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Looking Forward on Housing



John Weber


COVID-19 has been devastating for Victoria. The virus has battered the Victorian economy and cost over seven hundred lives.


Beyond the debate of the severity of the Government restrictions, the evidence about the spread of the disease is clear; primarily the spread is in Aged Care and through insecure and casual workers. What is clear about COVID-19, world-over, is the pandemic is a magnifying glass on a society’s pre-existing vulnerabilities. 


The different realities between life for the rich and the poor has never been more stark, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in housing. Whilst many of Melbourne’s elite escaped suburbia for the Mornington Peninsula, thousands of public housing tenants were forced into severe isolation, restricted to their small flats inside the towers under heavy police guard, under the most extraordinary application of Public Health Orders to date. 


This article will not be a reflection or a debate about the merits of the hard lockdown of public housing residents in North Melbourne and Flemington. What was clear about the lockdown though, is the risk of COVID-19 spreading through the towers and killing possibly hundreds of vulnerable residents was very real.


What is also clear is the Department of Health and Human Services was unable to adequately care for the needs of the residents and the use of police on the towers caused very real anxiety for the communities locked inside. 


What this article will ask, is how have we got here, and what can we do going forward? 


The reality is Victoria has being going backwards for quite some time. In 2009 there was just over 65,000 public housing units in Victoria, in 2019 that number had decreased to just over 64,400. Primarily, this decrease is the result of the sale of housing stock. At the same time, Victoria’s population has grown from 5.44 million in 2009 to over 6.3 million today.


However, there has been a 40% increase in social housing. Despite this increase in social housing, the waiting list for housing has exploded. There are now over 100,000 people on that waiting list, a quarter of whom are children. To put that in perspective, 100,000 is roughly the population of the cities of Ballarat or Bendigo. It is simply an unconscionable number of people. 


Meanwhile, the conditions inside much of the existing housing stock is dire. The national media attention on the towers in Melbourne’s northern suburbs revealed what residents had known for years. The units are small, overcrowded and the buildings themselves are extremely dated. Many of the old smaller housing estate across the city are riddled with mould, water damage and containing asbestos. It is no wonder that in conditions like these, with vulnerable and precarious tenants inside that a pandemic would run rife. 


Whilst it is undeniably true that much of the blame for failing to invest in and prioritise housing lies with consecutive Victorian State Governments. The reality is the failure to deal with housing is bigger than that.


The last serious investment in social housing came from the Rudd Government and saw the construction of 35,000 dwellings under the National Rental Affordability Scheme, a program (unsurprisingly) abandoned by the Abbott Government. Since then, there has been no major Commonwealth investment in social housing. 


Whilst the Commonwealth Government spent just $1.56 billion under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement for 2019–2020, at the same time the taxpayer will spend $13.1 billion on Negative Gearing. We have a system where the Government subsidises rentals as an investment for the wealthy, whilst spending a fraction of the money on providing for social housing. This is nothing short of a national disgrace. 


The reality of the housing market in Australia is a familiar story that could be told about aged care, education, or health insurance: a total capitulation to the private market with grotesque subsidies paid to rent seekers.


COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the multifaceted failings of housing in Australia. Now is the time for the Labor Party to present an alternative to the failed system we have today.


In Victoria, the government has shown strong signs of committing to a better path, with the extension of the Hotels for the Homeless program until April of 2021, a program that has demonstrated that we can put a roof over the head of homeless persons, we simply have lacked the political will.


Further, the State Government is committing to housing homeless Victorians in some of the first of the thousand public housing units being built as part of a 2018 election pledge, the most significant investment in public housing in a very long time. But there is obviously so much more to be done when it comes to increasing the amount of housing available. 


The reality about housing and homelessness is, in many ways, depressingly simple. As the Victorian Government has shown on a small scale, you can largely eliminate homelessness if you making housing the first priority. This is known as a Housing First Strategy. In Finland, where this approach was adopted on a national scale back in 2007, homelessness dropped by roughly 40% over the decade. 


Beyond the obvious social benefits of investing in social housing, there are also huge economic benefits. Per Capita’s Shirley Jackson estimates that an investment in 100,000 social housing units would create 80,000 jobs in construction. Given this, there is no wonder that old foes in the MBA and CFMMEU are calling for a $10 billion social housing fund to keep the construction industry alive. 


Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, who himself grew up in public housing, has made a strong argument for investing in social housing as a way to bounce back from the Covid-19 recession. However, thus far, the Morrison Government’s proposed budget reforms offer little in the way of investment in social housing. Instead, the Morrison Government has proposed the HomeBuilder project, which includes grants to renovate private homes worth as much as $750,000.


Housing is a class issue. As the rate of precarious workers rise, so too does the rate of renters. In 2016, over 30% of the Australian population rented, and this number is growing. Data shows many renters are spending large amounts of their weekly income, effectively subsidising the investments of wealthy investors.


If Labor commits to a Housing First strategy like Finland has, where high quality homes are built for all that need them, we could rescue the struggling construction industry, create thousands of blue collar jobs, and change the lives of millions of Australians stuck in rental poverty or the cycle of homelessness. A national housing guarantee could be the program that brings us back from the post-COVID brink and towards a more decent society


John Weber is a Labor Party member and Co-Convenor for Labor for Housing.


Labor for Housing is a grassroots organisation within the Victorian ALP, which began in 2019. L4H campaigns across the party at a, local, state and federal government level for housing equality, with a particular focus on social housing and homelessness. L4H aims to work to residents, workers, unions, party members and political leaders within the housing space to organise for change. You can get involved by emailing admin@laborforhousing.org

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