As Homelessness Week 2018 draws to a close Tony Davies, CEO of Social Futures and the Chair of NSW Council of Social Services, proposes some affordable actions that can be taken immediately to address homelessness in regional Australia.
What comes to mind when you think of homelessness? For many it is the image of someone sleeping rough in an urban or inner-city environment – perhaps tucked away in a dark alley or huddled up on a park bench. But the fact is that a homeless person in Australia is just as likely to be living in a regional area – perhaps camping out in the bush, among the coastal sand dunes or sleeping in their car on the fringe of a country town.
Nearly 20 per cent of the rough sleepers in NSW, for example, are to be found between Grafton and Tweed Heads although the region’s population is just 4 per cent of the NSW total.
As the CEO of a large not-for-profit and the largest homelessness service provider in the North Coast of NSW I am very familiar with the profound affects that homelessness and housing stress has on the well being of families and our communities. The rental vacancy rate for the Northern Rivers was 0.8 per cent in January 2018, compared with 1.6 per cent in June 2017. This was the lowest vacancy rate in NSW.
Furthermore, according to the ABS, 1,494 people were homeless in the Northern Rivers on Census night in 2016, an increase of 194 persons (or 4.6 per 10,000) since the 2011 Census. Homelessness is just as serious an issue for other inland communities across NSW and regional Australia. Lack of available, let alone affordable, housing stock is a key reason so many of our neighbours are homeless. Government policies seeking to address homelessness have largely left these people out.
As the nation’s attention turned to homelessness this week it’s time for a new policy direction – one which finally brings homeless people living in regional areas in from the cold. For far too long, affordable and social housing policies have poured revenue into urban developments as political leaders seek to build as many dwellings as possible within the electoral cycle. Regional areas, with their smaller developers and limited infrastructure, are relegated to watching from the sidelines as their homeless populations continue to grow. But there is another way – one that specifically targets areas of need in regional Australia with smaller-scale housing developments that are genuinely affordable for people on low incomes.
Minor tax changes
For a start we need a regime of tax incentives to encourage development in regional areas of high need. Relatively small changes to capital gains and land tax would make it much more attractive for developers to build genuinely affordable housing in regional areas. There are those who argue that we shouldn’t use tax as an instrument of social policy, but that is simply the nature of taxation. Taxation necessarily involves deciding where money is going to be taken from and where it’s going to go. We should do that in a way that reduces economic inequality.
But these projects also require sufficient time to be done thoughtfully.
Longer term affordable housing initiatives
There have been a number of occasions in recent years where the government has put money into short-term projects and failed to meet the need for affordable housing in regional areas. The National Rental Affordability scheme and Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package are prime examples. Billions of dollars flowed into affordable housing subsidies and development, but those funds were allocated using processes that required large-scale development to be completed very quickly. It meant that all of the money was allocated on the basis of who could build things fast, rather than on the basis of need.
The national political climate means governments have an obsession with large developments, driven by the desire for ‘big bang’ figures to impress voters. This leaves developers in regional areas unable to compete with their city cousins for a share of the funding pie. A more mature approach is needed to ensure the benefits of future housing supply initiatives go to those who need them most.
Quarantining affordable housing funds for the regions
Governments need to look at quarantining social and affordable housing funds for specific regional markets so that community housing partners can develop a pipeline for affordable, smaller scale development. Instead of building 300 houses a year or two, why not aim for several developments of 50 in five years? That sort of development would have a huge impact in regions like the Northern Rivers and would actually be achievable for local providers. It would create sustained employment businesses rather than a one-off boost to large scale metropolitan developers.
This needs to be undertaken in concert with changes to planning laws. In particular, fitting more people in your typical house block in order to maximise the yield from available land. Yes, we need housing that’s liveable and in character with neighbourhoods. But we also need to fit more people into smaller spaces and a mix that includes people who need temporary accommodation. We also need to bring in inclusionary zoning: a requirement that a percentage of lots in every subdivision be devoted to affordable housing.
Some people argue that this makes development more expensive overall because it’s no good for developers. But it is a fact of life in South Australia and other countries around the world and they are doing just fine.
The benefits of implementing these policies are immense. Safe, stable accommodation is the foundation for participation in social and economic life. Without it a large and growing section of our community will continue to be left out in the cold.