Crunch time for housing services

Time is running out to save the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and protect funding for much-needed housing services.

By Emma Davidson
Sunday, December 4, 2016

The rising tide of Australians impacted by housing affordability issues has become impossible to ignore. Everyone has heard about the 100,000 or more Australians who are homeless on any given night, and that crisis services for women and children experiencing violence are unable to meet growing demand. This Christmas, there will be families sleeping in tents because of the lack of affordable housing. Seeing people sleeping on the streets is becoming more commonplace in far too many cities, and many of us know someone who has been through a period of couch-surfing because they were unable to find a permanent place to live that they could afford.

What's more unusual is hearing calls for more diversity of housing development from Ron Bell, chief executive of the Real Estate Institute ACT, or NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes saying that negative gearing is making housing less affordable for those trying to get into the market.

Housing affordability has an impact on almost everyone in Australia.

Whether it's high rent in the private market, long waiting lists for public housing, rising homelessness, the impossible dream of saving enough deposit to buy even the cheapest home, or the struggle to pay off a mortgage in an environment of reduced job security and stagnating wages, everyone is spending a lot of time thinking about keeping a roof over their head. And even if you're lucky enough to have safe, secure, affordable housing that meets your needs, you probably know someone who isn't so lucky.

Something that is changing rapidly though, is the demographic of people who are finding themselves at risk of homelessness. Growing numbers of people aged 45 or over are paying private market rent on a low to median income. That means they don't have enough income saved for an emergency, and they're subject to the whims of a volatile private market. Without the ability to get into home ownership before retirement, they will be looking at possibly decades living on an Aged Pension and paying high private market rent.

All it takes in that situation is one thing to go wrong, and they could end up homeless.

Right now, there are 221,825 single women over 45, paying private rent, and on a low to median income, and 173,665 single men in the same situation (based on 2011 Census data).

Making changes to negative gearing will have an impact on some of the systemic pressures on housing affordability. But it takes time for the market to shift, and there are people in need of housing services today. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) funds a range of homelessness and housing initiatives, with a large number of currently funded programs focusing on support for women escaping violence. However, the NPAH does not have secure funding. The Prime Minister made an announcement on 9 December to continue funding NPAH for another twelve months (it had been set to cease on 1 July 2017), but there is still no ongoing commitment to funding these critically important services. While the joint media release from the Prime Minister, Treasurer Scott Morrison, Social Services Minister Christian Porter, and Asistant Minister (with responsibility for housing) Zed Seselja trumpets their promises of funding for the Third Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, there is nothing in that plan that commits to ongoing funding for affordable housing programs, or crisis accommodation services. It simply repeats the intention to think about it in 2017-18. Frankly, we are in dire need now - it's not the thought that counts, it's actually funding programs and ensuring that we don't have to come back here in a year and beg for money again.

The future of the NPAH cannot continue to wait while we run annual campaigns for service funding.

What is needed is a longer-term commitment to funding housing and homelessness services beyond the next year, and ideally beyond the next election cycle. Ensuring funds continue means that longer-term, less politicised funding choices can be made. It also means that funded services are in a better position to commit to growth because they know they will have funding for more than a year at a time. This makes it easier to hire and keep good staff, seek private sector finance for longer-term projects to increase housing stock, and reduces the amount of time they need to spend asking for funding to continue. Annual or biennial rollovers of NPAH funding since 2012-13 have already taken their toll on the sector.

The level of funding for NPAH has not increased since 2014-15, but the demand for services has.

Right now, there are more than 200,000 households waiting for public housing. Another 897,000 households are paying private market rent, but have an income level that would qualify for public housing, indicating that the unmet need for public housing is probably far greater than is represented by waiting lists. Of those receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance (a supplement to income support payments such as the Aged Pension or Newstart Allowance), there are 265,165 women and 167,798 men who are still in housing stress. Commonwealth Rent Assistance alone is not enough to enable people reliant on welfare payments to manage in the private rental market. Many households make compromises on the quality or location of their housing in order to avoid affordability issues, leading to overcrowding, older properties in need of maintenance, or moving to areas with reduced employment or education opportunities. In addition to funding certainty, the level of funding for the NPAH also needs to increase to keep pace with growing demand.

It's time to make a choice.

And it is a choice. The Federal Government is willing to spend $50 billion to build 12 new submarines, and loan $1b to the Adani coal mine to build a rail link. Why not spend a fraction of that money to build houses that people can actually live in? It's a great investment that would pay off in reduced health and welfare costs, and would have a positive effect on the economy through a boost to the construction industry as well.

Emma Davidson is National Secretary of Women’s Electoral Lobby (Australia), a TEDxCanberra volunteer, and Canberra's slowest roller derby referee.