Monthly digest on housing affordability and homelessness: June/July 2021

Jul 30, 2021

The following is the latest instalment of a monthly digest of interesting articles, research reports, policy announcements and other material relevant to housing stress/affordability and homelessness – with hypertext links to the relevant source.

WA’s proposed Online Homelessness Services Portal:
As part of its All Paths Lead to a Home: Western Australia’s 10-year Strategy on Homelessness 2020-2030, the WA government’s Department of Communities is developing a new online data and case management portal designed to make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to access help and support.

The system is being co-designed in partnership with the community services sector and people with lived experiences of homelessness. The August 2020 media statement which kicked off this initiative says the new 24/7 integrated system will show the availability of beds and support in real-time, also opening up referral pathways, and adopts a “No Wrong Door” approach across the sector, designed to render appropriate support regardless of which service or agency a homeless person initially connects with.

Is undersupply of new housing really the main cause of Sydney’s runaway house prices?
Leith van Onselen, Macro business self-styled “Unconventional Economist”, challenges the claim that first-home buyers have effectively been locked out of Sydney’s housing market because of a “decade of undersupply” of new homes. He argues instead that Sydney’s housing shortage has been caused by an oversupply of migrants, citing a June 2021 NSW Productivity Commission White Paper, which includes population growth amongst the many possible contributing factors to housing shortages, as actual net migration in recent years has greatly exceeded forecasts made in 2005 when numbers started rising considerably.

Van Onselen goes on to point out that the NSW Budget has revealed that NSW’s structural housing shortage has all but evaporated thanks to the collapse in immigration since the Covid-induced closure of international borders. He also refers to projections in the recent Intergenerational Report that net overseas migration is expected to return to positive levels in 2023, before returning to pre-Covid-19 levels towards the end of the decade, once again putting significant demand pressures on the supply of new housing. Van Onselen’s solution is to reduce immigration back to historical pre-2005 levels. Even if his argument has some merit in relation to general market-rate housing, though other respected experts may well contest this (eg. Not least because of the significant economic contribution made by migrants), his argument does not address Australia’s long-term shortfall of social and affordable housing, which is substantial and growing.

Theatre as a vehicle for social impact:
Julia McNamara describes a new production – Follow Me Home, written by Lewis Treston – being staged by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) which utilises theatre to connect communities and build understanding around youth homelessness in Australia. It arose out of a brief from ATYP to communicate the lived experience of young people who have experienced homelessness.

McNamara cites a 2019-20 report stating that 40% of those accessing homelessness services are aged under 25 and that around 32,000 people aged 12 to 24 are homeless in Australia. She says that theatre, and the arts more broadly, have been directly linked with increasing community connection and creating a shared sense of identity. Follow Me Home was created using a “co-design” framework, involving interviews, workshops and consultations with those who had lived experience, to develop authentic nuanced and reflective vignettes. McNamara observes that measuring the impact of initiatives such as this is multi-faceted, with a range of factors influencing outcomes. However, she goes on to say “there is clear evidence showing that integrating arts-based activities into health services creates beneficial outcomes for individuals and the wider community, as outlined in The PAtH Forward report”.

Key findings from recent young renter survey:
A June 2021 report by the Tenants’ Union of NSW and Youth Action provides key findings from a survey of over 300 young renters, as well as observations by participants in a series of roundtables with young renters, youth workers and policy officers. Over half the young renters surveyed were aged 25 to 30 and over a third were current students. Unsurprisingly, housing issues figured prominently amongst the concerns of young people, with the cost of renting being of most concern (84% of respondents), followed closely by the cost of buying a home (72% of respondents), then by the quality of housing available and by various other housing issues affecting renters.

The report analyses a number of other key observations by young renters, including their experience of discrimination as renters and whether they feel heard. The survey lends colour to the already well-known problem for young renters of finding an affordable, secure rental, particularly anything of even fair quality close to public transport and other key amenities and services. The lack of security of tenure is also cited as a key source of anxiety.

Nearly 10% of US high school students experienced homelessness in Spring 2019:
A report commissioned by Nemours Children’s Health System on the findings from an analysis of Spring 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covering public schools across 24 US states and 12 school districts, found that the number of students experiencing homelessness was three times the number recognised by the relevant states’ education agencies, thereby creating gaps in funding and services needed by this vulnerable population.

Over 9% of all public high school students in the states involved experienced homelessness, with state education agencies failing to identify at least two-thirds of this cohort. Even more sobering is that nearly 14% of all public high school students within the group of 12 school districts reported homelessness, yet those districts failed to identify some 29% of such cohort. The report includes evidence of the ways homelessness rates differ by race, sex and LGBT identification, and highlights the higher rates of sexual and other victimisation amongst students reporting homelessness as well as the increased risk of suicide, and substance and alcohol abuse, amongst students reporting homelessness. It is clear from this report that student homelessness is prevalent in US public high schools and goes unrecognised to a significant extent. This story is a salutary learning experience for our own education agencies in what can go wrong when data is inaccurate.

Social housing down as house prices reach unprecedented highs:
The price of housing, and also housing rental rates, are going up rapidly around Australia, particularly in our major capital cities, while at the same time we are seeing diminishing availability of social housing – the traditional accommodation safety net for those on very low incomes. Jarrod Reedie reports that CoreLogic’s Hedonic Home Value Index for June has revealed a rise in house prices across Australia approximating 13.5% in the 12 months to 30 June 2021, while at the same time social housing has fallen (according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) from 4.6% to 4.2% between 2014 and 2020. The median house price in Sydney now stands at just under $1 million, more than 11 times the median income of a worker in Sydney, following a 15% rise in the price of housing in that city. Rentals across Australia are also increasing rapidly, with national rents for houses increasing by 15.1% and for units by 8.1% in the past 12 months. See also Australia records biggest rise in housing rents in more than 22 years as wages barely budge

Housing shortage forces thousands of at-risk women to return to violent partners or end up homeless, report finds:
A new report titled “Nowhere to Go”, produced by Equity Economics and commissioned by the Everybody’s Home Campaign, reveals that approximately 7,700 women a year in Australia return to violent partners and over 9,000 are forced into homelessness after leaving their homes due to family and domestic violence (FDV), unable to secure long-term affordable housing. Thousands of women face the desperate choice of staying with a violent partner or becoming homeless.

The report notes that FDV is the primary reason women and children seek specialist homelessness services, with only 3.2% currently receiving the long-term housing solutions they need, and that there was a nearly 6% increase in the number of women seeking specialist homelessness services in the 12-month period to March 2021. It estimates an immediate need for an additional 16,810 social housing units to provide women with somewhere to go when their only option is to leave home due to FDV.

Providing such additional housing would come at a capital cost of $7.6 billion (potentially less if community housing providers and innovative financing models were to be used), but with the following offsetting benefits: immediate economic benefits of $15.3 billion; the creation of 47,000 jobs across the country; the avoidance of $122.5 million per annum in costs due to women returning to a violent partner; and the avoidance of $257 million per annum in costs due to women becoming homeless after leaving their homes due to FDV  The findings of the report are due to be presented at a national women’s safety summit to be held at the end of July.

Queensland Housing and Homelessness Action Plan 2021-2025:
This Plan claims to reaffirm the objectives of The Queensland Housing Strategy to deliver more social and affordable homes and to transform the way housing services are delivered. It is said to be about “boosting housing supply, moving towards ending homelessness, supporting vulnerable people and securing a fair and accessible housing system”, and aims to build on the foundations of the Action Plan 2017-2020.

A headline element of the new Plan is the Housing Investment Growth Initiative, which is directed to creating 6,365 new social housing units across the state, supported by (amongst other things) a $1 billion Housing Investment Fund. Such an investment appears modest next to Victoria’s ambitious $5.3 billion “Big Housing Build” though comparisons of this sort are admittedly difficult when one takes account of differing populations and needs.

The new Queensland Plan envisages the state delivering social and affordable housing using state planning and economic development tools, potentially including the increasingly popular tool of mandatory inclusionary zoning (especially in Priority Development Areas), and the development or sale of state-owned land suitable for large scale residential development. Of particular interest is the stated objective to better coordinate and integrate services across government and the sector and the development of “a new framework to ensure no person exits from another government service to homelessness”. The Plan “recognises that stable, sustainable, affordable, longer-term housing combined with appropriate supports is critical to helping people to stay in their homes, achieve improved whole-of-life outcomes and reduce demands on government services”.

Improved cross-agency coordination is also an objective, with related key deliverables. So too is a range of special assistance to vulnerable and other priority groups, including young people, people suffering from family and domestic violence, older Queenslanders, those suffering disability and of course Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is pleasing to see that the government intends to draw on those with lived experience in framing new policies and procedures.

A final point worth noting is the state government’s ambition to deliver rental reform in Queensland, including minimum housing standards, designed to ensure that the rental laws “strike the right balance between renter and lessor needs and interests” – all hopefully with the end of ensuring that vulnerable renters, in particular, are able “to access safe, secure and sustainable housing”. Hopefully the word “affordable” was an inadvertent omission.

“Die of cold or die of stress?”: Social housing is frequently colder than global health guidelines:
A group of academics from the University of Wollongong highlight their new research examining the relationship between energy consumption and thermal performance (between March 2017 and September 2019) in an admittedly small sample of 42 social housing dwellings in NSW. The researchers found that many homes operated – for substantial periods, particularly during winter – outside the healthy temperature recommendations of the World Health Organisation. Many social housing tenants are effectively forced to choose between either keeping their home at a healthy temperature or having manageable energy bills. Some even feel the need on occasions to relinquish daily showers, cooked dinners, night lighting and watching television in the interest of staying warm. More than 1 million Australians live in poor condition housing, including 100,000 in very poor or derelict housing. Exposure to temperatures too high or too low has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and other serious health conditions. The researchers note that energy efficiency upgrades (including retrofitted ones) to existing social housing stock are one answer, though they favour improvements to the building fabric of sub-standard dwellings, such as better insulation and sealing of draughts – changes which are long-lasting and usually don’t increase maintenance costs.

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