Homelessness around Melbourne

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Over the last winter 36 churches – including my own – collaborated in providing emergency accommodation for people suffering homelessness in our district. Over 13 weeks the collaboration, called Stable One, filled 165 beds.

This action was spurred by a shortfall in local provision. For the last couple of years my office has been directly above the office for the local agency responsible for allocating daily the one room available to meet the needs of local homeless population. What a woeful shortfall!

A couple of weeks ago we hired a fencer to come and help with a need at our home in the Yarra Valley. During my conversation with the fencer I learned that he was the previous director of Anchor – the local agency I mentioned before. He served there for 10 years and moved out of that work exhausted by the depressing limitation of that one room allocation. That was 15 years ago.

Together we lamented that current protocols classify a homeless family as “accommodated” if they own a car. It cannot be right that in all that time no progress in allocation had been made during a time of escalating need.

homelessness in Melbourne

I paid a visit to our Federal Member, and Speaker of the House, Tony Smith. Philosophically Tony and I would differ on the role of government.  His view is that homelessness is simply too layered with other social issues for federal government to have an effective role in addressing it – and that agencies such as faith-based charities and public-private partnerships better deliver to multiple areas of social need.

I don’t follow that logic. In my view it is a scandal in a wealthy, developed country that each winter we see charity collectors trying asking for donations from the public in order to provide for the destitute.

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As for homelessness being too layered a problem for government response, yes it is true that a significant aspect of the phenomena of homelessness is that of mental health, and family health. But, to put it simply, my belief is that a person or family with other issues to address will be far better placed to address those other issues successfully if that person or family is first housed. And I put it to Tony that a family needing just a home is at the simplest end of the homelessness spectrum to fix. And yet we are hearing nothing on the topic from our major parties in their media-output or from our federal members in their communications with their constituents.

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I also mentioned that there are certain things that only government can do; things that collaborations of churches cannot do. In recent years the federal government produced a policy called NRAS – the National Rental Affordability Scheme. It’s intent was to address the problem of the unaffordability of rental accommodation for families on normal incomes. The aim was to create and financially support privately owned affordable rental accommodation with regular investors as the stakeholders.

Sadly NRAS missed the mark and failed to roll out as expected. It was too restrictive to entice private investors to take up the baton of providing affordable rental accommodation. (I am particularly aware of those limitations because it was part of my job for a while to try to sell NRAS units to private investors in the ACT.)

At a State level Affordable Housing quotas for new developers were brought in some years ago. The stated intent was again to address the costs of purchasing a family home which are now dramatically out of proportion to average earnings. As a consequence home ownership is now falling in Australia.

As an indication of the problem, in 1966 the average cost of a home in Australia was 1.6 times the average annual household income. Bear in mind that was in the main 1.6 times a single income. That means that in 1966 if a family could operate for 19 months on a single income but earn a dual income then that family could buy an average Australian home outright!

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In 2016 the average cost of an Australian home is 4.3 times the average annual income. bear in mind that in Australia today that will be to a great extent 4.3 times two incomes!

Unfortunately the Affordable Housing Quotas legislation got skewed in the writing with the result that instead  of families being provided with affordable homes to purchase, we have been supplied with a surfeit of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments. Not what financially distressed families needed. We sold the surfeit of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments largely to Chinese investors! (I know because I was selling them in Canberra like hotcakes!)

Another initiative at a state/territory level was the ACT  Land Rent scheme which enabled purchasers to buy a house without buying the land. A nominal, peppercorn rent would then be paid to the Crown or the land owner. Unfortunately the steady growth in unimproved land values meant that purchasers could see that the goal of secure property ownership would only recede over time. It has therefore enjoyed only limited success.

These three policies reflect that government at both state and federal levels can and should take initiatives to address Australia’s housing problem. If these three legislative devices were revisited and tweaked to address where the first roll-outs failed then they really could go some way to addressing the needs of families struggling to find affordable homes to buy or rent.

After my visit with Tony Smith I have come away wondering are there any politicians out there ready to push for revisions of those two government initiatives so that we can actually fix a problem that is surely a scandal in a wealthy, developed country like Australia?

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