The social housing bandaid

A prominent architect, Tone Wheeler, advocates more social housing below. It's a pity he is not an economist or a sociologist, in which case he would not have such tunnel vision. What he overlooks is that social housing is mainly a bandaid placed on a sore that governments at all levels have created.

Even poor people have some money, even if only from Centerlink, and many Centerlink clients are satisfactorily housed on that income, even if it's only by living a frugal life and living in boarding houses. So how come there is any need for "social" (charity) housing?

In part it is because some people are feckless at managing their money and the taxpayer is expected to rescue them from their folly. But more often it's because commercially available housing is just so expensive and therefore very difficult to for a family to afford. And that comes down to one thing: supply.

In a market economy there would be much more housing available -- with its attendant lower prices. They are high now because of the restrictions that all levels of government place on new housing. There have always been NIMBYs pushing local government to prevent the release of land for new housing and now we have very expensive new requirements that new builds be "green" in various ways. And it goes on.

So an intelligent advocate of more housing would be attacking the restrictions on building it rather than the old, old and quite insatiable cry of begging for more government handouts

The Commonwealth lost interest in public housing, which fell to 5 per cent of all dwellings in the late 1990s.

After the millennium, privatisation of public housing took off. Existing low-scale projects were sold for redevelopment at higher densities. In return, developers were compelled to set aside a percentage of new dwellings, about 15 per cent, for social and affordable housing. Public housing was rebadged, run by community housing providers, not governments.

The Berejiklian government took to it with alacrity, selling off the public housing at Millers Point, together with the 1980s purpose-built Sirius apartments. Social housing numbers often failed to increase, or even match, the public housing that had been lost, which falls to just 4 per cent of the dwelling stock now.

Today’s rising property values, falling home ownership and greater wage disparity sees 10 per cent of all households seeking social and affordable housing. That’s more than three times the social dwellings currently available. State Labor governments all have plans with various levels of ambition, but most are starved of funds, and want a better-funded CSHA, intensifying the current housing policy debate.

Federal Labor has responded with the Housing Australia Future Fund, where dividends will pay for 30,000 new social dwellings over five years. The need, according to the Greens and many housing demographers, is more like 50,000 each year for 20 years, a tall order when we build less than 100,000 per year now.

The federal government is crying poor: with a very low tax/GDP ratio it lacks income to address the accumulated debt and demands for the NDIS, defence and submarines.

Anthony Albanese tells the story of his upbringing with a single mum on welfare in public housing, but in denying funding for those social programs for current battlers it seems social housing is not a priority for the federal Labor Party. Instead, it invents a defective magic pudding, and puts an inexperienced minister – Julie Collins – in charge of it.

More than 120 years of governments advocating for middle-class home ownership, rather than public housing, has finally caught up with us. A bold vision, supported by funding, is needed, or we’ll have yet another public housing policy failure, this one of epic proportions.


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