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Giving ex-prisoners public housing cuts crime and re-incarceration – and saves money

Posted by on May 4th, 2022 · Housing
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By Chris Martin, UNSW Sydney; Eileen Baldry, UNSW Sydney; Patrick Burton, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Reeve, UNSW Sydney; Rob White, University of Tasmania; Ruth McCausland, UNSW Sydney, and Stuart Thomas, RMIT University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Going home” is a classic metaphor for exiting prison. But most people exiting prison in Australia either expect to be homeless, or don’t know where they will be staying when released.

Our recent research for AHURI (the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute) shows post-release housing assistance is a potentially powerful lever in arresting the imprisonment–homelessness cycle.

We found ex-prisoners who get public housing have significantly better criminal justice outcomes than those who receive private rental assistance only.

The benefit, in dollars terms, of public housing outweighs the cost.

The imprisonment-homelessness connection

There is strong evidence linking imprisonment and homelessness. Post-release homelessness and unstable housing is a predictor of reincarceration. And prior imprisonment is a known predictor of homelessness. It is a vicious cycle.

People in prison often contend with:

  • mental health conditions (40%)
  • cognitive disability (33%)
  • problematic alcohol or other drug use (up to 66%) and
  • past homelessness (33%).

People with such complex support needs are often deemed “too difficult” for community-based support services and so end up entangled in the criminal justice system.

Also, prisons are themselves places of stress and suffering. So people leaving prison a high-needs group for housing assistance and support.

There are about 43,000 people in prison in Australia. Over the year there will be even more prison releases (because some people exit and enter multiple times).

According to the latest published data:

  • only 46% of releasees expect to go to their own home (owned or rented) on release
  • more expect to be in short-term or emergency accommodation (44%) or sleeping rough (2%), or
  • they don’t know where they will stay.

Ex-prisoners are the fastest growing client group for Australia’s Specialist Homelessness Services.

Over the past decade, imprisonment rates in Australia have been rising.

Meanwhile, funding for social housing – public housing provided by state governments, and the community housing provided by non-profit community organisations – has been declining in real terms.

We must turn both those trends around.

The difference public housing makes

In our research, we investigated the effect of public housing on post-release pathways. We analysed data about a sample of people with complex support needs who had been in prison in NSW.

The de-identified data show peoples’ contacts before and after prison with various NSW government agencies, including criminal justice institutions and DCJ Housing, the state public housing provider.

We compared 623 people who received a public housing tenancy at some point after prison with a similar number of people who were eligible for public housing but received private rental assistance only (such as bond money).

On a range of measures, the public housing group had better criminal justice outcomes.

The charts below compare the number of police incidents for each group.

The first chart shows recorded police incidents for the private rental assistance group, which gradually rose over the period for which we have data.

The second chart shows police incidents for the public housing group: they also had a rising trend, until they received public housing (year 0 on the x-axis), after which police incidents went down 8.9% per year.

Charts showing trends in police incidents
Police incidents, private rental assistance and public housing groups. Authors provided.

For the housed group:

  • court appearances were down 7.6% per year
  • proven offences (being found guilty of something at trial) were down 7.6% per year
  • time in custody was down 11.2% per year
  • time on supervised orders (court orders served in the community, including parole) initially increased, then went down 7.8% per year
  • justice costs per person, following an initial decrease of A$4,996, went down a further $2,040 per year per person.

When we put a dollar value on these benefits, providing a public housing tenancy is less costly than paying Rent Assistance in private rental (net benefit $5,000) or assisting through Specialist Homelessness Services (net benefit $35,000).

Unfortunately, public housing is in very short supply.

For our public housing group, the average time between release and public housing was five years. Others are never housed.

Post-release pathways are fraught

We interviewed corrections officers, reintegration support workers, housing workers, and people who had been in prison, across three states.

They were unanimous: there is a dearth of housing options for people exiting prison.

A Tasmanian ex-prisoner, who lived in a roof-top tent on his car on release, said:

You basically get kicked out the door and kicked in the guts and they say, ‘Go do whatever you need to do, see ya’.

Planning for release is often last-minute. A NSW reintegration support worker told us:

It’s not coordinated. We’ll get a prison ringing up on the day of release saying, ‘Can you pick this woman up?’ on the day of release, when they knew it was coming months in advance. There’s no planning.

A housing worker in Victoria described those next steps as a series of unstable, short-term arrangements, beset by pitfalls:

They could easily be waiting a couple of years, realistically. And for them that’s a long time, and so far off in the distance it’s difficult to conceive of. And a long time in which for things could go wrong in their lives – to be homeless or back in prison, all sorts of things … What they do in the meantime: they couch surf, stay with family, stay in motels, stay in cars/stolen cars, stay with friends, sleep rough, all those things.

A Tasmanian corrections officer told us:

People want to come back to custody because they’ve then got a roof over their head. They don’t have to worry; they’re getting fed, they can stay warm.

It’s not just about housing support

Community sector organisations specialising in supporting people in contact with the criminal justice system, such as the Community Restorative Centre (CRC) in NSW, do extraordinary work providing services and support that aim to break entrenched cycles of disadvantage and imprisonment.

However, this sector’s funding has been turbulent, marked by short-term programs.

In another project by some members of this research team, we saw the difference CRC made to 275 of its clients over a number of years. This evaluation found supported clients had 63% fewer custody episodes than a comparison group – a net cost saving to government of $10-16 million.

These support services would be even more effective if clients had more stable housing. As it is, specialist alcohol and other drug case workers are often spending their time dealing with clients’ housing crises.

Secure, affordable public housing is an anchor for people exiting prison as they work to build lives outside of the criminal justice system.

It is also a stable base from which to receive and engage with support services. It pays to invest in both.

Chris Martin, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney; Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice Chancellor Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Professor of Criminology, UNSW Sydney; Patrick Burton, Research Associate, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Reeve, Senior Research Fellow, Yuwaya Ngarra-li, UNSW Sydney; Rob White, Professor of Criminology, University of Tasmania; Ruth McCausland, Associate Professor, UNSW Sydney, and Stuart Thomas, Professor in Justice and Legal Studies, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

Priority actions for the next federal housing minister

Posted by on May 3rd, 2022 · Housing

By Hal Pawson, CFRC

Housing is yet again up there as a major concern in this year’s federal election debate. Given the rising cost of putting a roof over your head in today’s Australia, that’s hardly surprising. Buying a home will now set you back 30% more than at the start of the Morrison government’s current term in office. Meanwhile, rent increases have escalated to their highest levels for more than a decade.

The Prime Minister is defending a housing policy record that is decidedly patchy when it comes to tackling such challenges. His government’s focus has been almost exclusively devoted to promoting home ownership. Most creditable during the current parliamentary term has been the Coalition’s new national scheme enabling aspiring first home buyers to access low deposit mortgages.

More contentious was the 2020-21 HomeBuilder program. This gifted homebuyers and renovators $2.5 billion in public funds, in the process compounding house price inflation, further aggravating wealth inequality, while also failing to deliver any improved quality or performance outcomes.

But no such Morrison largesse has cushioned lower income Australians doing it tough in our latterly overheating rental market. On the contrary, people in this position have been recently insulted by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the best solution to rental stress is to buy your house – a remark aptly described by my City Futures colleague Dr Chris Martin as a veritable ‘let them eat cake moment’.

So, given a clean slate by the coming election, what should an incoming housing minister prioritise for Federal action in the coming term of government? In addressing this question, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the poll results in a balance of power situation where the new minister’s options are unconstrained by the narrow housing commitments pledged by the ALP and the Coalition election platforms.

Before we get to the actual priorities, though, it’s important to recognise that housing unaffordability is only one aspect of the housing policy challenge that any responsible national government should be confronting.

The physical condition of our housing stock is one huge and neglected area of concern, especially when it comes to energy consumption. Only a ‘negligible proportion’ of new homes are being built to an ‘optimal [energy] performance standard’, leaving Australia as an international laggard. And the highly energy inefficient state of our existing residential building stock presents a huge obstacle in achieving professed net zero ambitions.

A more specific worry is the ongoing deterioration of Australia’s investment-starved public housing system, a direct government responsibility. The inadequate scale of low cost housing provision is rightly a campaigning focus. But, although the precise dimensions of the issue remain largely concealed, the declining condition of our social housing stock must also be addressed.

Measure the problem

So, underpinned by an official acknowledgement that none of these policy challenges can be effectively tackled without Commonwealth Government leadership, I would argue that the first commitment for an incoming federal housing minister should be to quantify these concerns through a comprehensive housing system review, ideally headed by a respected heavyweight player.

Associated institutional reforms would be part of this, perhaps including the re-establishment of the Rudd Government’s National Housing Supply Council, scrapped by Tony Abbott in 2014. Or, better still, inclusion of NHSC functions within a new national housing agency. Creating a permanent body of ‘domain expertise’ at arms length from Ministers would also serve the wider purpose of helping to rebuild badly eroded housing policymaking and analytical capacity within government.

Factoring in realistic population growth expectations, the Review must emulate the NHSC’s role in setting overall new housing construction targets. Crucially, though, it must extend beyond that remit by specifically calibrating the unmet need for low-cost rental housing. Not only how much more social and affordable housing we need, but also of what types and in what places.

Partly as a key contribution to a meaningful national climate action plan, the review must also assess the condition and environmental performance of our existing housing stock – not least in terms of the negative health and well-being impacts that result. A more detailed analysis of social housing property condition will also be needed to estimate the cost of upgrading to an acceptable standard. Here, Australia would do well to emulate the US Federal Government’s recent equivalent commitment.

The body of published evidence generated by the Housing System Review will make it harder for current and future governments (state and territory, as well as Commonwealth) to downplay or deny housing policy challenges in familiar fashion. It could even provide a basis for ‘holy grail’ bipartisan reform commitments of the kind recently seen in New Zealand.

Redirect government support for housing

A second commitment by an incoming federal housing minister should be to shape longer-term reforms on the basis of progressively re-directing existing public funding. The national exchequer, in fact, already underpins Australia’s housing system on a huge scale. Tax concessions to owner occupiers and private landlords total in the region of $100 billion per year, more than ten times the Commonwealth Government’s annual spend on social housing, homelessness and Rent Assistance.

Not only are these policy settings highly regressive in effect – disproportionately benefiting the already wealthy – but they also distort our housing market in resource-inefficient ways by encouraging over-investment in what is a relatively unproductive asset. Given that such support is effectively capitalised into house prices, of course, it also contributes to housing unaffordability.

What’s needed is a gradually phased long-term shift in the balance of support away from, say, private landlord tax handouts to increased investment in low cost rental housing and higher rates of rent assistance better matched to the actual cost of renting.

Establish a national housing strategy

Building on the first two commitments, and a realistic goal for the coming parliamentary term, the third priority pledge for our new housing minister should be to publish a national housing strategy. As in any strategy worth the name, this must analyse the problems to be tackled and set measurable goals. It must also specify actions to achieve those goals, and a a plan for mobilising resources to implement them within given timescales.

This process will of course demand the meaningful involvement of numerous stakeholders – including state and territory governments as well as multiple industry and consumer interests. A crucial initial step in the process, involving all relevant players, should be to determine overarching strategy objectives of the kind we have proposed elsewhere.

Naturally, none of this should be to the exclusion of immediate Ministerial actions to address the most pressing housing challenges faced by the incoming government. But, if blue skies thinking were allowed, the broader objective for the next parliamentary term should be to chart Australia’s long-term course towards a more equitable and sustainable housing future.

This story was first published on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations site. Read the original article here.

Unprincipled moves: Is World Health Day worth celebrating?

Posted by on April 19th, 2022 · Government, Planning, Wellbeing

By Susan Thompson, Norma Shankie-Williams and Danny Wiggins. Originally published by The Fifth Estate for World Health Day (7 April).

Our physical environment is central to our health. So with the NSW government dumping the D&P SEPP, is there much to celebrate this World Health Day?

We celebrate and affirm many important causes and programs during the year, but did you know that today (7 April) is World Health Day? . While significant global health challenges are always addressed, this year’s theme embraces both the health and wellbeing of people and their planet. The World Health Organization has declared that it will “focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being”.? 

Colleagues in urban planning and public health are excited to see acknowledgment of this integrated thinking and call for immediate action. We are no doubt joined by Australian communities ravaged by the recent floods and those devastated by the latest round of catastrophic fires in early 2020. This year’s World Health Day follows close behind the release of the sixth IPCC report into climate change.  Hoesung Lee, the IPCC chair, declared the report to be “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction [showing] that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”. 

While joined-up policy, practice and action on health is well overdue, calls for it to happen have been around for decades. For some this goes back to the early 1970s when designers Rittel and Webber identified “wicked problems” – those incredibly tricky, sticky and infinitely intertwined issues that defy simplistic understanding and are not fixed with linear and singular focused solutions. The crises of climate change, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating are classic wicked problems – examples of complex challenges that have not been resolved by traditional siloed approaches emanating from single government departments. 

For other stakeholders, particularly those in public health, advocating for integrated policy and practice is very much associated with the mid 1980’s declaration of the Ottawa Charter.  This acknowledges that maintaining good health from infancy to old age is complex and dependent on many factors outside the individual, well beyond the scope of medical and surgical interventions. Systems thinking has also been influential in laying the groundwork for the integration of urban planning and public health.  

These integrated ways of understanding have laid the foundations for much of the work that is now embodied under the rubric of healthy planning. In NSW, mirroring national and international movements, urban planners and public health professionals have enthusiastically embraced healthy planning principles and practices. Together, we have progressed our understanding of how the built environment – the places where we live, work, enjoy recreation and travel in between – can best support human health and wellbeing as part of their everyday activities.  And, more recently, we have realised that a health supportive environment is dependent on a healthy and sustainable planet – the theme of World Health Day.

And it’s not just professionals.  Communities too have wholeheartedly welcomed the advantages of walkable neighbourhoods that are safe and attractive, with abundant and easily accessible local open space and enhanced community connections.  The pandemic has served to reinforce just how important this is.

As a result, we enthusiastically greeted the recent initiatives of the NSW Government, including:

  • the close relationship between state-level planning and the Government Architect NSW and the wealth of detailed guidance to all levels of government and all environmental and cultural-types.  For example, the recently published Urban Design Guidelines and Connecting with Country (a framework for developing connections with Country that can inform the planning, design and delivery of built environment projects in NSW).
  • the draft Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (D&P SEPP), with legislative authority, accompanied by the draft urban design guidelines and requiring consideration of such urban design, energy efficiency and place-specific matters for significant development proposals.

Underpinning these initiatives is the fundamental notion, introduced by the former Minister for Planning Rob Stokes to nominate best practice principles to integrate and synthesise strategic planning and development assessment systems (December 2021). Of particular note:

  • delivering well-designed places that enhance quality of life and the economy
  • maintaining development within environmental limits and assessing climate change impact, flood and fire risk
  • providing well-designed and located transport and infrastructure integrated with land use
  • delivering a sufficient supply of safe, diverse and affordable housing
  • growing a competitive and resilient economy that is adaptive, innovative and delivers jobs

Surely there’s no argument with the importance of such priorities as we progress the planning system into the 21st Century? Well there is: the current Minister for Planning abandoned the Planning Principles just before axing the draft Design and Place SEPP earlier this week.  

The wholesale trashing of the planning principles shows a lack of support by the state government for principles-based planning and, by default (and some intent), continued reliance on the prescriptive, place-blind approach abandoned internationally over the last few decades. In the previous minister’s words, to “move from compliance to creativity”. 

The eight policy focus areas underpinning the planning principles formed the titles and grouping of the consolidation of 42 state environmental planning policies (SEPPs) into eight. The foundations have been undermined. What is arguably worse is that the draft D&P SEPP has now been axed. Gone are the improved residential apartment guidelines and in jeopardy are building sustainability provisions. Unaffected by all of these actions is the Complying Development SEPP (especially the fast track, prescriptive housing standards). Ready-made for the new Minister for Homes (and Planning). 

The peak body for local councils has expressed dismay: “The decision to overturn a suite of nine recently introduced sustainable planning principles does nothing to reassure communities that the government has its sights on the long-term health and wellbeing of our citizens,” Local Government NSW president Darriea Turley told the Sydney Morning Herald. And further: “How long can we deceive ourselves into thinking that high-risk housing is affordable housing?” Indeed, is a home affordable if it comes with the immediate and longer term economic, health and social costs of commuting hours every day to jobs located far away, living beyond a short walk or cycle to reach reliable public transport or near to cooling green spaces or shady tree canopy? And how can diverse community needs be met if there is no diversity of housing options?

It’s critical that we protest the unravelling of these integrated and innovative guidelines and principles.  We propose a short manifesto titled: “Healthy places for people and planet”.  Here are our 10 core principles (not in any particular order) for the creation of places that support the health of people and planet, reinforcing the priorities that need to be at the heart of planning today: 

  1. healthy places celebrate and respectfully honour their history – Indigenous and post-colonial history – this gives people a sense of belonging which underpins mental health and wellbeing 
  2. healthy places are where people love to be
  3. healthy places are easy to get around on foot – the pedestrian comes first, then bikes, then public transport and last, the car
  4. healthy places support safe and enjoyable cycling for commuting and recreation 
  5. healthy places cool a heating world – this is achieved in part by the provision of tree canopy, light coloured surfaces and roof tops 
  6. healthy places are green with the provision of excellent quality and sufficient amounts of green space 
  7. healthy places are blue – quality water bodies provide co-benefits for human and planetary health 
  8. healthy places are accessible for everyone – they embrace child to age friendly city principles
  9. healthy places are safe for everyone – feeling and being safe is fundamental to a health supportive place 
  10.  healthy places are created by teams of committed and like-minded professionals from multiple disciplines across the built environment, sustainability, health and community building

Integrated policy and practice in urban planning cannot be abandoned by the NSW government. We have to find a way to join together (practitioners, developers and communities) to create health supportive places on a healthy planet for everyone. A reason to celebrate World Health Day and planning in NSW.

The Healthy Planning Expert Working Group (HPEWG) is an independent NSW based group, comprising healthy planning experts from the academic, planning, health, local and state government sectors. The group originally formed in 2012 and sees its role as one of advocacy and provision of expert advice. The HPEWG’s vision is that built environments should be planned, designed, developed and managed to promote and protect health for all people.

Susan Thompson is a professor of planning at UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre and a member of the HPEWG. Norma Shankie-Williams is an urban planner and chair of HPEWG. Danny Wiggins is an urban Planner and member of HPEWG.

Housing affordability takes a global hit from COVID-19

Posted by on March 25th, 2022 · Uncategorized

By Hal Pawson; CFRC

With newly released evidence of slowing house price inflation in early 2022, it may be that Australia’s latest property boom is subsiding. Especially with higher interest rates expected within months that seems highly likely. But any plateau or even gentle decline will be starting from property values dramatically higher than before the pandemic.

By late 2021 the typical Australian house was 30% more expensive than in early 2019. That will have markedly raised the barrier faced by aspiring first home buyers, especially in terms of mortgage down-payments. After all, wages increased by only 6% over this period.

Far from triggering a property market crash, as widely expected, the 2020 COVID-19 recession turns out to have activated an extraordinary residential price surge. And, as highlighted in our new international comparative research, Australia is far from alone in this. The equivalent COVID-19 house price increases in New Zealand the United States have been even greater.

Sources: OECD and UK Office for National Statistics

In fact, during the pandemic to date, nominal house prices rose in all eight case study countries covered in our research – Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US. In sharp contrast to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, none of these countries saw any significant nominal price decline episodes in 2020 or 2021.

What ‘saved’ the market?

Avoiding a pandemic-triggered housing market slump can be largely credited to the remarkable government measures to maintain incomes and shield economies, widely implemented during the first two years of COVID-19 both in Australia and internationally.

Extraordinary actions that directly safeguarded housing systems and tried to protect at-risk populations also helped to confound initial fears of crashing property values and surging homelessness. Activities of this kind – as seen in most of the countries covered in our research  – included mortgage payment deferrals, rental eviction bans and emergency housing for homeless people.

What powered prices?

While measures like this seem to have effectively placed a floor under the market in 2020, other factors combined to touch off the price booms widely seen in 2021. Crucial to this have been the rock-bottom interest rates and quantitative easing measures that have formed key elements of central bank responses to the crisis around the world. While deemed essential to protect economic activity, these have also pumped vast liquidity into housing demand.

In Australia and the UK an additional factor was direct government-funded housing market stimulus – generous home purchase grants and stamp duty concessions initiated in 2020. With hindsight these look to have been a misdirected form of official pandemic response, since they only compounded market overheating.

In some countries pent-up household savings will also have contributed to price booms. Many better-off households, working from home through the pandemic, with unusually low expenditure and with housing wealth to cash-in, have been motivated to spend big on improving their housing position. At the same time, many others have been priced out as a result.

Spiking rental markets

For lower income households pandemic-triggered housing cost pressures have been more importantly intensified through the equally marked spike in rent inflation seen in Australia and in many other countries in 2021. Whereas some of the nations in our research had restricted rent increases in the early ‘income shock’ phase of the pandemic, almost all had lifted these limits when rents began rising, on shifts in demand.

By year end 2021, with the possible exception of Canada, national annual rent increases were topping 8% in all of the Anglosphere countries – a rate of increase generally far exceeding past decade norms. Rent inflation in Australia, the UK and the US was, by this time, running at rates unseen since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Sources: Multiple – see Figure 6.1 in published report for details.

Equally, there have been marked within-country variations in pandemic rental market impacts. In Australia, for example, Sydney and Melbourne rental demand in many inner areas was hard-hit by international border closure through most of 2020 and 2021, through the resulting absence of overseas students and foreign tourists. By year end 2021, capital city rents across Australia had barely recovered to their pre-pandemic values. Rental prices in non-metropolitan Australia, by contrast, were on average 18% higher than at the start of the crisis.

Higher rates of property price and rent inflation affecting non-metropolitan locations and houses (as opposed to apartments) have also been seen in other countries during the pandemic. These trends probably also reflect the residential ‘race for space’, a trend powered by the rapid rise of working from home. This has placed an increased premium on property size and also weakened spatial ties to city centre office locations, enabling many (generally more privileged) employees to contemplate out of town moves. As a result, pandemic-triggered damage to housing affordability is likely to be all the greater in the non-metropolitan settings attractive from this perspective.

Different stories in Germany and Spain

Importantly, much of the preceding account most directly describes pandemic-era experience in Australia and other Anglophone countries. The market impact has played out quite differently in some other high income nations. In Germany’s house sales market, for example, relatively robust pre-2020 price growth continued on a similar trajectory during the crisis to date. Spanish price growth, meanwhile, remained subdued.

Germany’s rental market likewise appears to have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, with rent inflation generally continuing to moderate during 2020 and 2021. In Spain, meanwhile, rents continued to decline in nominal terms.

The German experience here probably reflects the country’s unusually stable and resilient economic and housing systems, a tradition of conservative mortgage lending, and a stronger social safety net. For Spain a key factor affecting the nation’s economy and housing market during COVID-19 will have been the heavy damage sustained by the dominant tourism industry.

Housing affordability impacts

Although in key respects contrary to predictions, the direct and indirect housing system impacts of COVID-19 have been profound. Not all of the novel housing market trends seen in 2020 and 2021 are likely to be sustained. But, as things stand two years after the pandemic was declared, consequently rising house prices and rents will have further intensified housing affordability stress in many nations. Specifically, in five of the six countries for which we have obtained national statistics, nominal rent increases exceeded wage increases in the two year period to late 2021.

Coinciding in many countries with energy price and tax rises, these developments will only compound the cost of living crises evoking calls for action to cushion these impacts – including through enhanced rental housing regulation and investment, and stepped-up social security payment rates.

Housing in the coming federal election

Posted by on March 10th, 2022 · Government, Housing

By Prof Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.

Very largely thanks to economic stimulus pumped into the economy to ward off COVID recession, Australia’s housing is now 30% more expensive than in 2019.

Add to that, the recent spike in rent inflation greater than at any time since 2008, and it’s obvious that the pandemic has exacerbated this country’s longstanding housing affordability challenge.

The scene is therefore surely set for housing affordability to feature as a significant flashpoint in the coming federal election – just as in three of the last five national contests.

The electoral saliency of housing

New polling evidence, released this week by the Everybody’s Home Campaign also emphasizes the saliency of housing as an issue that could sway significant numbers of votes in key seats. Focusing on the marginal electorates of Bass (Tas), Flinders (SA), Gilmore (NSW), and Longman (Qld), this showed that, for example, around three quarters of all voters in these seats consider it hard or very hard for low to middle income earners to afford to buy or rent in their area.

More pointedly, 61-72% believe that Federal Government action on housing affordability has been insufficient, while 68-76% think that social housing provision in their locality is inadequate.

Equally notable from this evidence is that concerns on housing affordability and inadequate social housing resonate strongly with the minor party, independent and undecided voters whose preferences may well swing election outcomes in the most contested seats.

All of this suggests that the major parties would be well-advised to give some prominence to housing policy proposals in their election platforms this year and we can assume that, from their own private polling, Coalition and ALP strategists will be already highly attuned to this.

Equally, with federal Labour having retreated from significant (albeit in fact modest) housing tax reforms pledged in 2016 and 2019, the terms of this election’s housing debate will be different from the last two contests.

ALP commitments

Even at this late stage in the runup to the coming poll, both parties are still keeping much of their powder dry in this area – as in many others. But, from a very early salvo in the current campaign, we do know that the ALP has pledged a national social housing investment program underpinned by an ‘off balance sheet’ $10 billion future fund, expected to generate some 6,000 social and affordable homes annually for five years.

Since this is 6,000 more than has been nationally funded in any year for a decade, it would come as a welcome development in a country where, pro rata to population, social housing supply has been halved since the 1990s. Equally, though, with more than 160,000 families and single people registered on social housing waiting lists, and with the national deficit of private rental homes affordable to low income tenants up from 187,000 to 212,000 in the most recent five-year period, it is also decidedly modest. A social housing investment ask better aligned with this scale of need has been recently pitched by a broad alliance of construction, welfare services and affordable housing industry peaks.

Alongside the ALP’s social housing future fund, although as yet less prominent in Party messaging, is shadow Housing Minister Jason Clare’s pledge to develop a national housing and homelessness plan in the first term of a Labor government. Quite what this could involve, though, remains to be defined.

Grattan’s housing policy menu

The ALP has indicated plans to unveil further components of its election housing offer over coming weeks and we can assume that the Coalition will be planning likewise. Seeking to influence these agendas, the recently published Grattan Institute Orange Book lays out a wide array of closely argued and well-defined housing proposals intended as appealing to party strategists.

Many of these are familiar Grattan favourites, typically informed by the wholly justified concern that Australia’s housing system is a major driver of mounting inequality, but also by a worldview that abhors tax, social security and regulatory settings considered as distorting consumption and investment choices or otherwise unduly constraining market forces.

Consistent with both of these themes, for example, is backing for a range of property tax and welfare reforms to dampen excessive demand for housing. Among these is Grattan’s previously argued advocacy for the complete removal of negative gearing tax concessions for private landlords, and the straightforward halving of the Capital Gains Tax discount on the sale of rental property. The unqualified terms of this pitch only go to highlight the modesty of the related ALP 2016 and 2019 election proposals that were limited according to whether homes were newly built or purchased.

On the housing supply side, once again warming to a familiar Grattan theme, the Orange Book more controversially argues that Australia experiences a ‘historical shortage of housing’ and that this is ‘largely a failure of housing policy, rather than housing markets’. Arguably, though, we should be focusing on housing distribution as much as (or more than) quantity.

And although many would support the Grattan case for enabling higher density development in favoured urban locations, the report’s implication that feasible land-use planning de-regulation would enable Australia’s private development industry to build the country out of housing unaffordability (even if only very gradually) is, at the very least, contentious.

Echoing the ALP’s existing proposal (see above), a notable new component in Grattan’s broad ranging housing reform agenda is a social housing development program underpinnned by an off-balance sheet $20 billion future fund. Counter-intuitively, despite involving a larger initial stake, the scheme would fund a significantly smaller annual program of new social and affordable housing investment than the ALP model. This reflects the fact that – unlike Labor’s scheme which would effectively exhaust its capacity after five years – the Grattan variant would be set up to provide an income stream to fund an annual flow of capital grant funding ongoing in perpetuity.

Proposed in the highly persuasive and economically justified Grattan style, it might be imagined that this could even appeal to a Coalition Government perhaps sensing the electoral imperative to be seen to act in this space. But, since Housing Minister Sukkar has continued to assert that social housing is purely a state/territory responsibility, and of little concern to the Federal Government, that seems doubtful.

At the same time, stand by for the pre-election Coalition message that by extending the Treasury guarantee underpinning private debt shouldered by community housing organisations, the Federal Government is ‘supporting social housing investment’. Yes, such support is meaningful, but it does not – repeat not – equate to the government subsidy that is essential in enabling social and affordable housing development.

A new Grattan housing proposal perhaps more likely to win favour across the political divide is the Orange Book’s advocacy for a national shared equity scheme to assist aspiring first home buyers. This seeks to emulate similar models operated on a very large scale in some comparator countries (such as the UK’s ‘Help to Buy’ program), and also on a small scale in some Australian states (e.g. the Victorian Government’s recently announced scheme).

The Grattan model here would involve an aspiring homebuyer being assisted to purchase their home on a co-payment basis where government takes an equity stake in the property (proposed as up to 30% of the total value), thereby reducing the required size of buyer downpayment and mortgage. Over the medium to long-term the government stake is repaid along with a pro rata share of any capital gain, with the proceeds being potentially recycled into a new shared equity property acquisition on a revolving fund basis.

Adopting a shared equity scheme for first homebuyers would go with the grain of recent Federal Government housing policy, in complementing the First Home Loan Deposit Guarantee scheme – enabling access to low deposit mortgages – as announced during the 2019 election campaign.

From a socio-economic equity perspective, though, it has to be kept in mind that despite being seen as a meritorious group, an aspiring first home buyer with the potential to support even a 70% mortgage is, by definition, a relatively advantaged household. Arguably therefore it would be hard to justify a national shared equity scheme outlay (e.g. $12 billion over eight years, as proposed by Grattan) unless as part of a package also including significant (and arguably much larger) outlays on social housing (or other similarly targeted initiatives) to benefit low income Australians in genuine need.

A strategic perspective

Recommendable though they may be, specific programs such as expanded social housing output or (especially) shared equity home ownership don’t really go to the heart of the issue. Considering the complexity of our housing system, Australia’s affordability challenge can be fundamentally addressed only through an evidence-based and broadly-scoped national housing strategy with a long-term remit. A hard ask, yes, but the cost of continuing to muddle through will be high – both for many individual housing consumers, and for the economy as a whole.

States’ social housing boom no substitute for Federal funding commitment

Posted by on December 6th, 2021 · Uncategorized

By Hal Pawson. This story first appeared in the Fifth Estate – read the original story here.

As tens of thousands prepare to take a financial hit with the end of COVID-related disaster payments, our new research shows that renters on low and modest incomes are already in the grip of a housing pincer, especially in regional Australia. Inflamed by surging private rents, this also reflects an intensifying shortage of social housing after a decade of Commonwealth neglect since 2011.

Despite widely-supported calls for the inclusion of social housing investment in Australia’s national economic revival program, this was firmly rejected by the Commonwealth Government in 2020.  But, as revealed in our new research, four state Governments (Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia) have announced significant self-funded public housing construction programs as a component of post-pandemic stimulus, pledging nearly $10 billion to this cause.

As our work reveals, these programs will add over 23,000 badly needed new homes to the stock of public and community housing over the next four years. But although this is more than welcome, there are 155,000 households registered on social housing waiting lists across the country and more than 400,000 households in need of low-cost rental tenancies.

Recently pledged new social housing construction will be also extremely patchy across the country. For example, also factoring in the numbers of existing public housing properties that governments plan to demolish or sell over just the next three years, we estimate the prospective net gain in social housing dwellings over this period will be only 400 in New South Wales, compared with 8,300 in Victoria and 4,400 in Queensland.

And even the states that have recently stepped up their commitment, the scale of action remains fairly modest. In Victoria, the increase in social housing commencements in prospect through the state’s Big Housing Build program, equates to only around 5% of all housebuilding – compared to public housing construction in the period 1945-70 when the comparable Australia-wide figure was 16%.

Moreover, housing stress due to both affordability and availability pressures is rising significantly thanks to a tightening rental squeeze. While rents declined sharply in some inner cities early in the pandemic, from mid-2020 they increased. By August 2021 rents were accelerating at more than 8%, Australia-wide – the fastest pace since 2008, and far ahead of wage growth of under 2%.

And rapid rent acceleration isn’t by any means confined to the cities. Regional rent rises are now outpacing metropolitan areas, particularly in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, up by more than 12% in the year to August 2021, and raising the prospect of growing homelessness in these overheated markets.

For regional Victoria, the proportion of tenancies affordable to low-income tenants declined from 41% to 33% during 2020-21. This percentage looks set to deteriorate further with the end of affordable rents for homes developed under the Commonwealth Government’s “National Rental Affordability Scheme” (NRAS). 

NRAS funded 38,000 newly built rental homes for key workers and other low wage earners to be let at 75-80% of market rates. Government figures show that over the next three years the subsidies and rent restrictions attached to some 22,000 of these affordable homes will expire.

State governments are also shouldering the responsibility for keeping rough sleepers, moved into emergency accommodation (EA) at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, off the streets. Once again without Commonwealth financial support, key states have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending on move-on housing programs to provide longer term solutions for the most disadvantaged homeless populations.

As documented by our research, in New South Wales and Victoria alone, these initiatives will have facilitated safe, secure and supported accommodation pathways for around 3,500 former rough sleepers with complex needs by 2022. This will, at least partially, relieve the growing backlog of chronic rough sleepers built up in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities over previous years.

Arguably, though, these COVID-response homelessness actions should have been more extensive, considering the scale of the problem. For example, the limited scale of the New South Wales EA move-on housing scheme meant that places had to be strictly rationed, so only around a third of former rough sleepers in EA were assessed for possible inclusion. In a state where social housing is dwindling towards only 4% of all housing, this reflects the extreme shortage of suitable move-on accommodation, as well as emergency program funding limits. It  is also yet another example of the very real need for stepped-up Commonwealth support.

Crucially, even in the states that have initiated post-pandemic social housing programs, build rates at expected levels are only a little above those needed simply to keep pace with growing population (and housing need). They will make only a very modest short-term contribution to redressing the huge shortfall in rental housing affordable to low income Australians that has accumulated since the effective end of a routine national social housing construction program in 1996.

Through its tax, borrowing and currency-issuing powers, it is the Commonwealth Government, not the states, that holds the real financial firepower in Australia. Shifting prime responsibility for funding social housing growth to the states is untenable. A sustained national construction revival is only possible if the Federal Government resumes its historic role as the main source of investment for additional affordable homes.

Hal Pawson is Professor of Housing Research and Policy at UNSW City Futures Research Centre

Why Housing Emergency Must Shift Australian Politics

Posted by on November 24th, 2021 · Uncategorized
Brick house Melbourne

By Professor Duncan Maclennan, Honorary Professor, City Futures Research Centre. First published on Pearls and Irritations. Read the original article here

In June 2021 OECD Secretary General Mathias Cormann, former Australian Finance Minister, launched a landmark report outlining how unbalanced housing markets now impede inclusive growth. As our own research reveals, Australia is emerging as a key case in point.

Back in 2018 we highlighted how Australian governments’ goals for housing have been unfulfilled for decades. Homelessness has risen, rental housing shortages and payment burdens have increased. The poorest Australians have suffered most from housing system change.

Housing policy has been at best fragmented and inadequate, and at worst inactive or counterproductive. Our new evidence demonstrates the economic damage that arises from the consequent housing outcomes by raising inequalities of wealth and income, hampering productivity and exacerbating potential economic and financial instabilities.

In twenty-first century Australia the social housing sector has been starved of resources that provide for the homeless and most disadvantaged, despite the obvious merits of investment cases made. However, it is not the argument for social justice that will change the political economy of Australian housing policy. A change is going to come because for three decades Australian politics has failed to understand and govern market systems in which nineteen out of twenty Australians find, own and rent their homes.

Housing system failures are accumulating

Housing system failures are accumulating and manifesting in numerous ways. Most obviously, and despite substantially rising incomes, since 1990 home ownership rates have almost halved for under 35s, are now falling in every age cohort under 65 and the overall rate fallen by 5 percentage points to 67%. These shifts are not sudden and they are not small.

Beneath these headline ownership rates lie a growing number of individual household battles to progress. First-owners have faced steadily rising entry level prices and, though assuaged by a decade of lower mortgage rates, mortgage burdens have increased. Challenges in securing a deposit to purchase have become critical for many, especially those with no access to wider family wealth. Social mobility is halted for many in the housing market.

For existing homeowners the growing ‘flexibility’ of employment and household relationships has generated a stock of more precarious owners. There is, for many, no longer one-way lifetime progress through home-ownership. Mid-life tenure churn has grown and, increasingly, post-retirement homeowners are still paying off mortgages. Older owners, increasingly remain in peak family homes matching their bequest aims rather than consumption needs. This is not the Australian way. For governments expressly committed to expanding home-ownership it is both a massive policy failure and is a stark departure from the implicit promise of Australia’s ’social contract’.

For almost a century, until the 1980s, home-ownership provided stability and prosperity for Australians who worked hard and saved for retirement by paying mortgages. Home ownership was a ‘savings’ system with minimal ‘speculative’ gains as house prices rose slowly and steadily. And, until this millennium, rising home ownership rates reduced wealth inequality in Australia.

Policy settings increasingly problematic

That home ownership system no longer exists. The residential sector has been reshaped by changing macro-policy settings into an active ‘speculation’ system, with easy wealth accumulation motives increasingly dominating consumption requirements in housing choices. The same processes have heightened the gap between renting and owning. Since 2011 monetary policy has been most generous to the already wealthy, so that housing wealth inequality is rising, even within the class of home-owners. Most of the evidence submitted to the Falinski Inquiry recognises, explicitly and implicitly, sector difficulties that chime with our own experts survey in finding Australian housing market policy no longer fit for purpose.

With progressively fewer gainers and more losers from housing outcomes it could have been expected that re-balancing policy changes would have emerged. Instead, short-term ‘patch and repair’ policies make matters worse. Typically, first home buyer grants accelerate demand and boost house prices; then tighter monetary policies and/or stricter prudential lending tests choke off the price boom. But this leaves the next wave of younger Australians to, eventually, climb over the ownership entry price hurdles with the next policy surge in first-owner grants.

Meanwhile in the rental sector, prudential regulatory measures contrarily discourage the investor demand stimulated by landlord tax breaks. National, state and local policy changes often rapidly increase housing demand. Housing construction is invariably a complex and slow process. Yet local supply chains and their required connections to infrastructure and service provision are rarely aligned to wider demand side shifts. Policy lacks foresight and coordination at all levels of government.

Housing policy governance must be modernised

Australian governments need a new understanding of what ‘housing policy’ means. The Commonwealth Government and its agencies control most of the housing demand-side levers through fiscal, monetary and macro-prudential policies. These levers drive most ‘housing affordability’ policy in the form of first home buyer assistance, but much more importantly in the extra attraction of home ownership as a highly tax-advantaged asset. All other policies are relegated to a small corner of social welfare policy with a diminished housing ‘ministerial’ portfolio and budget, and to state/territory governments.

This disconnect is toxic. It leads the Treasurer, the Minister for Infrastructure, the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the Chairman of APRA to deny any responsibility for broader housing market outcomes, including house price inflation, and to downplay the resulting economic under-performance. This is an ineffectual approach to governing one of the major systems in the economy. Disparate Commonwealth activity is then magnified by the often yawning gaps between Commonwealth, State and Municipal actions that pull the housing system in different, costly and price-raising directions. There are too many ‘missing links’ in forming and delivering good housing outcomes for Australians.

Reforming Australian housing policy governance is an overriding priority. However, the dawning recognition in federal Australia that all is not well in the housing market has not energised a search for solutions but, instead a ‘hunt’ for ‘who is to blame’. Ministers and the RBA point the finger at state and local council planning departments. Mr Falinski appears to have prejudged evidence for his Parliamentary Inquiry by taking the same line.

The evidence in our review stresses that excess demand for housing drives prices. But excess demand arises from demand enhancing influences, including policies, as well as supply inhibitions. These can arise from planning allocations and processes, but the complex supply chain may be made inelastic by infrastructure, skilled labour, materials and other shortages. Government quickly needs to join up the dots – not just in policy governance but in its conceptual thinking about how housing markets work.

The politics of housing policy must change

Burgeoning housing needs, tons of expert reports and multiple opinion surveys may fail to influence policy change where governments have a short term, narrow or ideologically-driven policy vision and narrative. Other countries consider the balance of policy action with a broader, longer lens. These differences were well illustrated and reported at the COP26 conference in Glasgow. The Australian Government’s stance has, admittedly, shifted here – but only from denial to blame-shifting. A depressingly similar scenario to what we see in the housing space.

Why should the politics of housing policy change now?  The proportion of home-owner voters in some form of difficulty has now risen so significantly, arguably to close to half of owners, that it will impact voter choices and electoral participation. Our concluding evidence report highlights how the current geography of mortgage and renter stress, particularly in the outer metropolitan suburbs, represents a large terrain for significant, imminent changes in political choices.

The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition may already be competing for votes around the stability of mortgage payments and robustness of housing prices. There is an emerging electoral ‘housing emergency’ for Australian governments and it will not be addressed by short term tinkering nor inter-governmental blame games. As Treasurer, Mr Morrison famously said that when it comes to addressing national housing challenges ‘business as usual across federal, state and local governments is not an option’. Too right mate, and that applies to the business of politics and government, and opposition, too.

This article synthesises a program of work at UNSW led by Duncan Maclennan and also involving Bill Randolph, Hal Pawson and Chris Leishman from the University of South Australia.

Introductory Remarks to Parliamentary Inquiry hearing: Housing affordability and Supply in Australia, 17 November 2021

Posted by on November 17th, 2021 · Affordability, Government, Housing, Housing supply

By Prof Bill Randolph and Prof Hal Pawson.

We’d like to thank the Committee for inviting us to address you this morning. The issue of housing supply and its relationship to housing affordability is central to the pursuit of essential reforms to national housing policy.

The City Futures Research Centre is one of the leading University research teams focusing on urban issues in Australia. Research on land use planning, housing markets and housing policy are among our key concerns, together with gathering data on the housing system. Much of our work is funded by the Australian Research Council and AHURI.  More recently, we are working with NHFIC, the AIHW, the ABS and others on developing the Australian Housing Data Analytics Platform, funded by our partners and the Federal government. 

As we argued in our submission, adequate housing supply is a key component of a healthy housing market. But we would argue that the causes of housing unaffordability are complex and call for consideration of both housing supply and housing demand and the underlying drivers on both sides of the market.

Boosting home ownership is a key objective that we fully support. But, as argued in our recent report, ‘Housing – Taming the Elephant in the Economy’, Australia’s home ownership system has transformed from its historic function of spreading wealth into a modern day system that concentrates wealth and drives growing inequality. Over-preferencing existing home owners and investors has increasingly excluded young adults from access. 

Housing supply is important for housing affordability. But it’s not simply a matter of growing the total stock of housing. We need to encourage the right kind of supply in the right places. Australia needs a more diverse housing market that provides more consumer choice, is more inclusive, less volatile and more resilient to economic shocks. That means promoting a wider range of housing to fill the missing middle – not just high-rise apartments for investors in town centres and project homes on the fringe. For example, we need well located medium density homes and build-to-rent housing at both market and affordable prices.

The Australian Government could play an important role in supporting such diversity. Not only by reforming key tax settings, but also through influencing urban development. Although it can’t do that directly, there is plenty of scope to do so indirectly. With the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement between the Commonwealth and States up for re-setting next year, it could use the terms of that Agreement for that purpose.

Beyond that, the Turnbull Government’s City Deals policy could be revived and ramped-up as a vehicle for joint working with key local governments to promote affordable and market housing supply. The Australian Government could look to the example of the Canadian Liberal Party which has just pledged a $4 billion fund to reward local governments that streamline  and expand housing development.

But although maximising housing supply is important, it does not follow that you can simply build your way out of housing unaffordability, any more than you can build your way out of urban congestion. As our submission concluded, and as correctly stated by Luci Ellis in an earlier session, there is little international evidence of significantly reduced house prices resulting from expanded supply, rather than from a severe economic shocks.

As we have seen recently in some of our inner-city apartment markets, if supply does exceed demand, prices plateau or begin to fall, and the development industry responds in a perfectly rational way by rationing output. Development approvals for apartments fell away in 2019 and 2020, not because the planning system refused them, but because developers were not submitting applications when faced with declining investor demand.

Local resistance to housing development can be an important constraint, especially where medium or higher density is proposed. The only constructive way to address this issue is by ensuring that there is sufficient local infrastructure investment to support the greater local population. That comes back to the issue of development contributions – it will be possible to reduce reliance on these only if urban financing is reformed so that infrastructure costs are borne by the whole community over time, as they used to be.  Again, the Australian Government could play a key role in supporting this.

We presented a range of new data in our submission with a view to providing some additional information on the outcomes of the development process of relevance to the Inquiry’s objectives.  We would be happy to take questions on these data and any other related matters. 

Challenging the notion of housing reform as ‘political suicide’: household financial stress analysis of Australian political constituencies

Posted by on October 28th, 2021 · Affordability, Government, Housing

By William Thackway & Bill Randolph, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published by the Fifth Estate.

In Australia, where more than 60% of voters own their own home, the notion of housing reform policies that may negatively impact housing prices is widely viewed as “political suicide” (Raabus, 2021). The term has been used to describe moves to reinstate both inheritance taxes (largely relating to property inheritance) and attempts to abolish negative gearing (Buckley, 2021; Caldwell, 2019). When Bill Shorten vowed to grandfather negative gearing and halve capital gains tax concessions in the 2019 election, the policy was weaponised by the coalition government who claimed that it would stop “everyday families” from aspiring to buy investment properties (Remeikis, 2021). That housing reform was one of the first policies on the chopping block when Anthony Albanese assumed the Labor party leadership in 2019 spoke to its perceived unpopularity.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated several existing housing financial stresses and reinvigorated calls for a national housing plan (Pawson, et al, 2020). On the one hand, the impacts of COVID-19 have been disproportionately felt by low-income renters, who tend to be low-skilled workers at the greatest risk of losing employment (Maclennan et al., 2021). In the first six months of 2021 alone, the proportion of renters spending more than two-fifths of their income jumped by 8 percentage points to 68% (Sweeney, 2021). On the other, low interest rates have stimulated surging house prices and driven first-home buyers to take on increasingly aggressive mortgages (Switzer, 2021).

As Figure 1 shows, financial stress rates had risen steeply after 2017 for both renters and mortgagors but plateaued until the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 when it ticked up sharply, initially for mortgagors and then for renters, to the point where both tenure groups were facing comparable rates. By August 2021 the stress rates had reached 42% for mortgagors and 38% for renters (Thackway & Randolph, 2021). For mortgagors this figure is almost four times the level recorded in 2000 and has risen in the context of a parallel increase in overall household debt to income ratios over this time, with only the aftermath of the GFC providing a temporary respite. But for renters, the current stress figure is six times the level recorded in 2000. 

Figure 1: Mortgagor and renter financial stress rates Q1 2000 – Q2 2021

While financial stress among renters and mortgagors was significant prior to the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic has only served to underline the existential threat they pose to Australia’s housing market. The question beckons: is there a tipping point of housing-related financial stress for which housing reform becomes a politically viable strategy? If the number of people in housing-related financial stress starts to outnumber those with personal interest in the continued prosperity of the housing market, will the political outlook of housing reform change?

To investigate the state of housing-related financial stress in Australia, we analysed household financial survey data compiled monthly by Martin North from DFA. The data is sourced from a monthly survey of 4,300 households which creates a rolling pool of 52,000 households annually. The survey asks specific questions on household income and expenditure to calculate a ‘mini’ cashflow analysis for each respondent: money in vs. money out. Households with a ‘residual’ income after normal expenditure (including housing costs) of less than +5% or have negative residual incomes are classified as stressed.  Additional questions record the household’s housing tenure position.

For this analysis, the data, originally aggregated at the Postcode level, were reaggregated into Commonwealth Electoral Divisions (CED) to investigate the political landscape of housing-related household financial stress (Guiliano, 2021). Using the DFA survey data, two measures of housing-related financial stress were calculated at the CED level:

The first calculates the proportion of mortgagor households in financial stress.  The second calculates the proportion of all households that are renters or mortgagors in financial stress.

A measure of political alignment for each CED was then constructed using the Australian Electoral Commission divisional classifications data from the 2019 federal election (AEC, 2019). The data contains information on the geographical demographic, successful party, and seat status (‘safe’, ‘fairly safe’, ‘marginal’) for each CED from the 2019 election. Based on the successful party and seat status, a party alignment measure was constructed for each CED, whereby marginal seats were classified as ‘marginal [successful party]’, safe or fairly safe seats were classified as ‘safe [successful party]’. Using the financial stress and party alignment data, we examined where the most financially burdened constituencies in Australia are, how this related to housing tenure (buying or renting), and what the political base of these constituencies comprise.

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Most Financially Stressed Constituencies

Table 1 examines the top 20 ‘mortgagor-stressed’ constituencies in Australia sorted by party alignment. Financial stress rates among this cohort range from 59% (McEwen) to 76% (Macarthur), representing well over a majority of mortgagors. While NSW and Victoria make up a majority (16) of the top 20, all States other than South Australia feature in the list. Furthermore, there is a mix of both metropolitan (11) and regional (9) areas. Finally, all the major parties feature strongly in the list. Marginal seats make up over a third (7) of the constituencies with highest proportions of financially stressed mortgagors (four Labor, two Liberal and one Independent), while overall, Labor (12) has a larger share than the Coalition (7). Ultimately, the top 20 mortgagor-stressed constituencies demonstrate both the breadth and depth of financially stressed mortgagors across Australia.

Table 1: Top 20 CEDs by financially stressed mortgagors

Table 2 lists the 12 CED’s where a majority of all households are in overall financial stress – that is, the number of both mortgagors and renters in difficulty as a proportion of all households. NSW (7) and Victoria (4) again feature strongly, and there is a strong trend towards outer metropolitan regions being most affected. While the share of Labor seats (6 Safe, 3 Marginal) outnumbers Coalition seats (2 Safe, 1 Marginal), both sides of politics have significantly burdened constituencies. For these seats, irrespective of the proportion of mortgagors or renters, a majority of voters face financial stress. Intuitively, this would mean that the voter bases of these constituencies could have a potential financial self-interest in government policy that helps them to reduce the pressure of ever escalating housing costs, especially over the longer term – either through reduced rental prices, an increase in government-supported housing, or moderating house price inflation. Conceivably, these constituencies may represent the emerging locations where a tipping point of housing-related  financial stress has been reached, after which the political viability of housing reform shifts from the inconceivable to the possible. 

Table 2: CEDs with a majority of households in financial stress

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Analysis of Household Financial Stress by Political Alignment

The following maps visualise the Federal political alignment of a city’s constituencies (2019 election), overlayed with a dot representing the level of household financial stress in each CED. Larger dots represent higher levels of household stress (i.e. financially stressed mortgagors and renters as a % of all households), and vice versa for smaller dots. Seats with a majority of households in financial stress are labelled. Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth were selected as the three major cities with the highest level of financial housing stress.

In Sydney, no constituencies recorded household financial stress levels of below 30% (Figure 2). There is seemingly a clear relationship between household financial stress and party alignment. The coalition seats in the city’s north and south have comparatively low levels of stress. By contrast, Labor seats close to the centre, west and south-west all have households stress levels above 40%. However, the six marginal seats, hailing from both sides of politics, also all have household stress levels above 40%. Other than the seat of Sydney in the city centre, the other five constituencies with a majority of households in financial stress are located to the city’s far west and south-west. This reflects a general trend of higher housing stress levels towards the city’s outer areas.

Figure 2: Sydney Household Financial Stress by Political Alignment

Melbourne shares several distinct housing financial stress trends with Sydney (Figure 3). Constituencies with the highest levels of household stress are again largely located towards the periphery of the city, including the three seats where a majority of households are in financial stress. As in Sydney, Coalition seats tend to have lower levels of household stress than Labor seats, with the exceptions of La Trobe and Aston in east Melbourne. Finally, housing stress across the city is generally high, with only three constituencies recording household stress levels of below 30%.

Figure 3: Melbourne Household Financial Stress by Political Alignment

In Perth, six of the 13 constituencies recorded politically marginal results in the 2019 election. All of these recorded moderately high levels of housing financial stress (Figure 4). Household stress levels are nevertheless generally lower for Coalition seats, with the exception of the Pearce constituency towards the northern fringe of Perth (> 50%). On the other hand, both the safe Labor seats south of the city centre have household stress levels of over 40%. In keeping with both Melbourne and Sydney, household financial stress is more common in outer-metropolitan areas.

Figure 4: Perth Household Financial Stress by Political Alignment

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Key Takeaways

Analysing the financial survey data provided by DFA illuminates both the breadth and depth of housing-related financial stress in Australia. In twelve constituencies a clear majority of households are burdened by significant financial stress, while many key suburban seats display substantial levels of stress. Although Labor seats tend to be more affected than Coalition seats, financial stress is clearly a bi-partisan issue, including in several key marginals. And it’s also evident that no part of Australia is immune from these pressures, with constituencies from the inner city to rural and regional districts suffering high levels of financial stress. 

With a general election looming and housing stresses exacerbated for both the rental and mortgage sector by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s reasonable to ask: where is the discussion of housing reform? However, at the Federal level both major parties are clearly avoiding housing as an issue for fear of upsetting either John Howard’s suburban ‘Battler’ vote or the army of ‘Boomer’ property owning retirees. In this context it’s difficult to see how a coherent housing reform policy package can be put back onto the agenda.  

It is to be hoped that the current Parliamentary Inquiry into housing supply and affordability (Parliament of Australia, 2021) will lift its gaze away from the easy target of blaming the planning system for all our housing woes and conclude that integrated reform is needed across all three levels of government if we are to turn away from the speculatively fuelled ‘boom and bust’ property cycles and the mounting unaffordability crisis that current policy settings have created. 

The data presented here should give the members of the Parliamentary Inquiry pause for thought.  In the past, politicians have faced the seemingly impossible task of convincing the majority home-owning voter base to support policies that may restrain house price growth or threaten the almost unending ‘money pot’ of housing investment, let alone make better provision for renters.  But the extent of household financial stress among both home buyers and renters – many of whom the Boomers’ children who aspire to buy but see the prospect receding by the day – related to ever escalating housing costs, may prompt a greater degree of voter support for systematic policy reform. The question is, have we reached the tipping point, and if not now, when?

Shade: bringing planners and health professionals together to provide critical infrastructure

Posted by on October 5th, 2021 · Cities, Planning, Wellbeing

By Prof Susan Thompson, Liz King, Jan Fallding and Nicola Groskops. Originally published in New Planner, the journal of the Planning Institute of Australia (NSW Division).

Increasingly communities are rightly demanding a built environment that makes it easy for everyone to be healthy and well as they go about their daily activities.  This is related to growing understandings about the critical health supportive role of the places where we live, work, play, and how we travel from one to the other.  COVID-19 has sharpened our collective focus on this issue, particularly the importance of local neighbourhood public spaces, walking paths, cycleways and green parkland for good health and wellbeing.

Being outdoors for recreational pursuits is germane to the Australian culture.  Physical activity is very much a part of this, as is the infrastructure to facilitate different recreational pursuits.  The research evidence is strong on the benefits of regular physical activity for good health, particularly in reducing the major risk factors for chronic physical and mental conditions.  Being active with others importantly connects us socially, which underpins wellbeing, and has been a challenge during the Pandemic. 

And while the outdoors is an ideal place for all Australians to engage in vital health supportive behaviours, it is somewhat ironic that it can be deadly!  Time spent in the open air potentially puts us at risk of skin cancer, the most common cancer across the nation.

Skin Cancer

We know that overexposure to the sun’s ultra-violet radiation (UVR), which is a carcinogen, causes skin cancers, including both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer types.  Australians have the highest rate of melanoma in the world – the most dangerous form of skin cancer.  Two in every three Australians are expected to develop skin cancer before the age of 70.  Between 2013 and 2017, 80 of 128 local government areas (LGAs) in NSW had an age-standardised incidence rate of melanoma above the NSW average (52.3 per 100,000 population).  The Cancer Institute NSW has a comprehensive statistics web portal where you can find melanoma age-standardised incidence rates by LGA.  Across NSW, UVR levels of three and above are high enough to damage unprotected skin for at least 10 months of the year.  Unlike temperature, UVR cannot be seen or felt and alarmingly, damage to unprotected skin can still occur on cool and/or overcast days. 

Shade

The good news is that skin cancer is highly preventable.  Personal protective behaviours are essential.  These include wearing appropriate clothing, wide brimmed hats and sunglasses, and applying sunscreen.  In addition, it’s important to seek out shade when UVR levels are high.  There is evidence that well-designed and correctly positioned shade, from both natural vegetation and built structures, can reduce exposure to UVR by up to 75 per cent.  The provision of good quality shade is particularly important in spaces such as playgrounds, frequented by children and adolescents.  It is in these younger years that vulnerability to UVR is especially high and over exposure to the sun at this time of life can result in deadly skin cancers in later years.  When shade is provided, people use facilities that are protected.  The provision of shade will ensure that communities can safely use outdoor facilities in summer to keep fit and avoid skin cancer.  So, the outdoor gym, no matter how well equipped, will be abandoned in hot weather if it is not adequately shaded (see below).  It’s also important to note equity issues here as Cancer Council NSW research has found that those living in lower socio-economic areas have less access to playgrounds with adequate shade.

Getting critical infrastructure in place – the co-benefits of shade

The health evidence is unequivocal – shade is critical infrastructure in providing a health supportive environment for the entire community across the life course.  But it’s not just about UV protection – there are many other benefits of shade which strengthen the case for its installation.  Environmental benefits include lowering urban heat, as well as reducing air pollution, water evaporation, soil erosion and storm water run-off.  The maintenance of animal habitat and biodiversity is also enhanced and energy usage and associated costs can go down.  Social and economic benefits encompass reducing neighbourhood crime as more people are out and about connecting with each other and activating the streets, commercial areas and public places.  All-in-all this results in places that people want to frequent, which is a positive outcome for the entire community.  For a very accessible summary of the multiple benefits of shade which can be used with lay and professional audiences alike, download ‘Shade; A planning and design priority that helps prevent skin cancer’.

Getting critical infrastructure in place – guidelines to assist

Planners have multiple roles to play in ensuring that the communities’ demands and needs for a healthy built environment are met.  Shade is a critical piece of infrastructure supporting healthy behaviours in the hot and sunny Australian outdoors.  Planners can find a wealth of resources to actively advocate for the provision of shade for public and private developments. 

At the local level, the Cancer Council NSW’s ‘Guidelines to Shade’ is a practical and informative tool for planners and developers.  Local Strategic Planning Statements (LSPSs) can also incorporate specific text strategising appropriate shade installation.  Example LSPS provisions are available and a recent report for the Cancer Institute NSW documents how councils actually incorporated the consideration of shade in their LSPSs.  This research can assist councils when revising their Statements and preparing future planning policy.

At the state level we are seeing a strong focus on integrated design policy for the built environment under the Government Architect’s ‘Better Placed’ integrated design framework.  This includes the use of green infrastructure as a core element, as well as putting health and wellbeing at the centre of good placemaking.  While the importance of tree canopy for shade to protect against overexposure to sunlight is acknowledged in ‘Greener Places’, shading for UV protection requires greater emphasis and direct referencing to better promote its uptake.  The soon to be produced Design and Place SEPP by DPIE provides a great opportunity to do this.  All five principles of the intended SEPP would benefit from the inclusion of either natural or built shade as key strategies to achieve their objectives.

Conclusion

Quality natural and built shade for UV protection is an essential part of health supportive infrastructure for all members of the community.  Shade has multiple benefits in public and private settings and needs to be embedded in planning policies and strategies at all levels of governance. 

About the authors

We are all members of the NSW Shade Working Group (SWG) collaborating together across health and the built environment.  The SWG is auspiced by the NSW Skin Cancer Prevention Strategy led by Cancer Institute NSW.

Susan Thompson, FPIA and Sydney Luker Medalist, is Professor of Planning and Head, City Wellbeing Program, City Futures Research Centre at UNSW.  She is a passionate advocate for healthy built environments and the role that planners can play in supporting health and wellbeing for all.

Liz King is Manager, Skin Cancer Prevention Unit, Cancer Council NSW.  She has a strong background in public health planning and service delivery, and is a passionate advocate for the integration of UV protection policies into planning design and practice.

Jan Fallding RPIA (Fellow) is a self-employed strategic and social impact planner based in the Hunter Valley.

Nicola Groskops is a public health professional working to prevent cancer with the Cancer Institute NSW (NSW Health) and is passionate about improving the conditions in which people live, work and play.