May 9, 2014
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Deborah Snow
Earlier this year, at the age of 63, Frank Arnaut found himself living in his car. The former small businessman had suffered a succession of misfortunes: a broken marriage, the collapse of his family-based business, the forced sale of his house and an unfavourable court ruling over how the proceeds would be split with his ex-wife.
Public housing wasn’t an option – he was at the back of a years-long queue with more than 50,000 applicants (representing 120,000 people) already waiting for a shrinking supply of government houses.
He couldn’t afford anything in the private rental market. He’d outworn his welcome with relatives. The car, at least, was shelter. A not-for-profit housing organisation eventually found him a small house in Sydney’s outer west at a subsidised rent, allowing him to reunite with his 13-year-old daughter who had been staying with relatives. It didn’t make him lucky. But it made him more fortunate than tens of thousands of others struggling to get or keep a roof over their heads in the city’s outer ring.
Nicola Lemon, the chief executive of the community housing provider Hume Housing which found Frank Arnaut a home, says she sees stories like his in western Sydney every day.
‘‘We have people presenting to us on a daily basis’’ she says. ‘‘Families of four living in cars, people living with relatives in ridiculously overcrowded circumstances, others couch-surfing … If they are living in their cars, they might go to a relative’s house for breakfast, or a coffee shop, or to the park toilet to wash. It’s more common than you would expect.’’
Kailene Smith, an outreach worker with the Wentworth Community Housing Association, has seen private rentals in the far western Sydney/Windsor area where she works ‘‘just going up and up and up”.
“Two years ago you could get a nice little two bedroom flat for $180, $200, $220 a week,” she says. “Now its $300 for the same property. If you are a single mum or dad with a couple of kids, forget it; you’ll be pushed out of the area by the people who’ve moved here to commute to work in Parramatta.’’
She has seen some desperate souls take to living in the bush in Penrith and around Richmond and Windsor.
Lemon says the average rent in the local government areas where Hume operates – Bankstown, Campbelltown, Fairfield, Liverpool and Parramatta – recently hit $350 a week across all types of housing, including units. ‘‘I have been in this job six years and never seen such disparity between rental and benefit income.’’
Last week Anglicare released its annual housing affordability survey painting a similarly bleak picture.
Of more than 12,000 properties advertised for rent in greater Sydney in April, just 33 were deemed ‘‘affordable’’ for those whose sole income was government benefits (affordable being defined as taking up no more than 30 per cent of household income.) If these people paid up to 45 per cent of their incomes, then another 928 properties were available – still drastically short of demand.
‘‘My recent work indicates there was virtually nowhere in Sydney that a very low income household could affordably rent in 2012,’’ says housing consultant Dr Judy Stubbs, a senior research fellow at the University of NSW.
‘‘The people in most need, and for whom we are doing basically nothing, are very low income households in private rental. These people are theoretically eligible for (heavily subsidised) social, or public housing, but most do not get a look in unless they’re in desperate need with multiple problems, including usually health problems, and thus manage to get put on a priority waiting list – and that’s very few compared with what is required.’’
It’s not just those on government benefits being squeezed out.
Low-paid workers, particularly those in heavily casualised service jobs, are also finding it harder to keep a toehold in the greater Sydney area, even in western and south-western Sydney.
Stubbs talks of a ‘‘tsunami’’ of rising rents, rolling up and down the coast, pushing people ever further from the centres where most jobs are.
‘‘People are being pushed to the margins,’’ she says. ‘‘Some are going as far as Shoalhaven. To the north, Wyong (on the central coast) is probably the limit to feasible commuting, and historically has been one of the most affordable markets in the greater Sydney region. But now, the vast majority of housing being created there is simply not available to low or very low income renters. They go inland, or much further up the coast, losing their links to their communities and their support networks.’’
The affordability gap is becoming a crisis not just for those in outer metropolitan areas, but for the city as a whole, says Committee for Sydney CEO Dr Tim Williams.
Raised on a public housing estate in Wales, Williams says: ‘‘I know this stuff – a city that does not have housing for a mixed community is very unbalanced and economically threatened. You cannot have two-hour commutes for your fire-fighters.’’
Williams was also chief adviser on housing to former British minister David Miliband, and says NSW is in the grip of policy paralysis on how to increase the supply of lower-cost housing .
The public housing system, with its five, 10, or 15-year waiting lists, is ‘‘broken’’. Insufficient supply is exacerbated by the fact that few public housing tenants are given an incentive to move out if their circumstances improve.
‘‘Lack of supply is forcing rationing; rationing means you have to be as deprived as possible to get into it; and the perverse consequence is that by concentrating the most deprived members of the community (in the same areas) you are ensuring they are even more deprived going forward. It’s stopped being a form of social mobility,’’ Williams argues.
He’s not the only one criticising what he labels policy ‘‘inertia’’.
Nicola Lemon says organisations like hers, a not-for-profit community housing provider, stand willing and able to take over public housing stock from the state government, reinvigorate it and use it as security to raise commercial loans to build more lower-cost housing, as happened in the United Kingdom. As an example, she says, Hume Community Housing had agreed with the previous state government to take over 152 public houses at Telopea, leverage them to take out commercial loans, and use the funds to build an extra 68 low-cost housing units. But the project stalled when the O’Farrell government came in and has only this week been picked up again by state cabinet.
‘‘We had real difficulty getting through to the minister (then Pru Goward)’’ she says. ‘‘There has been an absence of policy, an absence of strategy. It’s shut down and the bureaucrats cannot answer the questions we are asking.’’
Andrea Galloway, chief executive of Evolve – another community housing provider which operates in western Sydney – has also felt government doors slamming shut.
‘‘There are gate-keepers (guarding ministers) and its very hard to get past them,’’ she says. ‘‘They are not approving proposals being put forward by community housing providers because there is no social housing policy at the moment.’’
Neither the federal nor the state government has a dedicated housing minister, and last November the Abbott government shut down the National Housing Supply Council, which provides the data critical to driving policy.
One of the main advantages of community housing providers, Galloway says, is their ability to take on commercial debt to upgrade or add to low-cost housing stock. Their tenants can also access a federal rental subsidy scheme known as Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which public housing tenants cannot.
With these tools, she argues, community housing providers can deliver a more successful mix of tenants in the housing complexes they manage.
‘‘We aim for a mixed tenure model: some in social housing, some in affordable housing aimed at key workers, and some in private sales which we can facilitate with shared equity schemes. Its about getting people on the housing journey, allowing them to progress.’’
Galloway adds that not-for profit social housing providers are becoming more entrepreneurial – hers, for instance, has a very high-powered board – but trust is not being extended by governments.
A business source says outdated ideological suspicion of community housing providers is part of the problem. ‘‘Coalition governments have tarred them with being close to the ALP – but that is now completely out of date.’’
Under a recent federal-state national housing pact, all state governments agreed to transfer up to 35 per cent of their public housing stock to community housing providers for management, renewal and replenishment – but that hasn’t happened in NSW.
‘‘We are looking for a commitment to stock transfer, and a timetable. Its very difficult to know why this does not exist,’’ Williams says.
Even the state Auditor-General’s office is clamouring for action.
In a damning report issued last year, it said NSW public housing was supporting fewer people than a decade ago, while waiting lists were tipped to balloon by 60 per cent in two years’ time. Meanwhile public housing assets were being sold to plug a gap in the maintenance budget.
‘‘This approach is not financially sustainable,’’ the report warned, adding, ‘‘there is no clear direction for managing the shortfall between need and demand for public housing’’.
A spokesman for the new Family and Community Services minister Gabrielle Upton said the government had embarked on ‘‘initiatives’’ to put social housing on a ‘‘more sustainable and strategic’’ footing, including the sale of Millers Point public housing.
Read the full article online here.