Comment: Housing Crisis in Our Backyard

Councillors need to be attuned to the new thinking about post-pandemic economic infrastructure and job-creation opportunities that could be realised through a dramatically enlarged social and public housing construction program at national, state and local levels, writes Les Rosenblatt, social science researcher and academic with 35 years experience in housing issues and initiatives.

Australia is in the grip of an affordable housing crisis. And this crisis is intensely local.

Port Phillip, very unusually, is a city with half its households occupied by people paying rent, and of whom, in 2016, 18 percent  (or approximately 7,000 households) were experiencing housing-related financial stress. Housing-related financial stress is defined as households in the lowest 40 percent of incomes paying more than 30% of their usual gross weekly on housing costs.

Council’s housing policy, In Our Backyard, identifies ‘less than one percent’ of private rental housing as affordable for low-income households. Only one in four low income households in the City of Port Phillip (CoPP) occupied social housing in 2016, i.e. housing that has a rental set at a percentage of income of up to 30 percent (25 percent in public housing estates) plus any Commonwealth rental assistance that the tenant receives.

Home ownership was unaffordable for people in the lowest 70 percent of the income range at the time of the last census.

At the opposite end of CoPP’s household and dwelling spectrum, a miniscule 8.4 percent of private dwellings in the city were stand-alone houses in 2016, the majority of which are in the Albert Park/Middle Park areas of Port Phillip. Due to the growth of medium and higher density housing, this was down from 14.5 percent five years earlier.

Fast forward to 2021 and the pandemic and massive unemployment and underemployment - particularly in the gig economy, hospitality, the arts, entertainment and tourism industries - are rapidly shrinking the prospects of secure temporary rental tenancy and income protection.

Too many public housing estates are in depressingly run-down condition, some still under lockdown or subject to glacial remediation efforts by the State government. It must be noted that Victoria spends the least of all the states on assisting the housing needs of its population - which now includes over 80,000 people on public housing waiting lists. And the Commonwealth is stubbornly resisting investing further in social housing, turning a blind eye to the affordability crisis instead.

In this context, the City of Port Phillip is aiming for a $4 dollar contribution from the Victorian Government for every $1 Council contributes to improving housing affordability for local residents. Council intends to increase the city’s social housing stock by 920 units in the next five years to 2025.

The recently announced transformation of a Council-owned car park in the heart of Balaclava at 46-58 Marlborough Street will provide 46 apartments of this 920 unit target and is to be applauded as a small but significant step forward for this policy.

However, SGS Economics, which reviewed the In our Backyard program in 2018, noted that the 920 target, if achieved, would just manage to hold the City’s social housing ratio at 7.2 percent or the same as it was in 2015. SGS estimated if this target could be reached, there would still be a shortfall of 6540 units of unmet need. The 920 units would amount to only 14 percent of the total required expansion of social housing in Port Phillip.

What should this mean for candidates standing at the October Council election?

Firstly, housing security and affordability must be hugely prominent in their objectives. While this is a complex policy arena, it is also critically important - complexity must not be allowed to overwhelm a determined commitment to real momentum and adroit pursuit of measurable achievements within reasonable timelines.

Secondly, a range of strategies - including planning, financial leverage, local registered housing associations and the Port Phillip Housing Trust, innovative land equity usage, leasing and tenure, partnership arrangements with other municipalities and levels of government as well as amplified advocacy - will be needed. The incoming councillors will need to get across these steps as rapidly as possible if they are to help re-establish the City’s proud legacy and achievements in helping its residents with their housing security. They will have the chance to further strengthen relationships with local community associations, which already punch above their weight.

Finally, incoming councillors will need to be attuned to the new thinking about post-pandemic economic infrastructure and job-creation opportunities which could be realised through a dramatically enlarged social and public housing construction program at national, state and local levels. The depth and scale of the current economic recession has highlighted the opportunity for serious new investment in social housing, both to create jobs and to provide affordable, energy efficient homes. This would offer enormous social and economic benefits as well as incorporating the best of environmentally sustainable design and energy. A number of coalitions of housing organisations, building contractors, developers and unionsand investors are targeting social housing investment as a win-win, delivering short-term value while creating long-term community assets.

A city such as Port Phillip must be up to the mark as an important contributor to ease the housing affordability crisis.