Let’s tear down this housing policy and completely rebuild

4 April 2024

For an alarming proportion of Canberrans, securing and keeping appropriate housing is a struggle that is too often unsuccessful. 

A quarter of a century ago, young adults worried about whether they could afford to buy a house, but for many that concern is now about whether they can afford to rent an apartment. 

A growing number of older adults face similar challenges, and for those experiencing poverty, safe and affordable accommodation is largely unobtainable. 

As the ACT election approaches, all parties and candidates should commit to a decisive overhaul of the decades-long approach to housing that has led to this point. 

Housing unaffordability is the primary driver of the cost-of-living crisis. In the community sector, it is widely recognised that the lack of public and community housing is the biggest challenge in supporting disadvantaged Canberrans. The sector’s vital work of providing food or mental health care or child safety can only help so much when people are insecurely housed. 

While the government can point to constraints in building capacity during COVID-19 as impeding the construction of new public and community housing, the reality is that this situation has been decades in the making. 

This ACT election, we need to demand a public housing overhaul from Andrew Barr and Elizabeth Lee’s respective parties. Pictures by Elesa Kurtz, Keegan Carroll 

The ACT government’s policy settings, amplified by their federal counterparts, has been to treat housing as a financial asset rather than one of life’s essentials that all Canberrans should be able to access. 

This is seen in the government selling off much of its housing stock, and the transition of the government being a provider of housing to low- and middle-income Canberrans to a landlord of last resort. 

As an aside, the mind boggles at what the ACT government’s rental income would be now if it had retained all of Canberra’s now “ex-govies” and were renting 90 per cent of them at market rates. One street alone might easily yield a million dollars annually to subsidise public housing for those experiencing poverty. 

Increasingly, government has relied on the market to meet the housing needs of Canberrans, but it is time to recognise that the market is not up to this task. 

The average wait time on the public housing waiting list for applicants on the standard waitlist is just under five years. This is appalling, but it is not new. The figure was about four years in March 2020. 

The business-as-usual approach to treating housing primarily as a market is taking Canberra in the wrong direction, with the number of Canberrans who struggle to pay for housing rising. As the income required to reliably secure housing increases, so does the proportion of Canberrans experiencing rental stress. 

The Rental Affordability Index shows the ACT remains severely unaffordable for all households wanting a one-bedroom unit with incomes below $55,000. The base rate of the jobseeker payment provides about one-third of that amount per year. 

The ACT and federal governments are to be commended for their recent investments in social and affordable housing. 

While substantial, their scale is nevertheless small compared to the need that has taken many years to develop. 

As the ACT election approaches, ACTCOSS and ACT Shelter call on all parties and candidates to recognise the centrality of the housing crisis to the wellbeing of Canberrans, especially for those experiencing poverty. 

Merely tinkering around the edges with current policy settings risks deepening the current crisis. We call for bold new thinking that sees housing primarily as a right rather than a financial asset for growing wealth. 

As the cohort of Canberrans who cannot afford decent housing rapidly expands into those on moderate incomes, the government should examine the feasibility of once again becoming a landlord of choice to those employed in good jobs, as well as those experiencing deep poverty. 

This strategy previously worked in the ACT to fund more public housing for those who need it, using higher rents from those who could afford it, and continues to be employed successfully overseas. 

Regardless, a game-changing expansion of public and community housing is required for those who need it most. 

Opinion piece originally published in The Canberra Times on January 26th, 2024.
Read the editorial here.
For more information or comment, please contact
Devin Bowles, CEO, ACTCOSS, on 0413 435 080 or 02 6202 7200

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