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2nd May 2019

Australia’s social housing crisis: a stocktake

The need for social housing is not a new one. But as the demographics of Australia’s population changes, the existing infrastructure is struggling to keep up.

As the affordable housing crisis snowballs into the private rental market, social housing tenants and communities are left to consolidate their growing needs with infrastructure that was built for the societal structure of a bygone era.

Considering the value of the existing properties, Neale Walsh, Civica’s Director of Housing, says it’s more realistic to see how governments could benefit from creating a more efficient system for managing these services with the resources available.

The causes

Over the past 25 years, the number of occupied apartments in Australia has risen by 78% while the current infrastructure stock for public social housing is mostly separate houses, built to accommodate the predominantly nuclear families of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the last few decades, the market is becoming more saturated with singles and couples. This change in social housing trends is then compounded with a rising number of aging citizens, a large intake of immigrants, and a growing awareness of substance abuse and both physical and mental health-related problems.

The historical housing stock is struggling to keep up with and adapt to the speed at which city demographics are changing.

“What we have is a mismatch between the housing stock that is currently held by the state governments and what the need is currently in the community,” said Walsh.

What’s different this time?

“Social housing has always had its problems. Now, more than ever, it’s more about the stigma of social housing,” said Walsh.

One of the major players in social housing is the not-for-profit sector, which addresses the overall care for the occupants beyond housing itself.

“A lot of these people are underprivileged in our community; they have not just social housing needs. They have mental health needs, disability service needs or other areas where these organisations assist in,” said Walsh.

Add to that the growth in aging population who are not homeowners, and the stagnant rate of pension increase to adequately support them through the high cost of living in major Australian cities.

Considering these issues, governments and not-for-profit organisations need to approach social housing in a more holistic sense to encompass the needs of the tenants beyond physical infrastructure alone.

This change, Walsh notes, can only be achieved with the help of the community.

“It’s not just about putting people into houses. It’s about creating a community that can support them and value them for the contributions they make to society.”

City specific causes such as the imbalance of property prices between Sydney and Melbourne compared to other major cities contribute to the issue. However, national regulations will help to alleviate these imbalances based on existing infrastructure and available services, such as property prices and transport accessibility.

“You have to remember that a lot of these people who are dependent on social housing may have requirements for certain services that you just can’t get in a remote area,” said Walsh.

Moving forward

This need for a national framework comes with a caveat: these programs need to have adequate funding to combat homelessness and its causes. This comes down to two solutions that need to be built simultaneously: building new infrastructure to better accommodate the rising number - and the different demographics - of social housing occupants, and rethinking its surrounding services.

“Governments need to find a more economical way of delivering social housing services. That’s either through partnerships with the private sector to build new properties that are more aligned to the needs of the community, and also finding ways to maintain and manage their existing stock better than they have been able to do on the budget they’ve had in the past,” said Walsh.

Despite this, Walsh acknowledges that states and territories are trying to balance several things at once. Because of this, the reality is that these objectives are largely dependent on community housing providers taking up a larger leadership role, while the government support them with regulation and resources.

“These community housing providers know that there is a growing need. They know that there’s not enough property to deal with the current demand. However it more than just housing, with their focus remaining firmly on the needs of the individual, not just the provision of a home, but in the provision of a support mechanism or helping hand to enable these people to re connect with the community and to once again become valued members of society. Through this approach these providers will tackle the forces behind homelessness head on, delivering services more efficiently than in the past and  redirect those savings into creating more properties and more sustainable outcomes in the community.”