This week the Victorian Government unveiled a “big housing build” plan set to “transform the social housing system”, finally heeding calls from the housing sector to address the sharp rise in cost of living pressures and energy affordability.
On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced his government would spend $5.3 billion to build more than 12,000 public housing homes over the next four years. Many say it is not enough, but a start.
Construction is earmarked to start immediately in what Mr Andrews has described as Victoria’s largest investment in social and affordable housing.
The package, to be included in the state’s 2020/21 budget released on November 24, will deliver 9300 new social housing homes, an increase of 10 per cent to the total social housing supply, and will replace 1100 old public housing units.
Most notably, the new homes will meet seven-star energy efficiency standards.
“This appears and feels like the kind of commitment the community housing sector has been calling for,” Jack Panton, Launch Housing’s general manager of housing supply, said.
With the economy in need of a jobs-intensive stimulus spend, and Victoria’s affordable housing supply not keeping pace with housing growth, Mr Panton said the case for building social housing is stronger than ever.
But it is the commitment to improving the sustainability of the homes, long ignored by state and federal governments, which is paving the way for much needed systemic change.
“Better environmentally sustainable design features make a big difference to community housing providers and clients,” Mr Panton said.
“It not only improves the built environment and makes life a lot more comfortable for people, less hot in summer, warmer in winter, but it also reduces utility costs and frees up funds for other uses.”
Independent Melbourne based community organisation, Launch Housing, operates on a typical rental model whereby clients pay up to 30 per cent of their household income on rent plus utilities. The tab for communal areas is generally picked up by the provider.
In response to sharp rises in energy prices in recent years, households across Australia have reduced their energy consumption by investing in energy efficient appliances, home upgrades, and installing rooftop solar panels. However, persistent barriers have prevented people on low incomes from making the same investments.
“For our clients, this will mean more money for health care, food, and general living,” Mr Panton said.
As for the community housing sector, sustainable design features equates to freed up funds to spend on services aimed at helping Australia’s most vulnerable population.
New direction for social housing
A report by Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute released this week revealed almost 40 per cent of Australian tenant households can’t afford essentials such as bills, clothing, transport and food after paying rent as their incomes shrunk due to COVID-19.
These struggles existed before the pandemic, however, and according to Kate Colvin, spokesperson for national housing and homelessness campaign Everybody’s Home, Covid highlights how Australia’s housing system is failing, young people in particular.
But Mr Panton says a shift in understanding the benefits of sustainable social housing projects is emerging at the state level, while the federal government needs to play catch-up.
“We have a project earmarked for the North [Melbourne suburbs] where we are building a five-level timber social housing project, which means much lower embodied carbon,” Mr Panton said.
Launch Housing is also at the construction phase of a Family Supportive Housing project in Dandenong, 29 km south-east from the Melbourne CBD, exclusively for women and children.
Modelled off a project in Manhattan, New York’s historic Sugar Hill district of Harlem, initiated by a non-profit developer of supportive housing, Broadway Housing Communities, the new build will have a 7.5 NatHERS rating, rainwater tanks, solar panels, and naturally lit and ventilated corridors.
“There is definitely an understanding at the state government level that improving the sustainability design is important in reducing running costs and makes a significant difference for the people living in the homes,” Mr Panton said.
Over 80,000 people are in need of a home in Victoria
At the federal level, Mr Panton said the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), legislated in 2018, has been “great”.
“But it would be even better to see the Federal government move into the space of equity – while cheap debt is great, social housing can’t be delivered without subsidy,” he said.
During his announcement on Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrew said the unprecedented investment will “change lives”.
“It’s a profound investment in a stronger, fairer Victoria – a Victoria that recognises everyone deserves a place to call home,” he said.
The project is estimated to create 43,000 jobs, but in a state with growing waiting lists and what had been the lowest public housing spend in the country, much more is needed.
“Over 80,000 people are in need of a home,” Mr Panton said.
“To catch up we would need to build over 4000 units every year for 15 years to reach the national average of 4.1 per cent – that is just to catch up.
“Ultimately, bipartisanship and policy bridging both sides of government is the only way to address the undersupply.”