Grievance Debate- Housing Affordability

23 Aug 2017

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I rise to join this grievance debate and grieve for all those Victorians who are experiencing issues with housing, whether it is people experiencing homelessness, sleeping on the streets or in unsafe or insecure accommodation. As I always point out, those people who are experiencing homelessness and living on the streets are just the tip of the iceberg. There are always so many more people who are in insecure housing or insecure accommodation that may not be safe. There has been an increase in visible homelessness, but I would just point out how incredibly disappointed I am in having to speak about homelessness. It is a serious issue, and when I raise this at public forums across my electorate everyone across the board understands the issue.

I also grieve for those people across the housing spectrum who are struggling with housing affordability. We know that people who are in rental accommodation do not have the rights that they should have. They face high and increasing rents, which is making it harder for them to live where they want to live. People are locked out of home ownership in what is essentially a rigged housing system. I know the term ‘rigged system’ has entered the political lexicon of late and is used across the board, but when you look at the housing system you reach the inescapable conclusion that it really is a rigged system that favours people who are buying their second, third or fourth home over those who are just trying to enter the housing market.

I want to start off my remarks around housing affordability by lending my support to the federal tax changes that are being proposed by the federal Greens — that is, ending negative gearing and ending the capital gains tax discount on investment properties. The Greens was the first party that was courageous enough to propose these changes, and I am really glad to see that there are some other parties adopting this policy too. Our proposal, which is to phase out negative gearing and close off the scheme to new entrants and phase out the capital gains tax breaks, will tip the scale much more in favour of first home buyers rather than investors while actually improving the budget bottom line. It is just diabolical that federal tax receipts still have not reached the level they were at before the global financial crisis and that we would be spending billions of dollars in tax breaks for investors at a time when people are being locked out of home ownership.

The other tax change that I think needs to be seriously considered is replacing stamp duty with land tax. All the experts are saying they agree with this change. It is actually seen as very good policy, but it is a politically tough one to implement, and one that will again drive access to the housing market, improve the budget bottom line and improve state budgets. The federal Greens proposal calls for a bridging finance scheme to allow the federal government to assist state governments so that this can happen and to also make sure that any transitional arrangements ensure the scheme only applies to new property sales and not those on which stamp duty has already been paid.

The ACT government, which is a Labor-Greens government, to give them credit, are actually five years into a 20-year plan to phase out stamp duty and replace it with land tax. I think it is really time now for Victoria to seriously consider this proposal and for Victoria to get behind and really advocate for these changes at a federal level in terms of ending negative gearing. We have seen the government enter the debate on a number of federal tax issues, and it would be really good to see them get behind these changes, advocate at a federal level and stand up for people who are wanting to buy their first home.

I can talk from personal experience. I am not going to go into a ‘woe is me’ story, because MPs are very well looked after and I have been fortunate enough to buy my first home, but some of the challenges I faced may be emblematic and may be consistent with those faced by people who are trying to buy their first home. I was looking for an apartment to raise my family in. I am a big believer in people being able to raise families in good, high-quality apartments, but in looking for an apartment in which to raise my family, essentially I had to rule out anything that has been built in the last two or three decades, because the new apartments that are being built in the high towers are simply not being made for families. And when you do go to an auction it is pretty easy to tell that the apartments that are coming onto the market are really designed for people to buy today and put on the rental market tomorrow. They are designed for investors. We need to change what is fairly called a ‘rigged system’ to favour new home owners.

The other issue I want to touch on is renters rights. About 60 per cent of people living in the Prahran electorate are renters. As part of the parliamentary intern program, I had an intern, Ms Harriet Murphy, do a research report into stress in the Prahran electorate. A survey was conducted, and it found a range of issues that people experience with their rental properties, whether it is affordability issues, concerns about lease security or the apartments not being of an acceptable standard. A number of improvements were suggested, and they centred around protecting tenants by introducing minimum standards, removing eviction without grounds, looking at rent regulations and minimum lease durations and looking at establishing a residential tenancy ombudsman.

As part of the research we conducted a survey, and people told us stories about their experience of renting a property. People were concerned, always worrying that their lease would not be renewed. For example, one person said:

My landlord … declined my proposal to re-sign a 12-month lease and prefers month to month, this makes me feel a little uncertain about my situation should they decide to sell or occupy.

Renting with a pet is an issue that goes very much unnoticed. One person stated that:

Renting with a pet is almost impossible. We had to give my husband’s beloved cat to other family members because we couldn’t find a property that would allow us to rent with a cat.

Being able to have a pet in a house might seem like a small thing, but pets are obviously members of the family, and if you have a whole bunch of properties on the rental market that do not allow pets, it really does exclude a whole bunch of properties.

Another issue is no-grounds eviction. This is an element in the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 that does need to be changed. In fact in a previous Parliament the Greens moved a private members bill to get rid of this provision because landlords could potentially use this no-grounds eviction provision rather than a grounds-based eviction to sidestep some grounds-based eviction processes and evict people for reasons that they should not be evicted. So this really is something that needs to be looked at. The government is conducting a review into the Residential Tenancies Act, and today we saw the second reading of legislation to provide for longer term leases, but there is so much more that could be done to improve the rights and the lot of renters.

I want to also touch on homelessness because that is a very serious and growing issue. I really want to express my disappointment with the City of Melbourne and their approach to homelessness, by introducing new by-laws to make it easier for homeless people to be moved on and for their property and bedding to be confiscated. These laws were opposed by the Greens on the Melbourne City Council because it will simply result in more people being homeless in other areas; it is just going to shift people out of the City of Melbourne.

I know there were a lot of complaints about homeless people gathering around Flinders Street station and there was some terrible reporting by the Herald Sun on that matter. Look, homeless people will gather in numbers for a sense of security, for a sense of community and also to bring attention to their cause. We know that in response to people gathering at Flinders Street station the governments did actually have to act to provide some sort of housing. So is very disappointing that the City of Melbourne are taking that approach.

I have been really fortunate to visit a number of housing service providers that serve the Prahran electorate: Sacred Heart Mission, where I was able to meet some service users while serving them breakfast; St Joseph’s Outreach Services, whose annual general meeting I attended the other day, and which provides some transitional housing; Prahran Mission, which provides a range of services around mental health support; and Launch Housing, which is a key entry point for people experiencing homelessness. All these services expressed their concern with the increased amount of homelessness and the stress that that is placing on their organisations.

I was quite concerned to note that there is a lack of crisis accommodation within the Prahran area and the local area. People have to be sent to outer suburbs and country towns, when there is no knowledge of whether that is a suitable or sustainable tenancy and they are away from their support networks. Many of these people simply end up back at that same service, so something needs to be done. There simply is not enough housing around, whether it is in the private market, public housing or crisis accommodation. Certainly more needs to be done.

I am glad that I have established a really good connection with the folks that live in public housing in the Prahran electorate. We have had some good wins for them, including getting security doors put on the new building on Surrey Road that was built without security doors, so now they can feel more secure in their own homes and can have the door open on a hot day to let the breeze through.

I was pleased to see the upgrade to the South Yarra kindergarten. That was a kindy that served some of our most disadvantaged kids, and it was in a state of disrepair and completely unsuitable, so I was glad to see that, following some advocacy I did in Parliament, it has now been upgraded. There is still a bit more to do. There is a particular problem with a pigeon infestation on that estate that needs to be seriously looked at, and there are a number of upgrades that still need to occur. In fact in one building only, I think, the first three storeys got upgraded some years ago. There was a promise to further upgrade them, but unfortunately that never occurred. It was all put on ice for this Prahran renewal project, which has had a bit of work done but not much action on it.

What is really needed in public housing is not only a big investment in upgrading existing public housing, but a big investment in increasing the amount of public housing that is out there. The waiting list is something around 35 000 people, and we know from the Auditor-General’s report that the true demand is actually much higher. So we need that very big investment in public housing that we saw many decades ago because the current situation is simply not sustainable. I am glad to see that the Greens have got an inquiry going on this public housing renewal project. We have seen a number of issues in previous projects. This supposed 10 per cent increase in public housing as a result of selling off a whole bunch of public land simply is a drop in the ocean compared to what is truly needed. The big concern is that the amount being offered really is not enough, and it is not an appropriate project. I am glad to see we have got an inquiry going on that.

Ultimately this housing crisis must be fixed. We really need that tax reform to fix the rigged housing system. We really do need to improve renters’ rights. We have got to have that massive investment in public housing and to improve those services so people can stay in their tenancies. Inaction simply is not an option.

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