Social and Affordable Housing

2 Aug 2022

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It is Homelessness Week this week, and I grieve for the thousands of Victorians who are experiencing homelessness every single night as well as the many others who are in housing stress who have been pushed to the margins, in particular the over 100 000—reaching almost 120 000 now—who are on the public housing waiting list. Victorians are facing a housing crisis, and just like public health and public education, governments have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has a safe and secure place to call home. About 25 000 Victorians are experiencing homelessness on any given night. 25 000 Victorians are either sleeping on the street—particularly difficult in what has been a very cold winter—staying in a refuge or a rooming house or couch surfing, often in an unsafe and insecure environment, and thousands more have been pushed to the edge, pushed to the margins, and are living in financial stress only one pay cheque away from losing their homes.

The point must be made that homelessness is a policy choice. Homelessness is not some sort of unsolvable problem that will always be around. Governments can solve homelessness, and it is time our governments took responsibility for homelessness and committed to solving the crisis. The simplest and most effective way to end homelessness is to provide enough affordable long-term social and public housing for everyone who needs it, and they also need the support to maintain that tenancy. This approach, often called Housing First, means that people can secure housing, and from there they can get support and also address any of the other issues and hardships that they face. The Greens have been pushing for and are taking to this election a plan to build 100 000 new public homes in 10 years, enough to house everyone on the public housing waiting list, and to have long-term provision for affordable housing and long-term guaranteed funding for homelessness services as well.

Now, the theme for this year’s Homelessness Week is ‘To end homelessness we need a plan’. Earlier this year the Victorian Greens introduced a bill to end homelessness in Victoria by 2030. For me it was one of the most important bills that we have introduced. It was certainly very exciting, in my view, because it was a bold plan. It set ambitious targets for the building of social housing, and it built in transparency and reporting against those targets. It was a plan based on Housing First principles, it was a plan supported by the public advocacy groups in the homelessness and housing sector and it was a plan that would see homelessness end not just within our lifetimes but by the end of the decade.

During the pandemic, in particular the lockdowns that we faced, I was really impressed by some initiatives that the government developed, like From Homelessness to a Home. This was a plan to get people off the streets using hotels and then support them to make that transition to permanent housing. In questioning during the estimates hearings the then housing minister drew a direct link between that program and the prospect of ending homelessness here in Victoria. That is why I was incredibly disappointed to see that that program was cut in the most recent budget. I understand some funding has been made available to that program subsequently. It was explained away as, ‘Well, you cannot measure the response during lockdown against the response that we have now’. I would simply make the point that if we can house people during lockdown, if we can get people off the streets during lockdown, then we can do it outside lockdown, and we should. From my perspective, we know that people are turned away from homelessness services. They cannot serve everyone. I would simply turn that on its head: no-one should be turned away from a homelessness service, whether they are sleeping rough or they are in unsafe or insecure accommodation.

The current homelessness system is just not sustainable for people, and it is no wonder so many people end up back on the streets, homeless or in unsafe accommodation. You can go from crisis accommodation—perhaps a short-term stay over the weekend in a hotel or something like that—to then some short-term accommodation, again perhaps well away from your community and your existing support networks. Even if you are living in the city or the inner city, perhaps the only place they can find for you is in a country town. There are plenty of dodgy hotels around as well. It is just not sustainable, particularly for people who have very complex needs, to somehow go from that system and then transition into private accommodation. We also know that with the public housing waiting list it could be a decade before you are allocated a house or a unit. It is just not sustainable. Many refuges are only funded to have people there for a week, so it is no wonder that for so many people the system itself is not sustainable and so many people fall through the cracks.

The main driver of homelessness—again, I will repeat this—has been the lack of affordable homes, and the single most important factor in preventing and solving homelessness is increasing the supply of social housing. We can build more social housing. Housing ends homelessness; that message is pretty clear. This was the approach after World War II when governments did embark on large public housing building programs and governments took responsibility. It was not just for people on the margins; it was for low-income workers as well. We definitely need to move back to those principles.

I visited, as I have on many occasions, my local public housing estates just the other week to chat with residents and have them tell me about some of the issues that they are facing. One thing I did notice was the plaques that they have on the buildings. The other week I was at Union Street in Windsor and Inkerman Heights in St Kilda. I noticed each had very similar plaques: ‘Built in 1966 by the housing commission’. Again, the model of those massive towers is probably gone, but then that principle of having a fairly independent commission that is well funded go and plan and build houses for people in need is a principle we need to go back to.

I am really disappointed that not only have subsequent governments seemed to have walked away from that idea that it is the government’s job to build enough public housing for people but certainly our public housing estates have been neglected for far too long. The issues that are raised with me constantly by public housing tenants are that the conditions are just unacceptable—bedbugs, windows covered in muck and crap that is never cleaned, a lack of maintenance and a lack of security. Not only do we need to build more public housing, quality public housing, but we need to upgrade public housing as well and upgrade our estates and make sure that they are fit for purpose, whether that is by upgrading the existing units; building new and better homes; making sure that people can actually have air conditioning—which many tenants cannot actually have, and they have got the hot sun beating on them throughout summer; improving the grounds, the security, the cleaning and the maintenance; or co-locating services on site so they can get the care that they need.

What I have also seen—and the Ombudsman came out with their report recently—is that tenants, when they make complaints, just have not been looked after. They have not been looked after, and one of the recommendations from the Ombudsman is to create a separate social housing ombudsman who would hear complaints from public and community housing residents. Certainly that is what we have heard from residents as well—that their voices just simply are not being heard.

I am concerned that the running down of public housing estates is just a case in point. It is neoliberalism 101, where you run down a public asset and then decide that the only response is to sell it off or engage in privatisation. I am incredibly disappointed that this government’s first response when it came to public housing—and it still continues to do so—was to privatise public housing estates and only slightly increase the number of units. Now they have scrapped that plan, the sell-off, but they are still engaging private units being built on public land. The real value of that land, of public housing estates, does not sit with the monetary value that can be gained by selling it off or leasing it out for decades or engaging with private developers. The value of that land is such that public housing tenants can live in the inner city close to public transport, close to services, close to jobs and close to communities that they are involved in. So I would urge the government to move away from this idea that they cannot talk about providing more public or social housing without talking about private development and move towards the principle of planning, building and operating public housing for the public good. The Minister for Housing would trumpet these large investments in these estates, but that is private money, not public funds, which means they have to be building private housing on these estates, and I do not see that as necessary when the main aim needs to be reducing the public housing waiting list. I would urge the government to reinstate the social housing levy that they scrapped from pressure from property developers so that there is funding to build on their big build and make sure that it actually has the numbers to meet the demand that is out there in the long term, not just over the next four years. They need to step up with inclusionary zoning, not sign off on large development areas like Arden and then possibly Fishermans Bend and others, where property developers are not forced to build set numbers of affordable housing or public and social housing.

In addition to that, they need to make sure that tenants have got the services to ensure that they can get the help they need to secure those tenancies—that is a key tenet of Housing First. I know there are a lot of community organisations and community health organisations that are well placed, and if they were given the extra funding for the extra staff that they need, they could make a big difference to the lives of people in those communities.

I will just finish with the need for a youth housing guarantee to make sure that the special needs of young people, which can be quite different to other demographics, are looked after and to make sure that in any long-term plan to address housing and homelessness there is a separate and specific plan for young people and a youth housing plan. The government, I also believe, should take action in stopping runaway rent increases—strong action, including putting caps on outrageous and large rent increases, whether that is by a set figure or pegging them at inflation or wages. That sort of drastic action to make sure that for people it not only addresses the cost of living but addresses secure housing is critical action that this government needs to take. To tackle the housing crisis we need to have more public and social housing, end out-of-control rent rises and make property developers pay their fair share. We need a housing system that puts people before profit.

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