By Dustin Halse

30 July 2020

My opinion piece published on Eureka Street.

The recent lockdown of the nine towers in Melbourne’s inner city, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, presented Victorians with a range of confronting images. Our thoughts immediately turned to the thousands of individuals who reside in those towers. Communities confined to these 30-storey, high density, 1960s era public housing towers.

Yet this highlights another crisis that has been building for decades: the crisis of homelessness and housing accessibility.

We recite the figures often: tonight, around 25,000 Victorians will experience homelessness. They will be couch-surfing, in crisis or motel accommodation, in boarding houses and cramped dwellings, or sleeping rough. They are so often victims of violence, trauma, unemployment, insecure work and ill health.

That there are so many who are experiencing homelessness, and that a further 82,000 Victorians are on the social housing waiting list, is in many respects as perplexing as it is disturbing.

Because in Australia, we have long boasted of our unparalleled prosperity and strong economic growth. We have championed home ownership and the quarter acre block — after all our home is meant to be our castle. But for too many, the basic human right of having a place to call home remains out of reach.

The challenge of housing policy is especially is pertinent to Labor governments — including the one to which I belong — which seek to address inequalities that limit opportunity.

Indeed, housing vulnerable citizens should be a key marker against which governments are assessed. I suggest that the COVID-19 crisis presents a generational opportunity for governments of all persuasions to make a dent in this prevailing issue by supporting a housing first framework and an expansion of public housing construction.

To get to this point we need to move beyond the current economic orthodoxy that has failed to meet this challenge.

Right now, policy-makers are apt to cite ‘state-building’ stimulus measures. In vogue are large-scale infrastructure projects: think fast trains, tunnels, roads, airports, ships and ports. Big and bold, and with a good dose of political ‘pop’.

While these projects are essential to our long-term economic prosperity, they are often inherently complex and require a long and engineered run up. An alternative ‘state building’ agenda is to facilitate smaller and immediately scalable projects — sometimes referred to as ‘shovel ready’.

In Victoria, a good example of this is seen in the recent $500 million announcement by Housing Minister, Richard Wynne. Refurbishing 23,000 social housing units in Victoria will make a huge difference, and it’s the genesis of renewed policy enthusiasm that can and should be built upon.

Yet, to be clear, we do not need to re-invent the wheel.

Governments have always had the capacity to influence housing policy and the housing market. In 1943, the Prime Minister John Curtin turned to Ben Chifley, then Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, to design a program of economic stimulus that would reconfigure the Australian economy. 

What did he recommend? Among other things, a massive program of housing construction. He considered that ‘a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen’. However, he was also acutely aware that building houses was a sure fire way to create jobs, boost economic activity and address inequality. The buck was not passed to private enterprise. There was no disguised cost shifting.

The succeeding two decades are considered the golden era in Australian housing. Between 1945 and 1956, public housing accounted for one in seven dwellings built nationally — facilitated through the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement set up by Chifley. More astonishing is that from 1947 to 1961, almost 25 percent of all houses built in Australia were done so through direct government intervention.

Unfortunately, in the decades since, housing policy has suffered from a lack of vision and application. Politicians have tended to frame the problem of homelessness in broad ethical terms. Conservatives conceptualising homelessness as a ‘moral failing’ of the individual. Progressives vaguely as a ‘social-ill’ requiring individual support in equal measure from both the community sector and government.

From these approaches, the outcomes show little long-term difference. Indeed, the greatest winner has been haphazard policy making at the expense of the most vulnerable. We may never be presented with a better time to move past this debate, and to turn as Chifley did, towards a rapidly scalable housing-first policy.

Finland can do it. Singapore can do it. Scotland can do it.

We have a strong local construction workforce and the means to raise the capital required to realise such a vision. What we cannot afford is a regression to ineffective ideas that fixate on off balance sheet funding. Industry super-funds will not fix the problem of homelessness. Neither can not-for-profits.

The team from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) have demonstrated that direct government investment in public housing is the most efficient and effective way to overcome homelessness.

This is not to dismiss other necessary policy levers. Of course, we need strong inclusionary zoning measures and greater commonwealth rent assistance. Yes, we need policies to address vacant properties and unused land. Yes, we need additional crisis and short-term accommodation. Moreover, we need a tailored response towards reducing the disproportionately high levels of Indigenous homelessness.

Nevertheless, as we begin to envision a new post COVID-19 world, we should look back to the old ideas that once worked to both reduce homelessness and stimulate the economy. Now is the time for governments to build more public houses.

Article originally published here.

Dr Dustin Halse is the State Labor Member for Ringwood in the Victorian Parliament. He has held positions in academia and the union movement prior to his election to office. Dustin has a strong interest in industrial, environmental and social welfare policy.