OLIVER FRANKEL AND SUSAN RYAN. Monthly digest on housing affordability and homelessness – Feb/Mar 2020

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. Although housing affordability and homelessness have featured less in the news over the past month, due to our almost exclusive (and understandable) focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little doubt that the already difficult plight of those suffering housing stress or homelessness has been made substantially worse by the virus and the public health and economic havoc it has caused.

Trajectories: the interplay between housing and mental health [AHURI final report, 19 Feb] The key findings from this collaborative case study by AHURI and Mind Australia may to some seem self-evident, but they nevertheless bear repeating: Safe, secure, appropriate and affordable housing is critical for recovery from mental ill-health and for being able to access appropriate support services; Poor and deteriorating mental health directly impact housing stability; Social support, good general health, and accessing mental health and other health services can reduce the likelihood of housing instability (and vice versa). The report notes that although housing and mental health policies tend to use “ideal” or “linear” social housing and mental health pathways to model and plan the support that is provided, actual pathways are rarely ideal or linear, and the range of actual trajectories needs to be better understood.

Over 3 million Australians locked into poverty [ProBono Australia, 24 Feb] The latest ACOSS and UNSW Sydney annual poverty report shows that 3.24 million Australians are living below the poverty line (measured at $457 per week in 2017-18 for a single adult), including more than three quarters of a million children. These statistics amount to more than one in eight adults and one in six children in Australia. Our poverty rate is worse than in most other wealthy countries, including NZ, Germany and Ireland. Leaders from a range of large community sector organisations – including Anglicare, Vinnies and Mission Australia – took the opportunity to remind government that one of the key solutions to our poverty blight is greater investment in social and affordable housing, to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home and help avoid low-income earners falling into homelessness.

Geelong City Council plans an ambitious increase in supply of social housing [Geelong Council media release, 26 Feb] Geelong City Council recently announced an ambitious long-term “Social Housing Plan 2020-2041” to increase the amount of social housing in Greater Geelong. The Plan will see the creation of a further 12,000 new social housing dwellings over the next 20 years, approximately half in each decade. There are currently 3,300 households in Greater Geelong living in social housing, so the proposed increase represents a nearly 4-fold increase over the 20-year period. The increased supply may include a contribution of City-owned land to social housing. The Plan is being funded by a grant from Victoria’s Social Housing Investment Planning program.

New data shows fewer people sleeping rough in Sydney [Mirage News, 27 Feb] The City of Sydney’s latest (twice a year) street count – conducted on 18 February – shows a welcome reduction in people sleeping rough – reducing from 373 in February 2019 to 334 in February 2020. However, temporary and crisis accommodation remain at near capacity.

Byron Shire Council to consider building affordable housing above its car parks [Echo NetDaily, 4 Mar] Byron Shire Council is exploring a new idea for expanding the supply of affordable housing, namely building it above council owned car parks. Local Mayor, Simon Richardson, is reported to have said that Byron should be looking to add value to their “lazy” land” (or airspace above it) – defined by Council staff as any government site that is ‘currently occupied by a land use that could be mixed with affordable and social housing, but is currently not’. The concept would allow low-income earners to live in town centres and result in Council making better use of existing assets. The land could be leased to developers for up to 50 years, at a nominal fee.

Tassie government pledges millions to build more housing for State’s most vulnerable [ProBono Australia, 4 Mar] The Tasmanian government will inject $22m into social housing supply over the next 3 years, to build 220 new homes for those on Tasmania’s housing register. Tasmania will also transfer the management of 2,000 government owned properties to the State’s community housing providers, giving them an extra $6m in Commonwealth Rent Assistance revenue each year. The Tasmanian government funding was in part facilitated by the September 2019 waiver by the Federal Government of Tasmania’s housing-related Commonwealth debt.

Scrap stamp duty, replace with a universal land tax – what are the impacts? [AHURI brief, 6 Mar] This AHURI brief provides a useful summary of the long-advocated and widely supported idea of replacing State stamp duty with a broad-based (and annually levied) land tax, including on owner-occupied residential housing. Such a change to land tax would mark a major shift from the current land tax regime, which exempts such housing. Stamp duty, which applies only when a property is sold, is levied on the “improved” value of the property (ie. land and buildings). A broad-based land tax would apply to all properties, residential and commercial, whether owned as an investment or by an owner-occupier, but would apply only to the “unimproved” value of the land. Stamp duty is considered to worsen housing affordability and lead to inefficient use of housing, as it tends to constrain liquidity in the housing market. Any transition from stamp duty to a broad-based land tax would need to be phased in very gradually – as for example is happening in the ACT over a 20-year period from 2012 – and be accompanied by transitional arrangements for existing landowners.

The many faces of social housing – home to 1 in 10 Australians [The Conversation, 13 Mar] This article, by three of the authors of a recently released major commissioned study by AHURI – “Social housing exit points, outcomes and future pathways: an administrative data analysis” – describes the pathways of people into and out of social housing over the 15-year period from 2000. The authors estimate that up to 10% of Australians have called social housing home at some time in the past 20 years, despite the fact that on any one night in Australia, less than half that number (ie. just over 4%) of households rent social housing. The reason for this discrepancy is that Australians tend to use social housing in several very different ways, of which a “home for life” is just one – accounting for only about a third of those who have used social housing. More than a quarter of all pathways through social housing are transitory, involving multiple entrances and exits, and in many cases (one in four) tenants use this type of housing as a temporary safety net or as a launchpad to more stable employment and market housing, underlying the valuable role it plays in stabilising lives and raising prosperity.

Why housing evictions must be suspended to defend us against coronavirus [The Conversation, 23 Mar] In this time of coronavirus, it is more important than ever for all of us to have a safe and secure place to call home. We are increasingly being directed or encouraged by government and public health authorities to stay home, work from home, and/or socially isolate at home. The authors of this article note that our homes are the “first line of defence against the COVID-19 outbreak”. A sudden loss of wages puts renters at risk of arrears and owner-occupiers at risk of mortgage default, which may result in legal proceedings to terminate the tenancy or give possession to a lender, and then ultimately eviction. The big 4 banks have said they will allow embattled mortgage holders to “pause” their mortgage payments as a pandemic hardship measure, however significant risks remain for the borrowers. The authors therefore call for government to implement a moratorium on evictions for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts, as has apparently happened in some other countries, including the US, the UK and Ireland. Eviction is seen as a “breach in the first line of defence that housing provides against COVID-19”, resulting in the evicted themselves being more at risk of contracting the virus and also posing a greater risk of spreading it to others. If, as seems likely, the COVID-19 pandemic lasts for more than just a few months, governments will be under increasing pressure to implement reductions or waivers of rent and interest liabilities for as long as the crisis lasts.

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Oliver Frankel is a former corporate finance and M&A lawyer, who has spent the second half of his career in finance, investment and management. Most recently, he has taken a strong interest in how to address the affordable housing crisis.

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