

Encouragingly, this strategy was recently advocated by newly designated federal housing minister Michael Sukkar.

Such designation of government-owned sites could, for instance, be factored into large-scale urban renewal projects like Sydney’s Central-to-Eveleigh and Rozelle Bays. This could fulfil the widely voiced demand that 30% of these developments should be affordable housing.

Levelling the playing field

Our modelling shows that under current conditions, even market-rate build-to-rent projects are barely viable – at least in Sydney.

The inflated price of developable land in Australia’s urban housing markets is an important contributing constraint. But our research also identifies a range of government tax settings that disadvantage build-to-rent, compared with both mum-and-dad-investors and traditional build to sell developers.

Removing less favourable land tax and GST treatment could markedly improve build-to-rent feasibility.

From a housing policy perspective, there’s also a case for the federal government to reconsider its recent “withholding tax” decision that treats overseas-based institutional investment in rental property less favourably than investment in commercial property.

Since such global funds would likely lead the establishment of a new Australian build-to-rent asset class, revisiting the withholding tax changes could be a significant step in making build-to-rent a reality in Australia.

In any case, build-to-rent is no simple solution for Australia’s affordable housing shortage.

But even as a market-rate product, it could fulfil several important public policy objectives. How far it might do so in practice is something that governments rightly need to weigh up when considering industry-proposed tax and regulatory reforms.The Conversation

 

Click to download the report.

Living with diversity in high-density apartment settings

Posted by on June 28th, 2019 · Cities, Housing, International, Migration, Planning, Private rental, Strata, Wellbeing

by Edgar Liu, Hazel Easthope and Christina Ho (UTS).

This article is republished from the Meridian180 forum summary page. Read the original article—and Japanese, Simplified Chinese and Korean versions—here. Read our original lead post and discussion questions here.

 

Recent migration surges and rapid urbanisation have increased human diversity in population-dense locations, particularly in urban apartment buildings [1, 23]. Although research on everyday multiculturalism shows that local neighbourhoods are important sites for tackling racism and fostering understanding [4, 5], little work has examined the role of apartment buildings in shaping intercultural interactions, whether positive or negative [6]. Throughout May 2019, we facilitated a forum of these concurrent changes, with questions about the extent of resident mixing and segregation in high-density settings; the factors that enable or constrain cross-cultural interactions, interventions and support; and most importantly, what outcomes such interactions may generate, in terms of individual wellbeing, sense of community and neighbourliness, and urban governance.

 

Background

Literature on cross-cultural engagements tends to focus on larger-scale spaces, from local neighbourhoods and workplaces to institutions like schools and clubs [1, 7, 8, 9] Likewise, programs and public policies developed explicitly to encourage civic participation among socio-culturally diverse groups have traditionally overlooked the role of apartment buildings. This oversight is particularly notable as apartment buildings constitute a new arena of urban governance: their management operates like an additional tier of government which collects taxes (levies), sets rules governing behaviour (by-laws), and elects representatives (committees) [10].

Moreover, as crucibles of formal and informal interactions, apartment buildings have the potential both to cause and to prevent conflict and isolation. Proponents of contact theory, including scholars of ‘everyday multiculturalism,’ argue that increased intercultural contact improves cross-cultural relations. Others believe that increased cultural diversity can negatively affect social cohesion, neighbourly exchange, and tolerance of ethnic others, as people of different cultures, languages, and beliefs may withdraw socially or ‘hunker’ [11, 12, 13]. Still others contend that peaceful cohabitation can be grounded in a mutual respect for others’ right to be present [7, 8, 14], which sometimes entails maintaining respectful distance, i.e. living ‘side-by-side rather than face-to-face’ [15]. We have much to learn about which effect is more likely and which trajectories lead to which outcomes.

 

Discussion

The discussions focussed on three main areas: spaces for community interaction, the governance of apartment buildings, and implications for social cohesion.

  • Spaces for community interaction: Many contributors spoke about the need for spaces—both physical and digital/virtual—that enable and facilitate interactions. They especially highlighted the importance of quality common spaces and their role in facilitating encounters and, at times, even genuine friendships and community. As higher-density/apartment living is still a relatively new form of dwelling for many around the world, we have much to learn about the different ways people choose to interact (and not interact) and how these interactions are influenced by the spaces that they are afforded. There is certainly much work still to be done on how cultural diversity might be accommodated and the ways in which higher-density living spaces could and should be designed to facilitate improved interactions. However, we must also consider questions of access and equality. For instance, the better-off, upper-market buildings are often the buildings that provide and maintain ‘quality’ common facilities. How do we ensure people of different socioeconomic backgrounds can also afford and access such common spaces? Are these solely the responsibility of the building’s owners’ corporations, or should this be a wider consideration of urban designers?
  • Governance of apartment buildings: Forum contributors raised a series of questions about the governance of apartment buildings, including the governance and maintenance of common spaces. Forum contributors pointed to examples in public housing, from top-down policies like Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy, which dictates the mix of each residential building, to softer approaches of social engineering and management through eligibility criteria [16]. In private multi-owned buildings without a common landlord and/or management, what lessons can we learn from the ways that social relations and encounters are managed in the context of social housing? Should there be a similar role of an estate manager in private developments?
  • Implications for social cohesion: Reflecting the published literature on everyday multiculturalism and its potential positive and negative impacts, the jury is also still out on whether intercultural mixing at the apartment-building level is good, or not. Discussants brought up professional and personal examples of how some buildings actively pursue homogeneity under the impression that this maintains property values; others discussed the relationship between homogeneity and ease of management. There were likewise examples of ‘super mixes,’ wherein superdiversity in ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and tenure mix—created in part through public policies like Right to Buy [17, 18] and other similar public housing sell-off schemes—indirectly created a rich mix of residents and provided remedies to urban loneliness.

 

Impact

Many contributors spoke from their own lived experiences, relaying passionate and often personal stories of their own buildings. This underscores how important diversity in density is in apartment living. Yet, the relatively few examples of active approaches suggest that perhaps stakeholders rarely take active roles in fostering positive intercultural and socioeconomically diverse relationships in private apartment buildings. Nonetheless, the forum participants contributed many ideas for positive actions and approaches to more harmonious apartment living. These ranged from design interventions that encourage interaction and avoid tensions through thoughtful uses of space, to management interventions such as regularly changing strata committee (board) leadership and recruiting diverse committee members.

The impact of better addressing and supporting diversity in density is immense. The forum demonstrated the potential of supporting social cohesion at the building scale for helping residents feel at home in their apartments, improving the management (and hence quality) of buildings, and elevating the overall wellbeing of the wider community. Diversity in density is clearly a fruitful area for future cross-disciplinary enquiry, something that we hope to extend in similar future forums and collaborative research.

Australia’s social housing policy needs stronger leadership and an investment overhaul

Posted by on June 26th, 2019 · Affordable housing, Economy, Finance, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing supply, Productivity, Social housing
Energy efficient social housing in Tasmania.
Xsquared, Hobart, Author provided

By Julie Lawson, RMIT University; Jago Dodson, RMIT University; Kathleen Flanagan, University of Tasmania; Keith Jacobs, University of Tasmania; Laurence Troy, UNSW, and Ryan van den Nouwelant, Western Sydney University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia will need another 730,000 social housing dwellings in 20 years if it is to tackle homelessness and housing stress among low-income renters. These are the findings of a new report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), which shows social housing is in urgent need of direct public investment.

Instead of directly investing in social housing, the federal government has sought to establish investment opportunities for other actors, such as pension funds and private corporations.

The vehicle for this investment is the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation (NHFIC), which was established to offer lower cost finance to social housing providers.

The federal government has also encouraged states and territories to focus public resources on supply, land policy reform and the use of planning methods such as inclusionary zoning to deliver affordable and social housing.

These initiatives are worthy, but they won’t generate enough new social housing supply on their own. Without direct public investment in the form of a needs-based capital investment program, the government is unlikely to fill the social housing gap.

Needs-based capital investment is where decisions on what to invest is not only based on financial return, but also on other factors like the effects on society (so infrastructure investment is one which is needs based).

And needs-based capital investment provides the most cost effective mechanism to influence the scale, location and quality of housing produced.

Social housing supply is dangerously lagging

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated 116,000 people were homeless in 2016, living in improvised and severely overcrowded homes.

Our further analysis of the 2016 Census shows 315,000 households rely on very low incomes, paying more than 30% of their income on rent. This is known as housing stress.

Right now, 430,000 social housing units are needed in Australia to address homelessness and housing stress.
Shutterstock

To address homelessness and housing stress right now, we need an additional 430,000 social housing dwellings. And this will grow over time.

Between 1951 and 1996, Australian jurisdictions built 8,000 to 14,000 social housing dwellings per year. In those years, social housing building programs were funded through direct public investment, with grants and long-term loans.

But without direct investment, social housing construction levels have languished since the mid 1990s.

In fact, the total number of Australian households increased by 30% from 1996 to 2016, and yet social housing grew by just 4%. This means there is a substantial backlog in supply, and the need for resources is now urgent.

Subsidies alone won’t cut it

It’s naive to think social housing systems can be adequately resourced through demand-side subsidies alone, such as cash support to tenants. In the UK, for instance, we’ve seen that while rent assistance budgets have grown, they haven’t helped to grow an affordable supply of homes, especially in tight, unregulated private rental markets.

In Australia, the Productivity Commission found that even after rent assistance is paid to eligible pensioners, 40.3% of them pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent. This leaves little for life’s other essentials, such as food, medical care and electricity.

What’s more, the spatial distribution of need for social housing is just as important as the overall volume, as the costs for these dwellings vary from A$146,000 to A$614,000, depending on local land values, building types and construction costs in different regions.

So it’s imperative any public investment program is carefully designed and spatially nuanced.

The AHURI report calls for a new National Housing Authority

The AHURI report also assesses the costs of land and construction needed for social housing, which would underpin a capital investment program.

It calls for the creation of a National Housing Authority to inform, co-ordinate and fund the expansion of new social housing supply through a needs-based capital investment program, together with the existing National Housing Finance Investment Corporation (NHFIC).

In the past, social housing relied on external industry bodies, such as the National Housing Supply Council, to advise on Australia’s future housing needs.

But a national housing authority would provide more effective, consistent and authoritative leadership. It would have the responsibility and resources to plan for and fund more inclusive and sustainable housing outcomes. And it would co-ordinate this effort with other key stakeholders including state Housing Authorities, not for profit community housing providers, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

A net benefit to society

The way cost-benefit assessments are conducted must be changed so the social benefits of social housing are properly quantified. This is necessary not only to capture both productivity and social gains, but also for making a coherent rationale for social housing investment.

But there is more work to be done to improve methods for cost-benefit analysis for social housing, the report says.

In contrast to conventional infrastructure, the housing sector has suffered from a long-term lack of investment. This means the methods for cost-benefit analysis are not yet as advanced.

It’s clear there is no fundamental barrier to government sourced large-scale investment in social housing. An improved cost-benefit analysis method can provide assurance to funding agencies that a long-term social housing construction program is viable and cost effective.The Conversation

 

 

What impacts do social housing legal responses to crime and anti-social behaviour have on vulnerable families?

Posted by on June 13th, 2019 · Government, Housing, Law, Social housing, Tenancy

By Chris Martin, City Futures Research Centre. This is an edited version of the Executive Summary of the report, ‘Social housing legal responses to crime and anti-social behaviour: impacts on vulnerable families‘, published by AHURI.

Housing policy in Australia has enlarged the role of social landlords in relation to crime and non-criminal anti-social behaviour (‘misconduct’). Residential tenancy law provides all landlords with means for terminating tenancies on grounds of misconduct, and the quantitative data, while patchy, indicate that social housing landlords are heavy users of termination proceedings. Social housing landlords have developed distinctive policies and practices around misconduct.

For example, the public housing landlords in almost all Australian states and territories have adopted, at least for a time, ‘three strikes’ policies to guide their of termination proceedings. In some jurisdictions, special legislative provisions have been introduced to facilitate termination proceedings for misconduct. Drug offences are a particular target of these provisions, but a wide range of types of misconduct are also within the scope of the provisions and social landlords’ legal proceedings.

At the same time, social housing policy has consolidated its longer-term trend towards targeting assistance to households with low incomes and complex support needs. Responding to misconduct in social housing is plainly a very challenging area of practice.

Our new AHURI research, ‘Social housing legal responses to crime and anti-social behaviour: impacts on vulnerable families’, focused on four types of vulnerable persons and families: women, particularly as affected by domestic violence and other male misconduct; children; Indigenous persons and families; and persons who problematically use alcohol and other drugs.

We reviewed residential tenancies law and social housing policies in five jurisdictions—New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory—and national policy principles and frameworks relating to the four vulnerable types. We also reviewed 95 cases of social housing legal responses to misconduct, and interviewed stakeholders in social housing landlord and tenant organisations. We found cases of:

  • women held to be in breach and evicted because of violence against them
  • children being evicted, and insufficient safeguards as to their interests
  • complicated circumstances and barriers to support for Indigenous tenants
  • alcohol and drug treatment disrupted by punitive termination proceedings.

Many of the cases we reviewed, and discussed in interviews with stakeholders, involve highly conflictual, destructive and distressing behaviour. However, termination proceedings are not always taken as a matter of urgency, nor as a last resort when all other approaches to sustain the tenancy have failed.

It appears that in most cases a single substantial contact between the social housing landlord and the tenant is sufficient to address a minor problem. However, where problematic behaviour continues, the usual course of action—a combination of escalating threats to the tenancy and pushing the tenant to ‘engage’ with the landlord and support services—does not work for many. Escalating threats often drive ‘engagement’ that is last-minute and short-lived, and sometimes so unsatisfactory that it can drive an escalation in threats. In many cases, social housing landlords’ legal responses frustrate other more ameliorative and preventative ways of addressing misconduct and related support needs, and result in the eviction and homelessness of vulnerable persons and families.

There are particular aspects of law, policy and practice that do not appropriately address vulnerable persons and families. These aspects of social housing law, policy and practice insufficiently reflect, or are contrary to, leading policy principles and frameworks regarding those vulnerable types of persons and families.

Women

The evidence shows a significant gender dimension to social housing legal responses to misconduct. Social housing landlords are generally strongly committed to assisting women affected by domestic violence into safe housing, but this commitment may falter during a social housing tenancy. Tenancy obligations and extended liability—and social housing landlords’ use of them—impose hard expectations that women will control the misconduct of male partners and children. Even violence becomes framed as a ‘nuisance’ in tenancy legal proceedings, some women are evicted because of violence against them.

Children

Children are sometimes the instigators of misconduct, but more often are innocent bystanders to misconduct by others. Where termination proceedings would affect children, social housing landlords typically make additional efforts at alternatives, but the interests of children are a marginal consideration in the determination of proceedings.

Indigenous persons and families

There is strong Indigenous representation in the cases involving women and children. More specifically, Indigenous persons and families often present complex personal histories, institutional contacts and interpersonal relationships, shaped by past and present institutional racism and colonialism. This makes ‘engagement’ even more problematic.

Persons who problematically use alcohol and other drugs

Responses to misconduct relating to alcohol and other drug use are not expressly guided by harm minimisation. Criminal offences, especially, elicit punitive termination proceedings, social housing landlords, police, and sometimes courts and tribunals, operating in a condemnatory, exclusionary mode. Even where overt condemnation or punitiveness is absent, termination proceedings may be taken that disrupt treatment and rehabilitation, including where this has been sanctioned by the criminal justice system.

Policy development options

Policy development options to better integrate social housing policy with support for vulnerable persons and families include:

  • moving support out of the shadow of tenancy termination
  • giving tenants more certainty through commitments that no-one will be evicted into homelessness
  • ensuring proper scrutiny is applied to termination decisions and proceedings, and to sector practice
  • reforming the law regarding tenants’ extended and vicarious liability for other persons.

More specific policy development options for each of our four types of vulnerable persons and families include:

  • reviewing social housing policies and practice for gender impacts, and sponsoring the cultivation of respectful relationships
  • adopting ‘the best interests of the child’ as the paramount factor in decisions about termination affecting children
  • establishing specific Indigenous housing organisations, officers and advocates
  • adopting harm minimisation as the guiding principle for responses to alcohol and other drug use, including where there is criminal offending.

Chilly house? Mouldy rooms? Here’s how to improve low-income renters’ access to decent housing

Posted by on June 5th, 2019 · Affordability, Construction, Housing, Housing conditions, Law, Social housing, Tenancy, Wellbeing
Too many Australians struggle to get their housing maintained and problems fixed.
Trevor Charles Graham/Shutterstock

By Edgar Liu, Chris Martin and Hazel Easthope, City Futures Research Centre. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

People’s quality of life, their health and their comfort can suffer when living in poor-quality housing. It can also impose high ongoing costs of maintenance, repairs, heating and cooling. And these problems are more likely to affect low-income households, as our report for Shelter NSW shows. In it, we review the evidence on housing quality problems and consider ways to resolve these, especially for low-income households.

There is extensive evidence of the impacts of poor-quality housing on physical health, mental wellbeing and comfort. For example, poor design and maintenance can lead to the build-up of mould.

These negative impacts vary by income groups and tenure. From the recently completed Australian Housing Conditions Dataset we know, for example, that renters on very low incomes (the bottom fifth of households for gross income, about $20,000 a year) are most likely to have unmet repair needs. They also have a harder time staying comfortable during winter and summer, as the table below shows.

Source: Australian Housing Conditions Dataset, Author provided

What are the reasons for poor-quality housing?

There are several underlying reasons for substandard housing.

Properties may enter the rental market after years in owner-occupation with no formal checks on their state of repair.

Another problem is some private renters do not assert – or feel unable to assert – their legal right to habitable premises in a reasonable state of repair and upkeep. This is often because of the insecurity of their leases and lack of affordable alternative housing.

Another issue is “split incentives” – landlords decline to upgrade properties because they would not receive any benefit themselves.

There are also problems in public housing. Disinvestment by governments has both reduced the supply of housing and caused a backlog of maintenance for much of the remaining stock of dwellings.

Housing quality is covered by myriad regulatory regimes. Lately, governments have been focused on questions of how best to regulate construction of new buildings. Less attention is given to the ongoing use of existing buildings.

Recent state and national reviews have highlighted problems in the certification of building design and construction, and in the public agencies that oversee the certifiers. Some state governments have begun to respond. The New South Wales government, for instance, is moving to consolidate the regulation of construction practitioners under a new building commissioner.

We spoke to a range of housing sector stakeholders and the theme from the recent reviews that most struck a chord was inadequate policy governance. There was no comprehensive overview or oversight of the issues of housing quality. As a result, some important issues escape policymakers’ attention.

Many stakeholders indicated that the current focus on problems in new buildings is an example of this. Although that’s plainly an issue in need of attention, other problems in existing buildings and more fundamental solutions are being overlooked – such as increasing social and affordable housing supply.

So what are the solutions?

Empowering tenants and regulators

One way in which the quality of existing housing is regulated is through tenancy laws. This will become more important as rental housing becomes an increasingly common option, particularly for the long term.

Recently, some state governments have amended tenancy laws to specify “minimum standards” for rental housing. Our research participants supported these moves, but said security of tenure also had to be improved to protect renters when they assert their rights. The onus of legal enforcement could also be shifted from tenants to regulators.

Mandating improvements to overcome the split incentive problem

The split incentive problem for housing quality means some landlords are reluctant to pay for upgrades – such as insulation or other energy-efficient features – where tenants are the beneficiaries. As a result, renters, especially those on low incomes, are likely to be living in housing of lower standards or quality.

A potential solution is for governments to take the minimum standards approach and legislate energy efficiency and other improvements as mandatory. This is already commonplace overseas.

One of our workshop participants observed that “energy poverty” was another way of framing the policy issue that had proved compelling in overseas jurisdictions. While this framing had not had the same impact in Australia, this may be changing.

Improving transparency of housing standards

Social housing providers have a role in leading by example. Increased investment in social housing could contribute to improved quality across the housing system.

To this end, social housing landlords – particularly state and territory public housing authorities – need to be more accountable to tenants and the general public. Transparent reporting on property conditions, maintenance and tenant satisfaction, led by the social housing sector, can and should be rolled out as standard practice across the sector.

To do this, however, enough funding must be provided to reverse decades-long underfunding in the sector.

Collectively, these options can deliver more equitable housing outcomes, not only to low-income households but to all. The challenge lies in having the political and industry will to act on them.

 

The Conversation