AT LAST A HOME! The Need For Public Housing: 2004

Update: In the debate on homelessness here I did not record the speech of Bob Day who wants to privatise the SA Housing Trust and drive down wages and defeat the building unions – now ex-Senator Day. In November 2016, there is worse homelessness and is not addressed by our political elite. Housing action groups are fighting for public housing.

2004 PM Rudd and Minister for Housing Tanya Plibersek have at last placed tackling homelessness on the political agenda and much promises to be done. But with a greater housing crisis than thought possible with economic uncertainty and a looming recession, urgent emergency funding to the States for public housing over the next two years is necessary.

I wrote this for the SA Housing Affordability Roundtable Monday 6th September 2004. Chair Professor Julian Disney. This is a report on homelessness and the SA Housing Trust 2004. The arguments are still sound.

See Minister Tanya Plibersek press release

The Howard Government budget did not provide any capital funds to build SA Trust homes to arrest our homelessness and housing crisis. So far into the second week of the Federal election, Howard is still not promising anything other than more cut backs to public housing.

In SA, as it is nationally, this is a crisis. These housing affordability issues have to be more strongly put on the national agenda. The Howard government has been most mean in a rich society!

The Prime Minister is a housing subsidised tenant, and lives in Public Housing! Yet the poor can’t get into decent public housing!

I support all the issues in The Affordability Housing Challenge A Call for Action. I only deal here with SA public housing and the Housing Trust.

No investment in public housing is a disgrace. At any one winter night some 7,500 South Australians are homeless. About 900 sleep rough, the rest in boarding houses or staying with friends or in cars.

Homelessness is for many a grim desperate existence. Homeless man crushed by a garbage compactor because he slept in the back of the dumpster. Very bad times noticed in a small report in the Advertiser 25/5/04. And there are many tragic stories appearing in the Messenger Press, the Sunday Mail and appeals in the Advertiser such as by Mark Herselman “Time to face alarming truth about homeless.”

Elana a 60 year old homeless woman had earlier told her story at the Homelessness SA Conference. 2003. At dawn in her sleeping bag in inner Adelaide she was scared by a shadow over her. A policeman politely inquired whether she had seen a man with a knife pass by! Moving on, it took her 4 hours waiting at the day shelter her turn to have a shower and laundry. Then onto a friend’s house for 22 frustrating calls agencies regretfully saying no vacancies. Elana was not in the crisis category for the Housing Trust, but was on the waiting list. Six months later she was able to get into a Trust Home. And she now works to assist the homeless.

Barry told his story. A brash young man making big money but with drinking and gambling, “a derelict in my own home” ends up older, wiser and homeless. Elana and Barry sell their paper The Big Issue.

Those who make it to a Housing Trust home say in wonderment at the “privacy and being able to say at last a home; this is my home with my family.” But the homeless subculture is, “not always depressing, not lonely because we meet a lot of people”.

A young man says, “It is difficult writing a CV in the dark”. A homeless man living in a tree in North Adelaide is denied assistance because “he did not have an address”. There are many stories.

As well as these directly homeless, there are another 45,000 who are what housing policy makers refer to as “in extreme housing stress” and “the housing poor”. They are in private renting and desperate for secure stable and public housing. Trust homes are urgently required for this important section of our community.

Amongst many housing affordability issues, a National Housing plan should prioritise increased public investment. The question is what are the governments doing or not doing? Despite some homelessness prevention programmes, why is there this homelessness and housing crisis? It is the Howard government.

Here I focus on one obvious reason for the crisis, the lack of public housing.

A key cause is the Howard government’s severe capital grant cutbacks of 60% to our Housing Trust. SA has had our public housing stock reduced since 1997 far in excess of any housing authority in Australia. (See the graph below).

The Trust’s ability to build social housing through the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement, (CSHA) saw a cut back this year by another $12 million. More of this “economic rationalism” over the next 5 years means the Howard government is responsible for the homeless not getting a Trust home.

Our community’s need for safe, affordable public housing is painfully high. What are the figures?

There are currently 6,600 people on the Housing Trust high housing need waiting list with 900 in the extreme category, but it still takes over 6 months to be housed. In the Housing Trust’s category 3 waiting list, there are 27,000 low income earners currently in private rental housing. Many of these are SA’s “new working poor”: in work, but in the precarious labour market as casuals, labour hire and contract workers, many being women.

A key reason for the suffering of our working poor and housing poor is high rents in the private sector. They have to wait for over a decade to get into Housing Trust homes. The capital cut backs also mean problems for the aboriginal housing and problems for Community Housing. Consequently, there is a very large number of South Australians who are unable to access affordable housing due to the restricted and declining number of houses in the public sector. This economic rationalist policy runs counter to the positive, indeed iconic history and purpose of the Trust.

The cut backs by Liberal Federal and State governments have been so severe that our public housing sector would need to increase by 60% just to assist those low income households in housing stress. Some 45,000 dwellings are required and the money invested to build them.

The private rental market does not serve these needs. Although there is Commonwealth Rent Assistance to individuals, my core issue here is money or the lack thereof to build homes.

Action in the form of capital funding to build shelter is urgent; emergency accommodation, boarding houses, flats and secure, affordable Housing Trust houses; funds for the Community Housing Association and for Aboriginal Housing.

South Australia’s current social housing funding shortfall is $160 million per year to maintain our public housing stock. Without this funding, our Housing Trust is forced to “cannibalise” selling off 1,100 houses each year, as the need for housing grows. Over the past ten years of Federal and State Liberal governments, there has been a reduction of 14,700 Housing Trust houses. This is a disgrace!

SA requires the political strategy to insist with both Federal and State governments that SA’s share, as in our past, should not be limited to our population size but to the 14.4% share of the national public housing stock to restore public housing to former levels and to address the growth in poverty (see the SA Parliament Poverty Report.)

The issue has to be starkly put that either SA returns to our historic level of public housing or else South Australians will continue to lack affordable housing and remain in poverty. For 40 years both political parties believed in investing in public housing.

Unfortunately far too many very comfortable citizens have no idea of who the homeless are despite the good articles in the press. The priorities would include: homeless children; young women escaping domestic violence; family’s living in cars; the Aboriginal homeless; the mentally ill; offenders just out of prison; disadvantaged youth and the older single male alcoholic.

Those who, after a long wait, make it to public housing have not only a home, but hope.

Shelter is a human right.

We need to increase the supply of affordable housing which is accessible to homeless people and available to the working poor.

This addresses poverty. (See the table.) Building low cost public sector housing stimulates our economy. Now is the time to inject investment into SA’s housing sector. Housing contributes to health, community well-being and the stability for people to have jobs.

This is the election campaign. Howard’s government is not addressing homelessness as a priority. Public pressure nationally and in SA by housing and social justice activists is trying to put homelessness and public housing on the political agenda. Pressure is then on the Howard government to make commitments. As there is a large election spending surplus, why shouldn’t a government invest in public housing?

What arguments does the Howard government not understand?

Housing is fundamental whether for social inclusion, health, and social justice, child development, caring for the disabled, local jobs, crime reduction, building a cohesive community and a productive and competitive economy or ensuring basic shelter, a human right for citizens.

With high numbers of both homeless people and the working poor in the three Liberal marginal electorates of Adelaide, Makin and Hindmarsh, there are opportunities for campaigning. The political problem is that most voters are either not aware or could not care less.

The homeless are the forgotten minority in our housing debate. The homeless do not have the lobbying voice of big business. There is a new group active in the Federal election, and non-party political. It is Services First, a national group pointing to popular support in the polls for investing in improved services rather than tax cuts. Access information on Also Shelter SA, Homelessness SA and SACOSS are active.
At least Mark Latham acknowledges that affordable public housing is an important issue. At least he talks about being in public housing to provide as it did for him the ladder of opportunity. He has made an initial commitment of $400 million nationally over three years; this is short of injecting a billion dollars into public housing, but is a start.

A Labor Housing Minister Darryl Melham would immediately re-negotiate the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. So it is a start; and $400 million more than the Howard government. Part of Latham’s strategy is to encourage superannuation funds to invest in affordable housing. At least Latham will have a National Housing strategy.

I was enthused to see what was required nationally with the outcomes of the recent National Housing Affordability Conference, sponsored by the HIA, ACOSS, ALGA, and ACTU in association with the National Housing Alliance. The idea of the summit came from the Housing Industry Association.

The Key Objectives and Priorities for Action should not be ignored by political parties and policy makers. Please access the excellent papers on

The research presented is startling on the extent of the need.

There is a national crisis 1. for the homeless, over 100,000 homeless every night, a national scandal, with 200 children seeking emergency shelter but none available;

2. Over a million of the working poor in housing poverty; in housing stress because as low income earners, they have to pay well over 30% of income on rent in the private rental market and can’t get into public housing;
3. low income earners unable to get home ownership. Australia urgently requires a National Affordability Housing Agreement. The supply of affordable housing is critical. Increased public investment for affordable housing beginning with an extra $500 million is urgent.

As is a Public Sector Housing Renewal Fund and an Affordable Housing Innovations Fund; Reform to the tax system to improve equity and efficiency of their impact on housing affordability; (it is amazing how there is more assistance to the upper classes!); a national strategy for land and infrastructure planning.; a National Housing Minister and Housing policy; targeted First Home Buyers grant;…and more will be required if Australia’s and SA’s public housing crisis is to be overcome. See the papers by the National Shelter Policy Platform; ACOSS; the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations; and ACTU policies; and by John Sutton, of the CFMEU.
Touch One Touch All
The graph below shows the past record, what then of the Rann State Labor government?

I will leave to another time in detail about the Rann government but some comments are necessary today. After two years, there has been in SA 2004 an eventual start to the strategy of cutting homelessness by half. This is going slowly with good social inclusion plans that both the Premier and the Social Inclusion Board Chair Father Cappo have been pushing and are initiatives on sleeping rough and $12 million of programmes to prevent homelessness.

Premier Rann’s promise was to cut homelessness in half in his first term. This important object will not be achieved. So the promise is redefined to cut those sleeping rough, ie. 900 by a half. Good, but not what was promised. The Rann government has some good programmes for assistance to agencies to prevent homelessness and over time these will have an impact.

But what is missing and the new Housing Minister Jay Weatherill knows this, is to stop the sell-off of Trust homes and begin with new capital investment to build Trust homes; and to recommence an ambitious building programme over ten years that meets the need. But what to do now? Despite having funds, the SA government is yet to commit significantly in capital spending on Trust homes because of the Treasurer’s dominant economic rationalist neo-liberal beliefs.

Some Housing Trust funds are available now and not being invested. This in two areas. First, there is some $22 million. This money has some murky history but in brief was when the former Liberal Housing Minister Dean Brown used Commonwealth Housing money for health reasons. The Labor Housing Minister Steph Key was eventually able to get this money back from DHS to the Housing Trust and some $8 million has gone to maintenance, but another $22 million is yet to be spent; despite the crisis. Second, the Housing Trust has been required by Treasurer Foley and his Department to hold very large cash reserves. This year Treasury insisted on cash reserves in the order of $70 million! Despite the crying need to build Trust homes, the Labor Treasurer has the Trust put this huge amount into reserves.

The SA graph showing the Housing Trust sell-off and drastic drop in building houses.

I argue that this money has to be invested now. But also there is required ongoing capital funding, otherwise the yet to be announced Rann government 10 year Housing Plan will not be adequately funded to meet the housing demand. It is very difficult for those welfare agencies struggling with homeless issues to see the large windfalls coming into the SA Treasury coffers from increasing land prices and large land tax and stamp duties tax. A significant part of this could go to public housing. But if you raise this, the Cabinet economic rationalists have been saying no. There is however some progress being made. First rate Trust homes are being built. But there is much more to be done by the State government.

Further, Treasurer Foley is cautious of borrowing to fund capital building of houses, but this is at a time of low interest rates. But there are further problems for existing tenants in what Foley is up to that can be seen from the following. In fact on the basis that the Labor government would not provide funds to the Trust, the Treasurer ensured rather that an accelerated sell-off plan would be prepared and it was. This is to sell-off over 1500 Trust homes to retire debt of some $400 million. Details in 2003 were drawn up, which homes to sell namely some of the so-called more expensive Trust homes because of recent rising land prices. How to compulsorily move tenants from their homes is carefully worked out.

There are plans for the further raising of housing trust rents and other moves to impact on Trust finances. This Financial plan is without increased building of more Trust homes, despite the human need, despite the homelessness emergency. Where is the social justice? is an obvious question. Reports of this plan surfaced publicly at the beginning of the year in the media with questions from the Liberal opposition.

Then in the Messenger Press this sell-off plan was further exposed and the Democrats spokeswomen in SA on housing Kate Reynoldâ’s is still concerned about the sell-off and this was in last week’s news. While I was on the Housing Trust Board I expressed concerns. Whether the Housing Minister Jay Weatherill will resist this Treasury dominance is yet to be seen. He states publicly that there is to be no sell-off plan.
Michael O'Connor CFMEU
What is more important is that there is a significant capital funding programme for the SA Housing Plan and for the Housing Trust from the Rann government. The details to be announced soon will be interesting. My focus here has been only on the Housing Trust.

Nothing I have said is to criticise the SA Housing Trust but what the Cabinet is not doing. The Housing Trust is most professional. It is highly regarded. On what they are doing programmes are value for money.

The Better Neighbourhood programmes are first class as are the large urban redevelopments under way and such as the Westwood project. On the latter, the remaining problem is the number of public housing homes that is decreasing, not increasing. Comparatively the Housing Trust is high on the quality standards, including social justice and green criteria. Tenants praise the Trust. There are many issues not discussed here. A great deal more has to be done in Aboriginal and Community housing. The Housing Trust is still a key player for SA’s future.

One of the questions is if there is a Latham government what mutual commitment will be given by the Rann government to Latham’s housing policy and what financial commitment will be forthcoming. It was disappointing to hear reported comments by SA Housing Minister Jay Weatherill that at this stage the Rann government was not committed to match spending by a Latham government. Pressure will be on this to change.
Indeed, as we all know, housing is in crisis and there is an emergency!

The second week of the Federal election and the housing issue should be up on the national agenda. Are you going to act to raise homelessness and public housing as an important enough issue for political parties to take notice? It may not be too late. This paper only addresses one aspect of the housing debate in SA. Today’s conference can address all of the pressing issues, and on a collaborative National and State basis. Meanwhile, please buy The Big Issue, the independent magazine sold on the streets by vendors seeking to positively change their lives.

Chris White. 4/9/04. He is a researcher at Flinders University and recent member of the SA Housing Trust Board.

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