As house prices climb beyond the reach of more families and rents rise even faster, more and more Australians are experiencing housing stress. Instead of seeking solutions to this crisis, the NSW Government has turned its back on the problem in the vain hope that the markets will solve it. The markets have no interest in people in stress, low socio-economic groups and especially the homeless. The problems are set to get a whole lot worse.
The time has come for governments to accept that the way forward is massive reinvestment in public housing. This will result in more and better accommodation for lower socio-economic groups, more affordable housing, less homelessness, falling rents and a decline in housing stress. It will even improve the housing construction business whose numbers are again down in the last period reported.
Over the last 40 years, public housing, previously available to low-income working families, has been restricted to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians. These already disadvantaged tenants have been further marginalised by being abandoned in estates, often in city outskirts, with poor or no services or maintenance.
The widespread inadequacy of public housing maintenance has been called “demolition by neglect”. Governments then use the excuse of housing stock deterioration and high maintenance costs to sell public houses off to the private sector.
Low-income working families have to find homes in an increasingly expensive private rental market which has, in its turn, produced housing stress. This is defined as when tenants have to pay over 30 per cent of their income on shelter. In some cases people are paying 57 per cent of their income, and even higher, on rent.
Parallel to the sell-off of public housing has come a concerted attack on public housing tenants as irresponsible, “bludgers”, and so on. Few realise, and it should be repeated often, that public housing is subsidised housing, not free. Tenants pay 25 per cent of their income for shelter. If a tenant pays this amount of rent for 50 years he or she has paid for that home many times over.
Private home owners do not attract the criticism that public housing tenants get. Yet private housing attracts six times more public money than public housing gets through first home owner grants and tax concessions.
Every litre of diesel used by mining companies attracts a subsidy. Car industry giants Toyota, GM and Ford receive subsidies. But these groups do not attract the hostility of the media and the general public.
One example of the failure of government housing policy can be seen in Cowper Street in Glebe, but there are many other examples across “the city of villages”. In summary, 16 low-rise apartment blocks, housing a long-standing community of nearly 300 public housing tenants were demolished, with the promise that the land would be used to house both public tenants and private owners.
The development would have involved a net loss of almost 50 per cent of the public land to the private sector and loss of about 100 places for lower socio-economic strata tenants. This was bad enough, but almost three years after demolition, in January 2013, Cowper Street is a wasteland of weeds, no families, no trees, no gardens, no birds – and with no immediate prospect of a building going up. A waste and a scandal!
The human cost of the dispersal of the Cowper Street community was appalling. Support networks built up over years were destroyed as tenants were scattered near and far. London’s Lord Mayor Boris Johnson described the policy of dumping public housing tenants in out-of-the way areas as “social cleansing”. This is what is happening in our city too.
There is no reason why Australia could not adopt a large-scale commitment to public housing. The obstacle is the socially destructive ideology of destroying the public sector to give free rein to those with the money to make a real-estate bonanza.
Present and past NSW state governments have this destructive ideology in spades. The present Liberal National Coalition Government does not even have a housing minister!
The time has come for local, state and federal governments to put a massive effort into public housing. The main responsibility falls on the Federal Government to reverse the policies of the past 40 years and get all levels of government working on public housing.
People concerned with the destruction of public housing in Sydney need to unify so we can put a more powerful voice to governments for a bigger and better public housing system. In the richest country in the world, we have the resources to solve the problems of housing our people. It is time governments listened!
Denis Doherty is the spokesperson for Hands Off Glebe, a pro public housing group based in Glebe. He is also a former mayoral candidate for the Housing Action Team. Denis is a well-known local activist for social justice who lives in the inner city.