LG and 'social' housing

By Senator Lyn Allison*

In December, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee reported on its inquiry into housing assistance. We initiated this inquiry because of the Coalition Government's decision to stop giving the States money to build public and community housing and to provide instead rent assistance for those on low incomes.

The Government reasoned that much of the available public housing stock was in poor condition and, in overall numbers, fell well short of the demand for accommodation. The Commonwealth dollar could be stretched further by reserving public housing for only the most needy and assisting others to get by in the private sector. This was also the general direction of the previous government.

The inquiry seemed to us an opportunity to explore some more creative ideas, and we were particularly interested in the role which Local Government might play. We argued that the Commonwealth, together with the States and Local Government, should develop a solid National Housing Strategy which could properly define the roles and responsibilities for each level of government and avoid the buck passing which currently typifies service provision where funding comes from multiple sources.

The fact that Local Government is rarely brought to the table for any government policy development is a serious problem in this country, most particularly in relation to housing. If State and Federal Governments are no longer willing to see public infrastructure as worthy of the investment of public funds, then we need to find meaningful ways of involving the private sector.

The fact is no one is building low cost housing! In Sydney and Melbourne, vacancy rates are at an all time low, which means cheaper rental accommodation is in the outer suburbs where there are no services. Or it is in very poor condition. This is the 90s. Why not offer planning and financial incentives to developers for housing the many families which do not fit the mum, dad and two kids mould?

Local Government could be entrepreneurial with a bit of Commonwealth leadership and support. Cleverly designed housing which offers streetscape and social integration could be financed by interest free loans. If community housing and housing cooperatives are cost effective and satisfy the needs of the occupants, who better to help them get off the ground and oversee their management than Local Government?

Instead of persisting with the ideology of competition policy and hands off government, why not encourage Local Government to develop, or should I say return to, notions of cooperative effort, of fostering community. People will be in a much better position to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as conservative governments would have them do, if their housing is safe and secure.

The 90's generation of young people reaching the age of independent living will, by and large, not have long term, secure jobs from which to go to the bank for a mortgage in the way their parents did. They are more likely to be scrambling to pay off HECS, to be in casual or part time work, and, unless we can offer them something more than high rents, they will stay dependent on handouts for years to come. Local Government could play a role in turning that around.

*Senator Allison is the Australian Democrats Spokesperson on Local Government.