Housing benefits every level of society

By Rob Pradolin and Cameron Harvey

Welcome to the fifth article of our 12-part series which will attempt to explore the role that housing can and should play within Australian society and why it is important to our economy that we house all Australians, rich or poor.

This series intends to draw on a range of perspectives centred around housing and homelessness. We will hear a range of views from business, the not- for-profit sector and hopefully government, as to why they believe housing is an important social and economic building block for Australia’s future prosperity. This month we have asked Cameron Harvey, a partner at lawyers Norton Rose Fulbright, to share his thoughts around why the objective around housing all Australians should be considered an economic imperative for Australia.

There are many causes for homelessness in Australia but, to date, as a society we have been unable to force the right government policy settings to promote solutions to one of the most pernicious of conditions that plague our society.

The pandemic has shown us that we can move quickly to house the homeless when it is prioritised as a community concern. The speed with which Melbourne’s homeless community were temporarily housed in all manner of accommodation throughout the greater CBD, whether it be vacant hotels, emergency accommodation and the like, was revealing.

The drivers for this were a desire to protect a vulnerable group of people from infection, but also to meet the societal need of ensuring there were no gaps in the isolation and lockdown of our community in order to try and manage the spread of the virus.

Those short-term measures are unravelling as I write, but that doesn’t mean we cannot still make progress. The government, private sector, local government and the community at large should combine to create solutions. This was shown, at least in the short term, by the response in Melbourne at the time of the pandemic taking hold. The challenge now is to create the appropriate conditions to allow the right government policy levers to be pulled and the engagement of the business community to be encouraged, such that long term, acceptable solutions to homelessness in this country can be implemented.

It is incumbent on any fair-minded, reasonable and considerate community such as ours, to apply itself to delivering solutions to this problem.

To date it is apparent that:

1. The market has failed to provide affordable housing for those at the lower end of the income scale or who are unemployed;

2. There is a chronic shortage of government housing (particularly compared with countries such as the United Kingdom);

3.Data supports the proposition that long-term homelessness creates a cost in excess of the cost of supporting these homeless people into affordable housing;

4. A stable and safe home environment creates a platform where support systems can be built, and remunerative employment sought; and

5. There is a tension between the federal and state governments as to which government should bear the burden for funding major social housing projects.

Good communities, particularly those with relative high levels of wealth and education, should and must look after those within their community who, for whatever reason, find themselves without the most fundamental of needs, a safe home.

This is a unique moment in our history. We are starting to emerge from a pandemic, we have a government that appears to be willing to engage in Keynesian-style intervention in the market place to force economic growth (in particular through the infrastructure sector) and we have historically low costs of finance which not only provides great investment in- centive to the private sector but also allows the government to continue to spend and increase its deficit without major financial risk in the short to medium term.

A structured program between federal and state government should seek to:

1. Increase the stock of public housing;

2. Engage with the private sector to develop appropriately funded public/private partnerships for the construction of affordable blended housing projects which include public housing, the “build-to-rent” apartment style market and private housing at secured long term rental fixed as a percentage of income (with tax incentive to smooth out a market return for private investors); and

3. Active government intervention in the reduction of regulatory delays in the conception and execution of the development of affordable housing projects.

In late November the Victorian Government announced a $5.3 billion public housing pro- gram of some significance if it is delivered as promised. A substantial number of public houses supporting those on no income and those on low incomes in a regulatory fast-tracked environment is certainly a positive step forward. The economic multiplier effect of this type of investment through the broader community will be very well received as well.

There has probably not been a time quite like this when the political, social and economic environments have collided in a way that allow an atmosphere of genuine collaboration between the public and private sector to ensure that major programs are undertaken to dramatically in- crease the supply of government and privately affordable housing for not just this generation but for generations to come. The benefits will impact every level of society.

I hope you found the above perspective by Cameron interesting and insightful. While what was said may not align with our own view of the world, we all need to listen and digest what is said by others in order to find common ground. 

This is why we are focusing on the fact that the provision of shelter is a fundamental human need (not human right) and without that need being met, we have unintended social and eco- nomic consequences that will span generations.

As I said in my first article, doing nothing is NOT AN OPTION! We need to act, and we need to act now. All of us need to be part of the solution so please feel free to write to me with your thoughts.

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