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Tightening the divide between populism and public housing

The aftermath of the latest federal election result has evidently revealed one thing about our society, being the worldwide trend toward “populism” and its drifting distance away from progressive ideals and policy. (For example, see Brexit, the 2016 American Presidential election, and recent French and German elections.)

Prior to the election, there was potential for the expansion of 250,000 affordable properties that would have radically reshaped our housing landscape.

Boards, peak bodies and housing policy wonks are now rapidly convening, planning and adjusting to a future without any real significant increase in funding for affordable housing, and an election where a call for action on housing policy did not resonate with voters.

As practitioners, it’s hard not to be somewhat despondent about our society’s concern, or lack thereof, for the need for more affordable housing.

We see every day how urgent and critical new affordable housing supply is.

The latest research has shown that there is a shortage of 433,000 social housing properties in Australia.

The need for more investment to get people into stable housing is overwhelmingly obvious – and yet the voting public does not seem to demonstrate much concern.

The ABC’s 2019 Vote Compass revealed that only 5 per cent of voters considered “Housing and the Cost of Living” as their most important issue – behind “Government Accountability”.

You might think that there would be a significant divide between both sides of the political spectrum.

Interestingly, the difference between Labor and LNP-aligned voters was only 1 per cent – and both groups considered it their ninth most important issue.

A nationwide issue on a personal level

The challenge for the sector is twofold: one, we need to educate and raise support for more affordable housing amongst all Australians; and two, we need to work with the current government, cross benchers and their supporters to enact quality policy to fix an issue which so many Australian families have had to endure for so long.

If we truly believe that the need for affordable housing is at a critical point, we cannot stand aside and wait for more action.

We must work collaboratively and collectively with those who don’t currently agree with us, either on the importance of the issue or the approach on how to fix it.

One solution is to try and change value hierarchies at the individual level – to encourage people to care more about the issues we care about, over what they care about.

This approach is about a complete value shift, which is difficult, and perhaps wrongheaded, especially in the short term.

After all, it is not wrong to care more about jobs than the environment.

It is not wrong to care more about lower taxes than affordable housing.

It is not wrong to value innovation and flexibility over regulation.

It might not be right, either, but from a practical perspective these are values, not facts.

These are values embedded in decades of formative influence and input and reinforced by our ability to associate ourselves with groups of people who think just like us – bonds that are hard to break.

An alternative approach is to step back and recognise that differing values and opinions are just as true and important.

Perhaps the only solution is to try and find common ground which can form the foundation for action.

This approach, if practiced earnestly and honestly, is about reaching across the left-right divide to uncover mutual understandings that bind us all.

Some might like VB and others might drink craft beer, but we all like talking and connecting with our friends.

Some might prefer a big backyard and others might worry about urban sprawl, but we all care about good quality spaces and safe places for our children to play.

There may be challenging value clashes in some areas (perhaps fundamentally, in where we place the blame on why people are in social housing in the first place), but there is much fertile ground where we can agree on a path forward.

The alternative is stagnation.

On change a countrys values

The top five election talking points for the current government were: jobs, debt reduction, tax relief, investment in schools, hospitals and roads; and border security.

According to the ABC Vote Compass, the top five issues for all Australians were: the environment, the economy, healthcare, superannuation and pensions, and employment.

With this in mind, some suggestions for how we might look for paths forward could involve:

  • Affordable housing as a means of job creation, as demonstrated by the Queensland Government’s Housing Construction Jobs Plan: building homes generates tax revenue, economic activity, and creates jobs for Australians. Housing is infrastructure.
  • High density housing reducing environmental impact: new homes are more efficient than older ones – reducing energy usage, power bills and urban sprawl. A challenge here is “NIMBYism”.
  • Job training: many providers have programs to connect their residents to employment – a goal of all parties. This creates not only income for tenants, but a connection to the community.
  • Home ownership program: both parties at the election agreed on the need to make homeownership easier – if targeted at affordable housing clients, it frees up homes for those languishing on the waiting list.
  • Mixed-tenure projects: projects that include sales and market housing encourage home ownership, reduce concentrations of disadvantage and allow co-investment rather than relying on government funding.
  • Reduced rates for community housing organisations: lower taxes should apply to community housing organisations too!
  • Shared investment schemes: stimulating the investment market through a subsidy scheme invites co-investment from the private sector (see the Social and Affordable Housing Fund in NSW).
  • Affordable housing and community development to reduce crime: providing affordable housing, especially when combined with community development activities, reduces crime and helps communities feel safe.
  • Accommodation for people with a disability: while the SDA will only help a small portion of those in need of accessible accommodation, the additional SDA payment makes the model attractive to investors and developers who can partner with the community housing sector.
  • Management transfers: reducing the cost of government services helps bring down taxes and improves services to clients. Community housing organisations employ more staff per property than in public housing; and can be innovative in ways that public housing bodies cannot.

A shared interest in the future

Many of these arguments are not new and are already underway.

It is likely that only some of these approaches will eventually bear fruit – but regardless, it is worth remembering that we all have a shared interest in the future.

We should consider others’ values when we seek to promote the need for affordable housing.

Crucially, any calls for action need to be grounded in good faith, respect and truth.

Jamie Muchall is the state manager of Horizon Housing Company (part of Community Housing Ltd. Group).

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Comments

5 Responses to “Tightening the divide between populism and public housing”

  • Gary Little says:

    Prosper Australia reports annually on the number of homes left vacant: https://www.prosper.org.au/2019/03/speculative-vacancies-9-report-launch/
    So another option for a “path forward” is to tap into this wasted resource (e.g. greater “incentives” to make vacant properties available for Community Housing).

  • Daniel Robertson says:

    “Management transfers: reducing the cost of government services helps bring down taxes…

    Yes, potentially, but, as you point out ” Community housing organisations employ more staff per property than in public housing..” So shifting housing management services to CHPs results in higher costs per tenancy, eroding the capital that can be retained for increased inventory, more housing.

    The CHP industry average,( in http://communityhousing.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/StateoftheIndustry-web.pdf ) is 33.7 properties managed per Full Time Staff Equivalent.

    Horizon ( from when it was still just Horizon, 16/17 annual report and Charities Commission report ) apparently punched well above that average management overhead weight with 2,407 homes provided for 38 FTEs, an average of 63 properties per FTE. Well done Jamie et al.

    But: I know of one CHP which reports 15 FTE for only 146 tenancies, and they are all in the one building. So there’s a wide variation in the alleged value proposition of privatising public housing to the CHP industry.

    While it’s obviously true that “Management transfers…to CHPs…can be innovative … help improve services to clients”, it does not necessarily follow from the increased costs. That will depend on the qualities the CEOs and boards bring to the enterprise, for better or for worse. The pseudo-corporate model has neither the probity, governance and value assurance processes of being a government service, nor the shareholder accountability discipline of the corporate model proper.

    The NRSCH regulator, the last and only line of consumer service defense, doesn’t seem to have “Assuring value for the client rental, and government subsidy, dollar” as part of its mission: quite the opposite, it’s more concerned with making sure the companies stay afloat.

    The protections for the industry players business models are quite astounding: the CRA 50% subsidy on housing stress level rents, and the 2.9% PA 10 year, govt guaranteed, NHFIC money. Here in Qld the latest scheme “Partnering for Growth” is allowing industry players to borrow against assets they don’t own, effectively the State going guarantor for businesses that burn cash and don’t deliver to the state any ROI against the assets they base their businesses on. Money for Jam, Magic Pudding, Gravy Train, much?

    Minister Howarth on Sky News last week observed “We give 1.6 billion a year to States for community housing … we don’t know how that is being spent”.

    More to the point: what are we getting for that spend?

  • Jon Eastgate says:

    Great article Jamie! It’s worth adding that housing homeless people improves their health and reduces the demand on public health services, including overstretched emergency departments.

  • Affordable ACCESSIBLE housing as well please. It isn’t ugly “disability” housing – it is universal. I’m not talking specialist disability housing (SDA). I’m talking about good design suitable for all homes. See Livable Housing Design Guidelines. Property Industry said that by 2020 they would have all new homes to their Guidelines. No sign of that happening without regulation. BTW SDA housing doesn’t have to be ugly with grab bars everywhere, which is the key stigmatising feature apparently. And no, it doesn’t cost more $$ just a bit more thought at the early design stage.

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