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After COVID, we’ll need a rethink to repair Australia’s housing system and the economy

Posted by on September 11th, 2020 · Affordability, Cities, Economy, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Infrastructure, Productivity
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By Hal Pawson, UNSW; Bill Randolph, UNSW; Chris Leishman, University of Adelaide; and Duncan Maclennan, University of Glasgow. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A new report from the New South Wales Productivity Commission (NSWPC) announces that “[higher] housing costs […] impose broader economic costs”. That chimes with our own newly published research. The implication is that Australia’s heavily capitalised housing market will weigh down economic recovery from the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic.

A niche group of economists and epidemiologists had warned the world for decades that a pandemic would have devastating economic and social consequences. When it comes to Australia’s housing, though, the COVID-19 crisis has only served to highlight deep and long-standing faultlines.

The housing system has produced triple crises of rising homelessness, growing queues for non-market, affordable housing and the pervasive affordability problems for middle- and lower-income households who depend on the private housing market. All these pressures were building well before the pandemic.

However, a particularly cruel COVID-19 effect has been the concentration of pandemic impacts on public-facing economic sectors and jobs. Younger people and female employees have been hit hardest. The fallout in the lower end of the labour market will only make existing pressures worse.

Australia is about to embark on an audacious economic and social experiment as it tries to wind back the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs temporarily protecting about 3.5 million people. Treasury projections envisage a gradual withdrawal. In reality, especially if any eviction moratoria are allowed to lapse, the start of this process will likely trigger huge immediate challenges in managing the housing and homelessness fallout.

Beyond that, the recession will drive home the need for political leaders to more fully appreciate the integral role of housing in the economy. The housing system plays key roles in shaping economic productivity, stability and inequality.

How on earth did we get here?

For many decades economics-leaning policymakers have assumed the housing market is largely a well-functioning system driven by helpful economic forces. Most famously personified in comments by former prime minister John Howard, and very much in tune with dominant media messaging, Australian governments have generally welcomed rising house prices as signifying consumer confidence. Even academic researchers and government analysts have cited house prices as a sign of the “success” of cities and regions.

More recently, ever-rising house prices have finally been recognised as a driver of wealth inequality. The problem is linked to rising mortgage debt and increasingly recognised as likely to add to instabilities in the macro economy and financial system.

There are also growing policy concerns that city living is becoming too expensive. This in turn harms economic productivity. [OECD data] show Australia is on a similar path to the US, with the metropolitan share of national GDP per capita falling in recent years.

Chart showing metropolitan GDP per capita as percentage of national value
Metropolitan GDP per capita has been declining in Australia and some other countries. Data: OECD, Author provided

How has policy thinking become so blurred?

The NSWPC report recognises that the combination of excessive rents and insecure tenure can damage children’s educational attainment and prospects. Prices and rents are particularly unaffordable in Sydney, making it a more stressful place to live and work. Resulting migration to other parts of the country reduces employers’ access to the supply of willing and productive labour, thus damaging productivity.

But the NSWPC analysis of housing-to-economy interactions does not go anything like far enough. As our research shows, Australia’s dysfunctional housing system results in a battery of other economically harmful impacts. These include:

  • long-term policies that have diverted savings and investment into rising property and land prices, with minimal or no employment or productivity benefit
  • excessive rent and mortgage burdens diverting household spending from other consumption with greater productivity impacts
  • a dysfunctional housing system that reduces household savings for the longer term, as well as contributing to falling rates of home ownership and personal asset accumulation for future generations of older people.

Perhaps worst of all, the high private housing debt in Australia is among the worst in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the OECD recognise this debt as a threat to financial and economic stability.

Economics students are taught the “paradox of thrift”: when an individual saves, it benefits them in the long run. When too many people save, it harms economic growth.

In a similar way, rising housing prices benefit owners of houses and/or investments. But when we scale up to the level of a locality, city, state or economy, rising prices have a profound negative impact.

Young couple in kitchen looking at household bills
The impacts of high rents and mortgage debt on people’s behaviour have significant consequences for the economy. Shutterstock

Setting a new agenda

With all this in mind, our report lays out a wide-ranging “housing and productivity” research agenda. The hope must be that the resulting evidence helps trigger the policy reboot needed to transform the housing system from being part of the problem to part of the solution.

Much more attention needs to be focused on how owners and renters adjust savings and spending as a result of excessive housing costs. Without knowing about these behavioural responses, it is impossible to design appropriate policies.

We must find ways to restore the housing prospects of younger and/or less affluent households. We must research the potential for schemes to help first home buyers with deposits, and assess how better credit scoring methods could reduce pressures on rental markets. This is particularly important because currently used credit scoring methods disproportionately reward access to wealth, and do not adequately capture important aspects of prospective borrowers’ consumption and saving behaviour.

Delayed home ownership entry or permanent exclusion have major long-term implications. Worryingly, the negative impacts on economic productivity and stability have been largely ignored to date.

The Grattan Institute estimates home-ownership rates for the over-65s will fall by 19% by 2056. The impacts on retirement incomes will be significant.

Policymakers haven’t planned for the inevitable rise in need for social housing from impoverished older private renters. The present system has glaringly failed to provide housing affordable for more than half of Australia’s low income tenant population. Acting on the mounting economic imbalances caused by the housing crisis could, at the same time, generate a more productive and stable economy.

Australian housing research and policy urgently needs a new economic conversation.

A brief history of Australian residential tenancies law reform: from the nineteenth century to COVID-19

Posted by on September 4th, 2020 · Housing, Law, Pandemic, Private rental, Tenancy

By Chris Martin. Originally published in Parity, the journal of the Council to Homeless Persons.

Australia is currently going through a period of unusual activity in residential tenancies law reform. New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT have recently concluded reviews and amended their legislation, and Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are currently in the midst of reviews. South Australia and Tasmania reviewed and amended their respective Acts a little before the current wave of reform, both in 2013. The federal government has also indicated its interest, nominating ‘tenancy reform that encourages security of tenure in the private rental market’ as a ‘national housing priority area’ under the current National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (Schedule A2). And breaking over the current wave of law reform are the COVID-19 emergency amendments, implementing eviction moratoriums and temporary regulations around rents.

This article considers the current wave of reform in the longer context of the development of Australian residential tenancies law since the nineteenth century – although, as we will see, the term ‘residential tenancies law’ really dates from the 1970s, when it signified a paradigm shift from previous ways of governing the relationship between landlords and tenants.

The nineteenth century

When the Australian colonies formally received English law in 1828, landlord-tenant law was very much a creature of property law, and concerned more with the formal requirements of valid leases (for example, a lease had to grant a right to possession of land, in writing, and for certain term), than with whether property was used for housing or other purposes. The content of leases was directed to tenants having ‘quiet enjoyment’ of the property, and landlords receiving rent – backed by the drastic remedies of ejectment (eviction) and distress. The latter allowed the landlord or agent to forcibly enter the property and take the tenant’s personal belongings to sell or ransom.

Over the course of the century colonial parliaments passed laws to expedite court processes for ejectment, standardise some common lease terms and, during the 1890s depression, introduce some restrictions on the use of distress. Landlords themselves developed the law too, particularly by adding lease terms against ‘nuisances’ and non-residential uses that reflected developments in sanitary regulation.

Twentieth century rent and eviction controls

In the early twentieth century – particularly during the First World War – numerous governments across the world began imposing further controls on landlords, particularly regarding rents and evictions. Rent and eviction controls reflected a new preparedness for states to directly govern economic processes – although they were often contested politically. In New South Wales, rent controls were first imposed by the Fair Rents Act 1915 (NSW), which limited rents to six per cent of a property’s value, followed by prescribed limited grounds for termination in 1926; these measures were partly lifted in 1928, and wholly lifted in 1937, with some short-lived emergency rent reduction and eviction postponement measures also introduced in the 1930s Depression. Rent and eviction controls did not, by themselves, change the pre-occupation of landlord-tenant law with property law formalities, and while in some respects they made specific provisions regarding residential leases, rent and eviction controls did not address important housing issues – in particular, repairs. A few housing-specific reforms were introduced by Australian jurisdictions around this time, such as prohibitions on discriminating against residential tenants with children, and abolition of distress (e.g. NSW, Western Australia).

In 1939, national rent and eviction controls were imposed for the duration of the Second World War, and some states continued to apply them in the post-war reconstruction period. In New South Wales and Victoria, in particular, controls continued longer, although through the 1950s and 60s they began to roll back their application such that increasing numbers of properties and tenants were excluded.

Generally, post-war governments looked to expanded homeownership and public housing, rather than tenancy law, as their preferred instruments for improving housing conditions and affordability. To this end governments subsidised finance for home purchase and directly built hundreds of thousands of dwellings – both for rent and sale to low-income working-class families. Where they applied, rent and eviction controls contributed to the growth of home ownership, by repressing investment by private landlords, while state housing authorities were exempt from controls and offered leases on the barest terms – public housing tenancies were relatively secure and affordable as a matter of policy and practice, rather than law.

Residential tenancies and the consumer protection paradigm

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, researchers, activists and policy-makers began to look more critically at the presumed affluence of the post-war period, and began to see sections of the community that had been excluded. In 1972, the federal government established a wide-ranging Inquiry into Poverty, which would include a report specifically on ‘Poverty and the Residential Landlord-Tenant Relationship’. Reviewing the existing patchwork of rent and eviction controls, older statutes and common law, the report found:

the law is sadly deficient in most of the relevant areas of tenant needs. No advice or assistance is provided for a prospective tenant by any governmental agency in any State, there is no legislation to ensure that the tenant is not bound by onerous and oppressive terms in a lease, and the means of solving any dispute between a landlord and tenant are far from fair and sensible and are based on conditions relevant to a bygone era in the United Kingdom…. The existing legislation also fails to satisfy fully the needs of the landlord….

It is not overstating the case to say that the current body of landlord-tenant law in Australia is a scandal….

Deliberately turning away from English property law doctrines and from rent and eviction controls, the Bradbrook Report instead looked to recent law reforms in North America and emerging principles of consumer protection for a new regulatory model specifically for residential tenancies. The main features of the model would be:

  • Prescribed contractual rights and obligations, including regarding repairs and maintenance, in standard form agreements;
  • Prohibition of most fees other than rent, utilities and bonds – the latter to be lodged in statutory accounts;
  • Market rents, subject to protections against increases excessive to market levels;
  • Ready but orderly termination of tenancies – including without grounds;
  • Dispute resolution by relatively accessible, informal tribunals;
  • Coverage of private and public housing tenancies alike; and
  • Provision of legal information for tenants by government and/or non-government organisations.

As much as this model was framed as consumer protection, it was also quite accommodative of Australia’s small-holding amateur-speculator landlords, particularly in the way it allowed tenancies to be terminated and properties traded between rental and owner-occupier markets.

It would take almost 25 years, but all Australian states and territories enacted residential tenancies legislation along these lines (South Australia was first, in 1978; the Northern Territory was the last, in 1999). Despite the broadly common features, there were significant differences in the details. Notice periods for rent increases and termination varied widely; some jurisdictions established specialist tribunals while others used their magistrates courts; some established government agencies to hold bonds while others required lodgement at banks; and the commitment to funding non-government tenants information and advice services was uneven.

The second wave of consumer protection

Before the last reforms of the first wave had passed, a second wave of reforms commenced in the 1990s and continued through the first decade of the 2000s. Mostly consolidating the consumer protection model, this wave had three notable themes. First, most jurisdictions extended consumer-protection style regulation to marginal sectors that had been excluded from the first wave: boarding and rooming houses, and residential parks. The approach in most jurisdictions was to legislate, either as part of the Residential Tenancies Act or separately, something like a miniature Residential Tenancies Act tailored for each of these sectors, with prescribed terms and standard forms, and accessible dispute resolution, subject to a defined scope that still left some renters excluded. A different approach was taken in the ACT, which legislated broadly-stated ‘occupancy principles’ for all renters otherwise excluded from the mainstream of the Residential Tenancies Act.

Secondly, residential tenancy databases, which had emerged in the early 1990s and became notorious as ‘tenant blacklists’, were eventually regulated in all jurisdictions. These regulations limit the circumstances and time periods for listings, and provide for dispute resolution, and are unusual in residential tenancies law in that they are almost the same across jurisdictions – the product of a process of intergovernmental co-operation to effect nationally consistent legislation that is so far unique in residential tenancies law reform.

Thirdly, and running against the original consumer protection ethos of residential tenancies legislation, jurisdictions began making amendments specifically relating to public housing and community – mostly to facilitate the termination of tenancies as a way of ‘cracking down’ on crime and anti-social behaviour in an increasingly marginalised sector.

The third wave

The current third wave of reform is taking place in quite different circumstances from the Poverty Inquiry that initiated the first wave. Home ownership, as well as social housing, is declining, with more households – both high-income, and low-income – living in private rental, and renting longer into their lives. Recent and current reviews have reflected these shifts, by highlighting questions of improvements to tenants’ security – through specific provisions for long fixed terms or through the removal of ‘without ground’ terminations – and greater tenant autonomy, such as in keeping pets. The jurisdictions that have already completed their reviews have concluded these issues differently, with Victoria amending its Act to almost completely remove without-grounds terminations and strengthen tenants’ position regarding pets, while the ACT did only the second, and New South Wales neither.

Another recent common theme in reform is domestic and family violence, with most jurisdictions having recently amended their legislation to address the housing implications of DFV. But even as they have prioritised this area of reform, governments have arrived at quite different positions regarding the processes and evidentiary requirements for survivors terminating tenancies early, or continuing and removing a perpetrator, and regarding vicarious liability.

It remains to be seen whether the ongoing reviews in Queensland, Western Australia and The Northern Territory produce a relatively strong reform agenda like Victoria’s, or a more ‘vanilla’ program of amendments like New South Wales’. The outlook is now complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, which also threw up their own specific emergency reforms.

COVID-19

Beginning in March 2020, Australian governments and individual persons responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by suppressing economic and social activity – by staying home. With household incomes suddenly reduced, and the prospect of rent arrears rising, the National Cabinet announced an unprecedented six-month eviction moratorium, and encouraged landlords and tenants to negotiate about rent liabilities, with the states and territories to give this formal effect.

As in other aspects of residential tenancies law, states and territories have taken a broadly common approach, with considerable differences in the details. The commonalities are narrowly defined protections, most of which apply only to tenants specifically affected by the disease or loss of income, and individualised negotiations about rent liabilities, which may result in temporary rent reductions, or mere deferrals – or no settlement at all. In some jurisdictions, provision has been made for arbitration of unsettled matters and binding rent reduction orders (e.g. Queensland and Victoria), while in others unsettled matters can result in termination proceedings, albeit with longer timeframes (e.g. New South Wales). In a situation that may have actually called for wide-ranging rent and eviction controls, it appears that this form of regulation is a lost art in Australia.

The future?

In the present uncertain moment, a longer historical view of residential tenancies law reform can help inform the way forward. One lesson of the past 45 years of reform in the consumer protection paradigm is that while common themes have been added to states’ and territories’ reform agenda, they are probably no more consistent in the details of their legislation than they have ever been – the residential tenancy database provisions excepted. The recent uneven landing of jurisdictions on the ‘national housing priority area’ of improved security may be the most significant instance of inconsistency, and a clue to the future of reform. Victoria’s reform agenda was fashioned as part of a wider response to the state’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, from which it took a strong sense that a home should be safe and secure. Maybe after 45 years the consumer protection paradigm has run its course, and it is time for differently articulated principles – perhaps of human rights and housing justice – to reinvigorate residential tenancies law reform.

A critical academic response to the evidence-free debate on planning reform

Posted by on August 20th, 2020 · Affordability, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing supply, Planning

By Malcolm Tait and Andy Inch, University of Sheffield. Originally published on CaCHE Blog. Republished with an introduction by Bill Randolph, City Futures Research Centre.

This blog summarises ‘The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions‘, a major new report from the UK that brings together a veritable “who’s who” of UK academic planners and those involved in urban policy and research.  It offers a heavyweight critique and robust rebuttal of the now dominant ideology amongst governments, both in the UK and Australia, that the housing supply and affordability crisis which both countries are suffering is primarily the responsibility of the planning system. Under this formulation, as the report notes, planners are seen as the “‘enemies of enterprise’, blamed for overseeing a broken system that acts as a ‘drag anchor’ on the economy.”  As the authors of the main report argue – this is the wrong answer to the wrong question. 

Given the NSW Productivity Commission’s new Green Paper which simply repeats the neo-liberal mantra which frames the planning system as the problem, and the current more general push to clear away planning ‘blockages’ in the name of job creation, essentially to save an apartment sector now in free-fall, this paper could well help those of us concerned about the future of planning in Australia to mount a coherent counter-narrative.   Put simply, the current Australian housing system is broken and we urgently  need alternative approaches to deal with this failure.  This blog, and the substantive report that underpins it, offers a coherent way forward.  It deserves to be widely read by planners and anyone interested in actually making the housing system in Australia work for the benefit of all its citizens.

*

This is the first blog in a series responding to the government’s proposed changes to the English planning system.

The Government has proposed some of the most far-reaching changes to the English planning system since 1947. The Planning for the Future white paper and the accompanying rhetoric suggests they view the planning system as a major impediment to housebuilding. In the recently published report, The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions, a group of planning academics has come together to challenge this view. This edited excerpt from the introduction to the report offers some critical perspectives on the thinking underpinning the proposals:

1. Urban change does not occur naturally or follow customs.

Influential think tanks like Policy Exchange claim that planning disrupts the ‘processes by which places naturally change’. But land-use change is shaped by those who own land and have the financial power to buy and develop it. Any claim to restore a more ‘natural’ order of urban change is really about substituting one form of (at least nominally democratic) control for a freer-market that affords power to the already privileged to pursue their own material interests, irrespective of whether this benefits the wider community. When it comes to land use, market forces are much more likely to reject than enhance custom and tradition.

Previous Conservative governments have learned the hard way that attempts to liberate markets will meet concerted opposition amongst shire county Tories who see the planning system as a means of protecting land from developers in the name of custom and tradition. Any ‘radical’ deregulatory agenda is likely to run into this politics again. However, the transformation of England’s political geography, allied with powerful imperatives to ensure economic recovery, mean the current government may be less reliant on such voters than any of its predecessors.

2. Planning is not responsible for the housing crisis

Planning is not solely responsible for the building of houses – housebuilders, landowners, and developers have leading roles.  Since 2010, the planning system has granted 1 million more permissions for houses than have been built.  It approves 88% of all applications, and nearly 90% of all applications are decided within Government-set targetsThe Letwin Review of build-out started to recognise this but the government remains intent on blaming the planning system for a housing crisis whose roots lie in the dysfunctions of the broader housing system, highly consolidated development industry and unreformed land markets.

3. Deregulation will not produce the outcomes we need.

Where planning is conceived as a hindrance on creative, productive ‘wealth creators’, the tendency is to not to ask ‘how might we build better places?’– but instead, how can we reduce costs and free entrepreneurs to build more, faster.  This is the wrong answer to the wrong question, and it will not produce answers that deal with the climate crisis and the need to radically transform how we build. If the government is serious about stimulating a green recovery, premised on the development of significant new infrastructure to ‘level up’, then we need to be talking about better public planning.

4. Planning reform has become an evidence-free zone.

As was evident in Boris Johnson’s baseless claim[8] that ‘newt counting’ was an impediment to development in the ‘build, build, build’ speech that announced the current planning reforms, the government’s approach seems to be driven by ideological distaste for the idea of a proactive planning system, rather than a real understanding of the kind of system we have, how it is working, and the ways it needs to change.

5. We need to develop a better understanding of the positive role planning could play

In addition, it is vital to enhance understanding of the nature and purpose of the planning system and the contributions it can and should make attempts to build back better. As Laurie MacFarlane has recently suggested, for too many people the planning system remains a ‘black box’. As such it has long been an easy target for powerful property lobbies, neoliberal ideologists, and governments seeking to flex their deregulatory credentials (see TCPA, 2018).

We hope The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions can help stimulate debate about the planning changes we should be making to build back better.

COVID-19 renter survey – invitation to participate

Posted by on August 19th, 2020 · Housing, Pandemic, Tenancy

Renting in Australia during the COVID-19 emergency? You’re invited to participate in a survey about COVID-19 rental negotiations, conducted by the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW Sydney.

The survey is open to persons who

  • Were living in a rented dwelling in Australia on 29 March 2020 (when the eviction moratorium was announced)
  • Are aged 18 or older.

Participants who complete the survey can enter the draw for a $500 voucher.

You can find the survey at unsw.to/covidrent

Participation is voluntary. The survey takes 5-10 minutes to complete, and asks about your rent, income and household, whether you negotiated a change to your rent and whether you moved. The information you give will be used only for the purposes of the research and no identifying information will ever be disclosed. The full Participant Information Statement is here, and linked at the start of the survey.

The survey is part of City Futures’ new research project, Housing and homelessness policy in the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

Please consider participating, and inviting others to participate too!

Why public housing is stigmatised and how we can fix it

Posted by on August 7th, 2020 · Housing, Social housing, Uncategorized

Alistair Sisson, UNSW and Pratichi Chatterjee, University of Sydney

Social and public housing is intensely stigmatised in Australia and has been for several decades. Estates in particular are often labelled “ghettos”, framed as places of danger, drugs and vice.

This stigma can lead to discrimination against tenants and can harm their sense of self-worth, as shown in Australia and around the world.

But it’s not just the Pauline Hansons of this world who are responsible for reinforcing stigma.

Stigma is the product of government policies. It also serves government policies, like privatisation and redevelopment. Until we recognise that, we’ll struggle to remove it.

The source of the stigma

Public housing is stigmatised in many different ways, as we discovered when reviewing a decade of policy documents and media coverage.

Since the 1970s, public housing has gone through a process of residualisation due to the declining number of dwellings and the tightening of eligibility criteria. In other words, it has become home to more and more people who are marginalised and disadvantaged and portrayed as:

[…] a detached underclass unwilling or unable to engage with labour market opportunities or mainstream norms and values.

There is also a view that concentrating disadvantaged people in one area can worsen the problems they face. Common but contested ideas about concentrated disadvantage and neighbourhood effects can lead to the stigmatisation of whole estates or neighbourhoods.

Racism has also added to the stigma of some estates over the last 50 years, as access for Indigenous people has improved and as non-white migrants have been permitted to immigrate.

Decline and design

Public housing can sometimes stand out due to poor maintenance, particularly in gentrifying areas where private housing is new or renovated.

Brutalist towers in inner cities and back-to-front Radburn estates in outer suburbs can also contrast with their wider neighbourhoods.

These stereotypes stem from policies from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s that encouraged public tenants to buy their homes.

But residents who lived in apartments were excluded from such schemes, and cheaply built homes on the urban fringe were less attractive to buy. So these two types of estates became the dominant images of public housing, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.

These policies also reveal how public housing is viewed as inferior to home ownership. Home owners are portrayed as independent and good citizens, despite extensive government subsidies.

Stigma in action

The stigmatisation of public housing has been reflected in several recent government policies.

For example, the shared spaces and facilities of the high-rise public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne, in Victoria, were used as justifications for the hard lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak. The tenants were represented as an exceptional risk requiring an exceptional response.

Police deployed 500 officers to enforce a lockdown of unprecedented severity, while apartment residents in other hotspots had more freedoms and forewarning.

The relocation and privatisation of public housing in Millers Point, in Sydney, NSW, was another case of governments using stigma to justify policy.

The NSW government claimed residents received huge subsidies compared to other public housing tenants. It argued this money could be used to fund more housing in cheaper places.

But as the Tenants’ Union of NSW pointed out, these subsidies were made to seem larger than they were by including the difference between market rents and tenants’ rents. The subsidies weren’t paid to residents and didn’t reflect the cost of providing housing.

Yet The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine argued tenants living in higher-value areas were responsible for the long waiting list for public housing.

This misrepresents the huge magnitude of public housing shortages and distracts from chronic under-funding.

The break-up of public housing

Stigma has also been used to justify estate renewal. The demolition and redevelopment of estates like Waterloo in Sydney and Carlton in Melbourne, along with many others around the world, has been justified by the argument that tenants’ disadvantage can result from the cultures or environments of estates.

Breaking them up is presented as a solution to disadvantage and anti-social behaviour.

These arguments divert attention away from government failures in reducing poverty. They also mask the economic and financial objectives of redevelopment, which research suggests are the primary drivers.

Meanwhile, the harm to tenants is dismissed as a cost worth paying for new or better housing.

Solutions to stigma

By shifting blame for various problems onto public housing tenants and estates, stigma reinforces the status quo of inadequate funding and thus poor maintenance, dwindling supply and cannibalisation through redevelopment and privatisation.

It also obscures the culpability of governments and the failure of markets to provide affordable housing, adequate incomes and social support.

To destigmatise public housing, fundamental changes in our housing system are needed. Better design, maintenance and stories are helpful, but can only do so much.

Part of the solution is to end the preferential treatment of home ownership and to treat different tenures equally through housing and tax policy. The security, stability, quality and profitability of your home should not depend on whether you own it or rent it from a private landlord or a social one.

This starts with upgrading public housing and building much more for the hundreds of thousands on waiting lists and the many more who are struggling in privately rented or mortgaged homes.

Alistair Sisson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Pratichi Chatterjee, Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Architecture, Design & Planning, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A dog’s breakfast? Why rental pet reform is needed

Posted by on August 5th, 2020 · Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Private rental, Strata, Tenancy

Person holding French Bulldog and plant sitting on couch in apartment.

By Ebony Stansfield, UNSW Newsroom. Originally published by UNSW Newsroom.

NSW pet tenancy laws do not reflect the needs of society, with strata by-laws impacting the vulnerable, say UNSW experts.

As COVID-19 restricted them to working from home, Alexandra Foster and her partner decided it would be perfect to foster an animal.

This is when they met Pepper, their second foster puppy – a Staffordshire cross – who they ended up adopting.

“Being under COVID restrictions and not being able to see friends and family was difficult but having Pepper made dealing with the hard aspects of the lockdown a lot easier,” Ms Foster says.

During the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, with unemployment rising and forced social isolation, many found solace in the company of an animal.

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world and a report by Animal Medicines Australia from 2019 states three-in-five households have a pet.

The latest housing occupancy figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from July 2017 to June 2018, state renters make up 32 per cent of Australian households. But rental rules do not always favour companion animals and many people have to choose between their home or a pet.

Most tenancy agreements include a clause prohibiting tenants from keeping pets without the permission of the landlord. And many landlords and agents refuse permission out of hand. The law governing tenancy agreements, the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, does not require this clause – but nor does it rule the clause out.

Home is where people should have autonomy – where they decide how to live their lives, who they live with and what they live with, says Dr Chris Martin from UNSW City Futures Research Centre.

“The ability of tenants to have some autonomy around keeping a companion animal is part of that,” Dr Martin says.

Reform around pet ownership would mean our rental housing market is more respectful of autonomy as responsible adults, he adds.

“Responsible adults shouldn’t have to ask another adult if you can keep a cat or a dog.”

Dr Martin says restrictions around pets have always an additional item in leases that has been left up to landlords. Whereas other terms of the tenancy agreements, such as landlords being required to conduct repairs and providing premises which are in a reasonable state of repair, are dealt with by legislation.

“That’s been set as a matter of protecting tenants as vulnerable consumers … the pet term hasn’t been addressed that way,” Dr Martin says.

“So often that’s just declined without the landlord even giving it any thought … without the agent even going to the landlord about it,” he continues.

“It’s sort of a cheap-and-nasty risk avoidance.”

Staffordshire cross Pepper lying in the grass at the park

Pepper, Alexandra Foster’s Staffordshire cross puppy.

Dr Martin says the issue of pets has risen in agenda reforms.

Both ACT and Victorian jurisdictions have changed their laws to be more accommodating of tenants who want to have a pet.

“That sort of reform is something that NSW could adopt.”

But Dr Martin says one step further could be leaving it up to the tenants to decide whether they could keep a pet and comply with other obligations they have under the tenancy agreement.

“A tenant already has an obligation not to cause a nuisance. A tenant already has an obligation not to damage the property.”

How do strata schemes fit into this debate?

“If you are renting a building you are bound by the strata by-laws, they’re actually an implied term in your lease,” says Associate Professor Cathy Sherry from UNSW Law.

A/Prof. Sherry says that when a landlord bans a pet, at least it’s inside a property they own, but when a strata scheme bans a pet its members are banning pets inside properties they do not own.

A/Prof. Sherry says the level of dispute that exists around pets is just “extraordinary” when issues should only be raised about problem pets.

The commencement of the Strata Schemes Management Act 2015 in November 2016 changed the model by-laws on pet ownership in strata buildings, but there is no obligation to use the model by-laws.

Section 139(1) says a by-law must not be “harsh, unconscionable or oppressive”, which some people have used to challenge blanket pet bans – although last month, the Civil and Administrative Tribunal decided strata by-laws could prohibit pets, in the case of Strata Plan No 58068 v Cooper.

The tribunal ordered the owners of a miniature Schnauzer dog called ‘Angus’ from their lot in strata scheme 58058 within 28 days.

Assistance animals in strata schemes

“There is a dreadful circumstance in relation to assistance animals and strata schemes that wouldn’t exist if you couldn’t ban pets,” says A/Prof Sherry.

Under section 9 of the Disability Discrimination Act, she says, an assistance animal does not have to be professionally trained, and it does not need papers to state it’s professionally trained.

However, under the Act strata schemes can require people to prove that an animal is an assistance animal.

“That means your neighbours asking for highly confidential private medical information and then making a completely uninformed lay judgment about whether you should be able to keep your assistance.”

NSW housing strategy: challenges to be faced, objectives to be owned

Posted by on July 24th, 2020 · Uncategorized

The NSW Government plans to publish a comprehensive housing strategy. This is the Executive Summary of the full CFRC submission to the strategy’s formulation.

Three components are fundamental to any strategy: the setting of goals, the identification of actions to achieve those goals, and a plan for the mobilisation of resources to implement the specified actions. In this submission we summarise:

  • The housing challenges we believe the 2020 Strategy should address
  • The primary policy objectives the Strategy should adopt, and
  • The powers and policy levers the Government could wield in pursuit of such objectives.

Strategy challenges

Challenge 1: Expanding housing stock to meet future needs

In expanding housing stock to meet future needs, the 2020 Strategy needs to recognise and address the changing size and profile of the state’s population. In doing so, it will need to set out population and household projections more fully than in the Discussion Paper. In the light of the COVID-19 impact on international migration, this analysis will need to incorporate scenarios that allow for the possibility that future flows will be lower than previously forecast.

Beyond this, the strategy should also contemplate the possibility that future population growth might be partially accommodated by making more effective use of currently under-utilised housing stock. With these points in mind the Strategy should extend beyond the Discussion Paper in making a reasoned case for the scale of additions to the dwelling stock considered essential in gross numerical terms.

Similarly, by comparison with the Discussion Paper, the Strategy will need to lay greater emphasis on the housing provision implications of population ageing, recognising that older Australians are a cohort whose growth rate is over three times that for either children or young people. The Strategy must also take a view about the expected geography of future dwelling growth in terms of housing need and requirements across the state, underpinned by an analysis of the spatial structure and dynamics of the housing market as well as recent changes in the geography of employment and projections for the strategy period.

In advocating measures to shape new housebuilding, the Strategy will also need to address concerns arising from ongoing contraction of home ownership and to factor in changing consumer preferences related to housing.

Challenge 2: Addressing existing housing needs

The Discussion Paper appropriately acknowledges that rental stress, homelessness and the undersupply of affordable housing pose critical challenges for government. The Strategy itself will need to spell out the associated implications for the planning and funding of future housing provision much more cogently and specifically. The Paper’s silence on the extent of the state-wide shortfall in social and affordable rental housing is a fundamental weakness. In gauging the necessary scale of required action to address this issue, the Strategy will need to quantify recent social/affordable housing construction, and to project likely completions that can be expected in coming years – e.g. anticipated output from the Communities Plus program.  This must, of necessity, include strategies and polices to address the affordability shortfall among lower income households, measures that extend beyond current housing policy and planning frameworks.  

From the housing portfolio management perspective, the Discussion Paper devotes remarkably little attention to the state’s existing social housing sector and – in particular – the undoubted challenge this presents in terms of managing and maintaining (let alone expanding) an ageing body of stock. As a major ongoing renovation program, Communities Plus is again relevant here. Considering its importance, the Housing Strategy would be expected to focus substantial attention on the program’s progress and prospects for delivering both replacement and additional social housing – benchmarked against program aspirations as originally stated in 2016. More broadly, the Strategy will need to include a comprehensive analysis of public housing property condition that quantifies the existing works backlog in dollar terms – or, at the very least, commits to a time-specific program to develop such an assessment and to devise associated options for addressing the issue.

In recognition of mounting climate challenges, the Strategy should also explicitly consider the quality and performance of new and existing housing. This should extend beyond recognition of the problems of building defects to consider how buildings can be designed, built and managed to prolong their functional life. It should consider how new housing can deliver longer term utility cost reductions for householders while minimising consumption/ waste and maximising energy efficiencies and energy management, both in their construction and throughout their lifecycle (including through adoption of renewable energy technologies), for example, through a thorough review end extension of BASIX.  These policies also need to be extended to include existing dwellings so that the entire housing stock can be made compliant with modern standards.

Improving housing quality and performance will require explicit consideration of asset management and building maintenance practices. This is especially important in multi-unit (apartment) housing across both the private and social housing stock.

Challenge 3: Inequality and economic productivity

In its ongoing evolution over the past 20-30 years, Australia’s housing system has been increasingly contributing to inequality in living standards as well as in wealth distribution. Moreover, there is growing evidence that aspects of housing market operation are impairing overall long-term economic productivity, most noticeably in the formation of human capital and especially with regards to the perceived benefits of greater agglomeration through increased urban density. This implies a much greater recognition of the need to integrate housing, planning and infrastructure policy than has been achieved to date, to ensure that public investment and intervention in the housing system maximises ‘whole of economy’ productivity gains.  While some policy levers may lie with the Commonwealth Government, the 2020 Strategy should contemplate what actions could be within state government powers to achieve a more holistic approach to future housing development that builds productivity. 

Strategy objectives

Crucial in the 2020 Strategy will be the adoption of high-level objectives that logically flow from the strategic housing challenges as identified and defined. As acknowledged in the Discussion Paper (p5) the Strategy will ‘set an overarching 20-year vision for housing in NSW’. If the elements of this vision are to have any meaning, they will need to be specified in clear and ambitious terms. Although by no means an exhaustive list, this submission proposes five possible objectives that the Strategy could embrace as follows.

Objective 1: The market functions more smoothly and housing stock is used more efficiently

Crucially, this includes the need to minimise the market volatility so strongly embedded within the system as it currently operates. This results in the construction industry wastefully and inefficiently gearing up and winding down in response. It also gives rise to developer business management practices that problematically under-invest in skills and technology development and embody short-term approaches to dwelling design and construction. While new policy are being implemented in NSW to deal with aspects of building quality, governments can further counter these problems by discouraging property and land speculation – e.g. through land tax reforms and/or planning system adjustments, including greater intervention to manage planned precinct outcomes and value-sharing arrangements. Greater market stability would also be served through diversifying the housing supply system to enhance representation of not-for-profit providers and institutional investors.

Objective 2: Housing system impairment of economic productivity and equity is reduced

As advocated above, there is a case for government to include a strategic priority to reshape the housing system to minimise impairment of economic productivity. Again, this is compatible with current political orthodoxy. Since rising spatial inequality is increasingly viewed as antithetical to economic growth, these two issues are logically interconnected. Although, as acknowledged above, the relevant tax policy levers are primarily held by the Commonwealth Government, this should present no bar to a state or territory government advocating for their reform.

Objective 3: A more diverse range of housing forms enhances consumer choice

Australia has seen a growing polarisation between high density development – primarily but not exclusively in designated centres and corridors – and 1-2 storey detached suburban housing on the urban fringe with little change in the proportion of medium density options. Probably as much or more than any other city, Sydney would benefit from increased provision of medium density townhouse or mansion house style development to increase choice in terms of both housing type and location.  Both planning and housing policy adjustments are needed to stimulate medium density development in appropriate locations, especially for affordable housing.  In addition, the Affordable Housing SEPP should be replaced with a suite of tailored policies specifically formulated to address the multiple shortfalls in this well-intentioned, but poorly implemented, policy.

Objective 4: Historically rising levels of housing affordability stress are reversed

This objective flows from the case made above. It could be addressed partly through a greatly expanded program of new social and affordable housing provision. It is accepted that this could probably be actioned only with Commonwealth Government support. The same would be true for other policy adjustments that could assist in addressing this objective: namely property tax reforms and uprating of social security benefits, especially Rent Assistance. At the same time, as discussed below, a state government has significant powers and resources at its disposal that can and should be deployed to this end, such as routinely providing discounted public land for social and affordable housing development to permit much greater supply levels than hitherto generated.

Objective 5: The interests of landlords and tenants are appropriately balanced

Australia’s private rental sector continues to expand. More people are renting their home from a private landlord than at any time in the past 70 years and more of them are remaining in this housing situation for longer than ever before. In law, however, the balance between landlord and tenant interests has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades, a status quo described by highly respected Professor Terry Burke as ‘heavily weighted in favour of landlords and against the interests of tenants’. We believe that the recent statutory review of the NSW Residential Tenancies Act missed a significant opportunity to improve tenants rights, and that it should be revisited as a priority under the Housing Strategy.

Policy levers available

Lever 1: Tax settings

Wielding tax powers held at this level of government it is open to state/territory authorities to follow a reform path widely advocated by economists, whereby property taxes are re-configured to discourage speculation and enhance owner occupier mobility – where such a move would be to their advantage – e.g. in terms of work opportunities or work travel times, or up- or downsizing.

Lever 2: Regulation

State governments enjoy important regulatory powers with a bearing on housing – in particular, land-use planning measures governing development, and legal powers framing relations between landlords and tenants. In relation to planning, it is open to states to use approval procedures to mandate private developer production of social or affordable rental housing. Likewise, regarding the regulation of landlord-tenant relations, state governments have substantial freedom to adjust tenant rights and landlord obligations in line with changing housing systems and public expectations.

Lever 3: Expenditure and other use of resources

Even without committing significant amounts of taxpayer-funded expenditure, a state government like NSW has substantial scope to deploy resources in the interests of housing strategy objectives. Most importantly, as owner of the public housing portfolio it has asset management options that could help fulfil desirable policy objectives. For example, through additional public housing property transfers it could facilitate leveraging of privately funded investment in the social housing stock. Moreover, in relation to surplus land disposals outside of the public housing estate context, it could choose to comply with stakeholder calls to impose on acquiring developers a standard expectation that a minimum 30% of resulting residential development is reserved for social/affordable housing.

Using land ownership powers to enable forms of ‘affordable home ownership’, there could be a commitment to government-seeded initiatives such as Community Land Trusts, shared home ownership schemes, rent-to-buy options and equity cooperatives.

Strategy governance

The NSW housing system is complex and shaped by multiple policy levers, both those that are housing system-specific and by broader economic, fiscal, social and environmental policy settings. This raises crucial questions on how the proposed strategy will be governed and how ‘shared responsibility’ will be realised. In our view this will call for a range of institutional reforms, especially:

  • Raising the seniority of the Ministerial housing portfolio
  • Releasing an annual Housing Budget that identifies all the government’s outlays and their intended outcomes in terms of meeting given goals for supply and affordability of housing  
  • Creating an enduring high-level State Housing Council (or similar)
  • Proactive development of a NSW Government position on future national housing policy.

Healthy built environments: reinforcing the critical role of local planning in times of challenge

Posted by on June 10th, 2020 · Pandemic, Planning, Wellbeing

By Susan Thompson, City Futures Research Centre. This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit: www.planning.org.au/news/new-planner-nsw

2020 had barely begun and Australia was in the midst of the worst bushfire season in living memory. Searing heat across the nation resulted in the tragic loss of human life, livestock, native animals and properties – homes, businesses, farms and bushland. Not only devastating for the directly affected communities and the Australian economy at large, but a wake-up call about the impacts of climate change on our health. And just as the fires were extinguished, another health crisis emerged. 

The Coronavirus has engulfed the globe in an unprecedented challenge to our collective wellbeing, as well as our very way of life. At this time there might be some critics declaring that communicable diseases have caught advocates for healthy built environments unawares and scrambling for relevance. However, the current situation does not diminish in any way our need to pursue healthy built environments – in fact, what we are facing merely reinforces the importance of a health supportive environment for everyone. Indeed, for planners the present focus on human health is a reminder of the very origins of our profession and one of its central pillars – to improve health and wellbeing.

The principles of healthy built environments remain core to our health and wellbeing, as do the ways we create health supportive environments to make it easy to be physically active, socially connected, and to have access to fresh, nutritious foods. These are the most important behaviours that we can undertake each day to keep healthy and well. Not only do these actions reduce the major risk factors for chronic disease (obesity, lack of physical activity and social isolation), they assist in strengthening immunity. A recent post in ‘The Conversation’ highlighted the importance of being active in relation to supporting a resilient immune system.

A Focus on Local Space and Place

In an effort to halt the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, governments across the world have restricted the movement of people around towns, cities and regions, as well as between countries. Most of the population is spending considerable time confined to their local area – including homes and neighbourhoods. The result is that these spaces have never been more important and quite possibly, never better appreciated. This presents an unparalleled opportunity for those of us who plan, deliver and maintain local environments.

Most importantly, community engagement with the immediate and easily accessible neighbourhood reinforces the critical role that planning plays in delivering quality local environments. In NSW, the process of preparing Local Strategic Planning Statements (LSPS) underpins this function. In setting out the purpose of these visionary Statements, the Government’s ‘Guideline for Councils’ emphasises the local realm in relation to land use, identity, character, community values and responsiveness to change.

Ann Forsyth, Professor in Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University, recently reflected on the impact of COVID-19 on urban life and the part that planning needs to play in a pandemic. Much of her discussion focuses on the vital role of local environments in supporting working and studying at home, exercising nearby and shopping in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, this comes with associated challenges, especially for those experiencing economic stress. Job losses will no doubt undermine security of tenure, which in turn poses a raft of threats to both physical and mental health. Secure, well maintained and appropriate housing is fundamental to good health and will be an ongoing challenge as we navigate life post COVID-19.

In an Australian urban context, Dr Sarah Barns, ‘city thinker and media innovator’ talks about the changes in urban rhythm (such as quiet streets, low traffic volumes, reduced commutes) as a result of COVID-19. She asks what might this mean for the future of urban spaces and places? Will planning and design need to shift its approach to urban density? Will the contribution that cities make to the modern economy be unravelled? Urbanist and cultural theorist, Professor Richard Florida thinks not. He acknowledges that cities and density pose vulnerabilities for highly contagious diseases, but they also hold the necessary infrastructure to fight the contagion. Throughout history cities have nurtured cultural innovation and improvements in health. Today, existing spatial and socio-economic inequalities are exacerbated by the pandemic – not as a result – and we should caution against a knee-jerk rejection of the urban.

Reflecting on the implications of the pandemic for planning, Mike Day, director of planning and design firm RobertsDay, notes that ‘the most resilient communities are walkable neighbourhoods’. Mike sums up the future possibilities in a way that reinforces core principles of health supportive built environments: the creation of ‘local, compact, pedestrian-friendly and connected’ places. Moving cars off the roads to give people more space to physically distance as they keep active by walking and cycling is also a critical topic of discussion and advocacy – during and after the pandemic. 

A Focus on Local Social Connection

Local places and spaces are where we socially connect with each other. Feelings of belonging and attachment are central to human health and wellbeing. It is unfortunate that the term ‘social distancing’ has been widely adopted during the COVID-19 outbreak. A more apt descriptor is ‘physical distancing’ – the requirement to keep apart from each other in space. While this is necessary to reduce the risk of passing on the virus, we desperately need to be socially close. This is true for everyone, but especially so for vulnerable groups including older people, single person households, those with disabilities and families with young children. The impact of the pandemic response has unleashed creative ways of socially connecting while physically distancing – driveway dinners and teddy bear hunts! Showing kindness to each other as we share our anxiety in the face of the unknown has never been more important. 

A Focus on Local Environments

The ways in which we can keep healthy and well during the pandemic provides a timely reminder of the critical importance of the environment – not just for humans, but for all life. Nothing has changed here – the crises of 2020 (both the bushfires and COVID-19) have merely reinforced the need for planners to protect the environment and foster social equity.

The provision of green space is one part of the environmental protection picture. Planners fully understand that easy access to quality parks is essential for good mental and physical health. As urban communities have navigated daily restrictions, they have benefited from the presence of swathes of green space that have escaped development. These areas offer much needed respite for everyone, especially apartment dwellers. The NSW Premier’s Priorities afford planners further opportunities to prioritise the provision and enhancement of green open space and the planting of trees. Plentiful green space and extensive tree canopy have never been more important.

A Final Note

While the different challenges facing all of us as we move through 2020 are extensive, they present a raft of positive opportunities for planning. This is especially so for those working at the local level – setting strategic visions and then delivering the resultant physical, social and environmental outcomes. Let’s use the renewed interest in local environments and culture to engage communities in the planning of their neighbourhoods in new and creative ways – now and into the post COVID-19 future. 

Why the COVID Commission must back social housing stimulus

Posted by on June 3rd, 2020 · Affordable housing, Climate change, Construction, Economy, Government, Housing supply, Infrastructure, Pandemic, Social housing, Sustainability

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre.

The Prime Minister’s COVID Commission is supposed to be advising government on how to ‘facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods’ after the pandemic. Yet it’s main focus appears to be the promotion of a fossil-fuelled medium-term industrial strategy tailored to mining interests. Advocacy for a social housing stimulus investment program would be a far more suitable way for the Commission to fulfil its proper purpose.

The recently announced not-for-profit working group under the National COVID Co-ordination Commission could signal a belated government recognition that the NCCC has been attracting far too much critical attention as an unaccountable, dirty industry booster squad. But whether the new NFP delegates will be able to steer the Commission back towards what many would see as its proper role remains in question.

Established by Scott Morrison back in March under mining executive, Nev Power, the Commission has emerged as a rather shadowy, yet at the same time highly influential creature of the crisis. Its official role, finally clarified under terms of reference published last month, is to advise government on ‘actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic’. Beyond this, its job is to ‘facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods’.

As Ebony Bennett writes in the Canberra Times, there’s currently a dearth of evidence that the NCCC is meeting either of these objectives. For starters, it might be expected that the Commission would be prioritising rapid-impact measures that could help cushion the economy from the deep recession already unfolding. While recorded unemployment only edged up to 6.2% in April, Australia’s true level of joblessness is estimated as close on double this figure – an ugly reality that will be starkly revealed as Jobkeeper protection is wound back.

Yet, from what little is known of its deliberations, the Commission’s main focus of interest is effectively a medium-term economic development strategy that privileges fossil-fuel powered manufacturing. As many have noted with concern, this may be of little surprise considering the mining and gas-industry backgrounds of key NCCC members. But quite apart from its inconsistency with Australia’s Paris Climate Agreement obligations, this priority hardly seems to square with the current need for emergency action to create jobs with both social and economic payoff.

On that score, the Treasurer is surely more on message in his recent acknowledgement of housing construction and tourism as sectors especially in need of urgent support. After all, construction – a large economic sector employing 9% of all workers – has already contracted by twice the rate of the economy as a whole. And, as Frydenberg also admits, heavy job losses in housebuilding are in prospect from mid-year as current projects complete, with little in the way of new orders following on to soak up industry capacity.

Comments like these seem more consistent with the understanding that stepped-up public infrastructure investment will form a key part of the Commonwealth’s crisis recovery strategy. As to what might constitute ‘infrastructure’ in this context, we should hope that Frydenberg’s prioritisation of housing will prevail over the limited vision of ‘more roads fixed and bridges built’ as voiced by the Prime Minister.

Rather than the gas pipeline network that seems the nearest the NCCC gets to advocacy for urgent infrastructure, a social housing focus within a broader recovery program would make sense for many reasons. As recently argued in P&I, targeting stimulus in this way would combine economic value-add through rapid job creation with longer term social and economic benefits, through reducing inequality, countering climate change, and meeting community needs.

A coalition of welfare and housing industry groups is advocating for SHARP (social housing acceleration and renovation program), a 3-year push to construct 30,000 social rental units across the country. That would begin to redress the 25 years of disinvestment which have seen Australia’s provision of public and community housing dwindle to under 5% of the national stock. New modelling suggests that, at a public cost of $7.2 billion, SHARP would support 21,000-24,500 FTE jobs at its peak in 2021-22, when the economy is likely to be at its weakest. As noted in the modelling report ‘this …would represent up to 30,000 workers whose jobs would be saved by the SHARP stimulus’.

Re-starting social housing investment can be easily justified as a social priority in a country where homelessness rose by 30% in the decade to 2016, and where the private market has proved increasingly unable to generate affordable rentals. Since 2001, the national deficit of private tenancies affordable to low income earners has quadrupled to over 200,000. As a result, even before the current crisis more and more private tenants had been doing it tough: eking out an existence where keeping up with the rent comes at the expense of basic essentials like food and clothing. As noted by the Productivity Commission, by 2019, this was the situation for more than half of all low income tenants – substantially a result of growing social housing scarcity.

But the arguments for governments to re-engage more actively with housing are not only social, but also economic. For one thing, there is demonstrable evidence that investing in social housing to combat street homelessness is justifiable in simple ‘cost to government’ terms. The typical annual impost on health, justice and other budgets linked to a chronic rough sleeper exceeds the unit cost of providing that same person with supportive social housing.

More broadly, there’s growing recognition of an economic productivity case for social and affordable housing investment. By expanding public and community housing, this could help reverse the expanding number of families forced to rely on insecure private rental housing where resulting frequent moves typically damage children’s educational performance. Moreover, restricted consumption of other goods and services due to excessive housing cost burdens is economically damaging.

Given the Treasurer’s hints that housing construction may be a focus of a recovery stimulus package, it’s important that these social and economic arguments are weighed in the balance against the political lure of claims for a home ownership-targeted scheme. Development industry voices call for a mass new home purchase incentive program offering $50,000 grants to induce otherwise reluctant home buyers into the market.

It’s debatable how far such programs really enable additional home sales (rather than, for example, accelerating already-planned acquisitions, or enabling an intending purchaser to buy a larger property). On a point of principle, any assistance of this kind should target first home buyers on low to moderate incomes. Better still, it should be offered as a public equity share in the purchased property, rather than being a free ‘no strings attached’ gift.

Perhaps, as under the Rudd Government’s post-GFC stimulus, a home buyer subsidy program could run forward in parallel with the SHARP. However, as a stratagem to stimulate housing demand, a homebuyer grants scheme is predicated on potential purchasers having enough confidence to step forward in response. Most will still need to take on a big mortgage. With many forecasts warning of hefty house price reductionsover the next two years, there must be some doubt that possible takers will necessarily leap forward en masse. By contrast, referring back to the smooth delivery of its pre-cursor program in 2009-11, the SHARP model is a bankable immediate jobs-booster.

Whether continuing to focus attention towards medium-term economic productivity objectives, or re-engaging with its duty to advise on the ‘fastest possible economic recovery of lives and livelihoods’, the NCCC needs to recognise the priority that should be attached to government housing investment. Indeed, in line with its mandates it should be championing this.

Homelessness policy: summary of CFRC submission to Senate Inquiry

Posted by on June 1st, 2020 · Government, Social housing

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre

In Australia and in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted extraordinary housing policy innovation and emergency spending. Since March an estimated 5,000 people have been rescued into temporary shelter across Australia. Alongside this, panicked by the vision of abrupt mass unemployment triggering a national rent arrears crisis, state governments across the country have rapidly enacted evictions moratoria.

In the City Futures Research Centre submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into Homelessness, we reflect on the dramatic policy developments of recent weeks and on the way that the COVID crisis has exposed the seriousness of problems ordinarily given little priority by governments in this country. We also discuss the ways that homelessness is measured and managed in Australia, as well as the need for far-reaching reform to address it in any serious way.

Efforts to tackle the problem

Even in the immediate run-up to the COVID crisis, it’s fair to acknowledge that some states were already embarked on stepped-up action to reduce street homelessness. New South Wales pledged in 2019 to halve rough sleeping by 2025 and formally signed up to the Institute for Global Homelessness model as a means to do so. The Government of South Australia is also on board as one of the IGH Vanguard Cities homelessness reduction group. These are no substitute for the abandoned national commitment to halve homelessness, more broadly, in little more than a decade as pledged by the Rudd Government in 2008. But even more narrowly-defined ambitions espoused by individual states indicate new and welcome policy prioritisation.

The past few years have also seen growing Australian interest in new street homelessness management concepts including Housing First. But the intensifying shortage of affordable rental housing seriously compromises the potential efficacy of this approach. A recent paper reviewing Australian HF projects concluded that: ‘…in all the programmes examined, the aim of providing immediate housing was undermined by lack of quick access to affordable housing, with some unable to access even temporary accommodation’.

The immediate rehousing challenge

Now in early June 2020, we have a situation where there are thousands of people temporarily rescued from street sleeping and homelessness shelters, safely housed in hotels and motels for the time being, but with no clear exit strategy for the point when funding runs dry. Although no overarching commitments have been made, it is very hard to envisage governments overseeing a mass return to the streets.

It might be expected that social housing could take the strain of providing move-on housing, but this is a sector that has shrunk from 6% to a meagre 4% of all occupied dwellings over the past 25 years. More importantly, relative to population, the number of properties let by public housing agencies and not-for-profit community housing providers has halved over this time.

In most jurisdictions the sector therefore lacks the capacity to offer long-term housing to all the rough sleepers and others currently in hotels – assuming that such a rehousing program will need to be enacted within a short timeframe. And although there is a growing clamour for a major social housing investment stimulus program to kickstart economic recovery, the Federal Government has not yet indicated any support for such a plan. Even if approved, such an initiative would offer no quick solution to a near-immediate hotel move-on housing challenge. Some are arguing for this to be addressed through a rapid spot-acquisition program, but a large-scale head-leasing of privately owned properties seems a more realistic option.

New risks ahead

Until now, there also seems to have been little recognition that we may well face a new wave of homelessness in coming months as severe economic recession pushes tens of thousands of vulnerable renters – and even home owners – into housing crisis.

Even now, while the Jobkeeper program remains in place, and jobless people are receiving temporarily boosted dole payments, these programs exclude millions of non-permanent citizens and casual workers. Many among these excluded groups are surely even now being pushed towards a hazardous housing position by sudden loss of income in shut-down sectors like hospitality and tourism. When, later this year, crisis income support measures are ended, and with them, short term evictions moratoriums, there must be a huge risk that a fresh homelessness spike will present Australian governments with a new policy challenge.

The hope must be that the pandemic housing crisis acts as a wake-up call for governments that have until now resolutely resisted the case that rising homelessness is a symptom of much more fundamental flaws in the operation of our housing system. This needs to include a recognition that a more pro-active role for government in that system is essential not just as an emergency response, but as a long-term commitment.

The City Futures submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into Homelessness is available here: https://cityfutures.be.unsw.edu.au/documents/609/Homelessness_Inquiry_submission_v2.pdf