Opening Speech National Homelessness Week  

Jenny Smith Chair Homelessness Australia

Homelessness week is the opportunity for us to focus on the fact at least 105,000 people tonight will be without a home or the support they need to keep it.  And as a nation we need to focus on this issue.  

Right across the country:

One in ten Australian households – that is 850,000 people on the lowest 40% of incomes – are in housing stress, paying more 30% of their income on putting a roof over their heads.

Households face severe and extremely unaffordable rents in all cities and all regional areas of Australia.  And so it is no surprise that:

  • each year 250,000 people seek help from our homelessness services.
  • our social housing system is struggling to cope with demand, with over 200,000 households on waiting lists around the country but only 33,000 new allocations each year (2013). 
  • Homelessness services are unable to keep up with demand – we are turning away more than 400 people each day (2012-13).

Deep and sustained reform is needed on a number of fronts to address these critical issues.

We need to get all federal and state policies pulling in the same direction.  And to do that we need a coherent 10-year strategy to address housing affordability and end homelessness.

A strategy that includes:

  • a Cabinet-level Minister for Housing & Homelessness with authority to coordinate the efforts of the various Departments which will contribute to the plan
  • an active Ministerial Council on Housing and Homelessness under the auspices of COAG
  • funding security for high quality research from bodies including the AHURI and the AIHW, and
  • adequately funded, national peak homelessness and housing bodies, that can coordinate non-government input to the implementation of the plan, and can support and resource non-government partners to improve service delivery practices.

The ten-year plan should include the following five reforms:

Firstly: Significant growth in public and community housing and affordable housing more generally

Australia has a shortfall of over 500,000 rental dwellings that are affordable and available to households in the lowest 40% of incomes. 

We need an Affordable Housing Growth Fund explicitly for the purpose of expanding the stock of affordable housing.  

The fund would  

  • provide an ongoing pipeline of capital funding to grow the supply of social and affordable housing in the public and community sectors, 
  • attract private investment into the affordable housing sector
  •  privilege Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who face the highest levels of housing stress, overcrowding and homelessness.  The highest levels of any segment of the Australian community.  

Secondly: we need a National Homelessness Strategy and Plan

We are never going to end homelessness in this country without a strategy and a plan to implement it.  And at present we have neither.  We need a plan that:

- recommits to aspirational targets for reducing homelessness

- integrates with the housing strategy

- also integrates with other key national strategies such as the Closing the Gap strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, strategies for improving youth employment, the NDIS, aged care reforms and efforts to combat domestic and family violence.

This strategy should also: 

  • Secure the National Partnership on Homelessness funding as part the overall National Affordable Housing Agreement.  And hence indexed.  This $115m that has been around since 2009, it is not secure and has been reduced through lack of indexation over the last 3 years.  It is vital to end the cycle of uncertainty over funding that has dogged the homelessness sector in recent years and hampered efforts to improve services.
  • We need to expand prevention and early intervention services to “turn off the tap”.  We know that we have growing populations of homelessness that could be nipped in the bud, particularly young people leaving care, and older people in the private rental market.

Thirdly: we need to reform the tax treatment of rental housing

Our current rental housing tax subsidies including negative gearing and capital gains tax may have been well intended, but they are not working.  We now know that they:

  • encourage speculative investment in loss-making assets, driving up housing prices across the market.
  • And they make rental housing unattractive to institutional investors such as superannuation funds that are unable to take advantage of the negative gearing opportunities.

We aren’t just making this up:

In 2015 the Reserve Bank of Australia told a Parliamentary Inquiry into home ownership that “there is a strong case for reviewing negative gearing, but not in isolation”.

In 2005, even Malcolm Turnbull, argued that negative gearing and capital gains tax contributed to a significant “property bubble”.  

We need to limit the offsetting of losses on these investments in rental properties.  

This can be done gradually.  

In a way that allows housing values to fall slowly in relation to incomes.  

In a way that doesn’t force recent home owners into negative equity.  This can be done!

The significant proceeds should be applied social housing.  

Fourthly: we need to Increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance

It is hard to accept that so many in our community live in housing induced poverty.

For those on the lowest of incomes, 40% of those receiving Commonwealth rent Assistance (CRA) are still in housing stress after receiving the payment. CRA’s real value has declined over time as rents have risen faster than inflation.  

The payment needs to be increased by 30%, and indexed to the rental component of the CPI.  

As rents vary widely from place to place, the level of payment may need to vary according to the average rental cost in each location, ensuring that recipients can afford to live where their support networks are.

Fifthly: we need to Address the shortfall of appropriate, affordable housing for people with disabilities

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is now a reality.

It is designed to support the aspirations of people with disability for independence and control over their lives. 

However, there is a shortfall of affordable housing dwellings which are appropriate for and available to people with disabilities.   We are yet to see evidence of a plan to deliver more than 35,000 additional properties that will be required in the first 10 years of the scheme.   

Conclusion

As a country today we have neither a homelessness nor a housing policy platform at the federal level.

Your national homelessness and housing peaks no longer receive federal funding and function as volunteer committees.

In all our capital cities, our fellow citizens are tripping over more and more homeless people in the street as each day goes by.

Our media has been fairly even handed for years.  Now sections of the media are demonising homeless people and breeding division in our community.

A house and the support needed to keep a home is fundamental to our prosperity as a community.  Homelessness is expensive.  

Millions of dollars are wasted in our health and criminal justice systems every year on recidivism and health problems that should not happen.  That do not need to happen.

If people have access to a home and the support they need to keep it, they can participate economically, they can participate socially.

 Let's take this time in homelessness week, to prepare ourselves for the effort still required.

The effort that is required to change attitudes.  

The effort that is required to build support for change in our communities, and to galvanise that support into pressure on government. 

We will need in the short term to fight once again for the Npah. 

We need to each work to this end, and put our collective creative energy into campaigns for change. 

We need to engage our leaders and help them to see the harm that is caused by homelessness, and to understand the solutions to fix it.

This work is an opportunity to change the narrative around homelessness as well as to put in place the practical social and economic policies that we need to end it.

To make sure that when homelessness happens, it is brief, supported and only happens once! 

 

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