OLIVER FRANKEL AND SUSAN RYAN. Monthly digest on housing affordability and homelessness – Mar/Apr 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. Unsurprisingly, much of the following is Covid-19 focused, as the pandemic has undoubtedly made the relevant issues more pressing than ever, and therefore provided additional impetus for urgently needed reform.

How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting housing policy in Australia? [AHURI Brief, updated 1 April] The health, social and economic effects of Covid-19 are particularly hard felt for some. For example, those in overcrowded and shared/group housing find it much more difficult as a practical matter to observe social distancing rules, more so when a member of the household is not willing to follow the rules. On 29 March, the Commonwealth Government announced a six-month moratorium on landlords evicting residential (or commercial) tenants who are unable to pay their rent due to lost income from the virus lockdown. Mortgage burdened landlords whose tenants are unable to pay rent may apply to their banks for a pause in mortgage repayments, though this of course creates a higher burden when repayments resume. The big 4 banks have announced programs offering mortgage relief for homeowners facing hardship as a result of the pandemic. Rents for social housing tenants are unlikely to require adjustment as they represent a set proportion of income received (usually from welfare benefits).

Why coronavirus impacts are devastating for international students in private rental housing [The Conversation, 7 April] About half of international students in Australia rent privately and more than half of those rely on paid work (mainly casual jobs) to pay the rent – jobs that have been lost through the pandemic. Based on a recent survey (conducted before Covid-19) of international students renting privately, it is estimated that up to half of them may now be unable to pay their rent. Social distancing and/or self-isolation is also a problem for many of them due to their overcrowded share/group living conditions – thereby creating additional risks of catching the virus. Such students are typically not eligible for government benefits, such as the recently announced job-keeper wage subsidy. The authors of this article believe the situation of international students in private rental accommodation is “extremely precarious”, and that Covid-19 could be a tipping point for many – no income, no government benefits, difficulty getting back to their home countries, risking homelessness, and risking becoming illegal immigrants in Australia (due to withdrawal of their student visa for non-payment of tuition fees).

What is at stake for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic? [AHURI Brief, updated 8 April]. The difficulties facing the homeless were great before the coronavirus pandemic but are now significantly worse, as summarised in this AHURI Brief. The places where rough sleepers tend to congregate or resort to as crisis or temporary accommodation are typically overcrowded and not suitable for social distancing or self-isolation. Moreover, rough sleepers have less access to places where they can wash or disinfect their hands or clothing. They are therefore more likely to face exposure to the virus due to general lack of proper sanitation and hygiene. Not-for-profit organisations who rely on older volunteers to staff their operations are finding it more difficult to access such volunteers due to the need for older people to self-isolate to address their own vulnerability to the pandemic. Panic buying and hoarding of essential supplies has also made things more difficult to service the homeless. The hospital system is likely to face greater demands from the homeless during Covid-19, as the homeless do not by definition have the luxury of recuperating at home during and after a bout of the virus. Social distancing laws may also render more difficult the prospect of a homeless person relying on couch surfing with family or friends, thereby pushing such person into becoming a rough sleeper. Some governments around Australia are trialling different initiatives to help the homeless in the face of Covid-19, including through temporarily funding hotel accommodation for them (eg. WA’s “Hotels with Heart” program). The silver lining of the pandemic, in this respect, is that hotel beds are not generally in short supply.

Coronavirus could put 1.5m US families on cusp of homelessness [Thomson Reuters Foundation, 8 April] Some housing experts are estimating that the economic blow of the coronavirus could push 1.5 million US families to the brink of homelessness, not only increasing poverty but accelerating the spread of the pandemic in overcrowded homes. These families would join some 8 million existing US households on the verge of losing their homes, namely those who pay half or more of their income on rent. About 560,000 people were homeless in the USA before the pandemic began to spread widely. People without secure homes struggle with social distancing, hygiene and social isolation orders. Congress approved a $2.3 trillion rescue package in late March and several US states have banned coronavirus-related evictions.

Australia had rent control in wartime. War on coronavirus demands the same response [The Conversation, 13 April] The author of this article points to the government’s sometime wartime rhetoric (eg. references to a “war on two fronts”) in describing Australia’s twin public health and economic battles in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. He notes that Australia’s Menzies government implemented rent control in 1939, at the start of the Second World War – measures which were strengthened by Curtain’s wartime cabinet in 1941. The author makes a case for state governments to adopt analogous measures now, arguing that a wartime like crisis such as coronavirus justifies wartime like responses – particularly given the extensive reliance on private rental housing in Australia (just under a third of Australians use it) and how unaffordable it was for many even before Covid-19 struck. Despite being wound back in many parts of Australia in the decade following the end of the Second World War, rent control remained in force in Victoria until the 1980s.

Fix housing and you’ll reduce the risks of coronavirus and other disease in remote Indigenous communities [The Conversation, 15 April] This article discusses a new report (“Good Housing to Prevent Sickness”), based on a collaboration between the University of Queensland and NT based Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation. The report’s simple message is that new housing and funding for repairs and maintenance can improve human health. The research underlying the report focuses on the NT’s Barkly region and reveals very high rates of overcrowding, including for example up to 22 residents in some 3-bedroom houses. Repairs and maintenance are often more expensive in remote areas and related waiting periods are long. Overcrowding and a failure to carry out essential repairs and maintenance heighten health risks, including but not limited to transmission of the coronavirus. The authors of this article estimate that about 5,500 new houses are required by 2028 to reduce the health impacts of overcrowding in remote communities.

Redesign of a homelessness service system for young people [AHURI Research Report, 16 April] Key findings from this Report include the following: a significant proportion (44%) of all individuals requiring help from homelessness services are young people and children; family conflict and domestic violence remain prominent drivers of homelessness amongst the young; nearly half of young people exiting homelessness services later relapse into bouts of homelessness; broader housing affordability issues (affecting the community generally) contribute to elevated homelessness amongst the young; more engagement in education and training for young people would help; Aboriginal young people and Indigenous Australians are generally over-represented in homelessness services, and “culturally appropriate service provision and practice” are still not well provided. See also this 23 April article in The Conversation, entitled “6 steps towards remaking the homelessness system so it works for young people”, by two of the Report authors, in which they summarise 3 front end measures (to “turn off the tap” of the newly homeless) and 3 back-end measures to help create housing options for young homeless people, including further development of youth-specific social housing and of the “youth foyer” model.

As coronavirus widens the renter-owner divide, housing policies will have to change [The Conversation, 20 April] Curtin University Professor Rachel Ong says “the spread of Covid-19 is exposing the widening gap in housing markets between those who own zero housing wealth (renters) and those with substantial housing wealth (owners)”. She provides a useful comparison of work insecurity indicators, financial stress indicators and ill-health indicators as between renters on the one hand and owners (ranked by income distribution) on the other. In summary, renters generally compare unfavourably with owners on each score, even owners in the lowest income band. For example, renters are much more likely to be unemployed or have only casual (rather than permanent) employment than owners. The spread of coronavirus has simply added to these various economic and health inequalities, and those inequalities are, according to Ong, likely to persist well after the end of Covid-19. In short, says Ong “The gap between the haves and have-nots will grow”. She advocates and then elaborates on three principles for post-pandemic policy: more equity between renters and owners; the need for what she calls “solidarity” rather than tension between older and younger generations; and a reprioritising of housing security as a foundation for fostering good health and economic participation.

Housing is not working. Time for a big rethink [The Fifth Estate, 21 April] This article highlights weaknesses in the private rental market in Australia, which the author says (citing RMIT Professor Jago Dodson) is “characterised by some of the shortest leases in the world, and populated with often-petty, small-time landlords and private letting agents”. That combination “means many of our most vulnerable citizens, such as low-income and insecure workers, are at great risk of homelessness at times like this [ie. during Covid-19]”. She again cites Dodson as saying that jurisdictions (eg. Singapore and parts of Europe) with larger social housing sectors find it easier for governments to enforce public health measures in circumstances such as the current pandemic. The pandemic is forcing a rethink about the vulnerability of a “mum and dad” dominated residential landlord sector. The article also points to the need for more social and affordable housing, and quotes Robert Pradolin (former GM of Frasers Property Australia and founder of not-for-profit “Housing All Australians”) as supporting the growth in Australia (as overseas) of an institutionally led “build-to-rent” residential market – possibly using Crown land leased to the relevant institutions at a fair rate over 40 years.

We must act on homelessness before Covid-19 winter [UNSW Newsroom, 21 April] UNSW Professors Hal Pawson and Anne O’Brien both welcome the government’s additional help to the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic, but take the opportunity to renew their call for longer-term solutions to homelessness. As Pawson notes, 4% of all housing in Australia is public or community housing, down a third from the roughly 6% level of about 20 years ago. This is because there has been no national program for building social and affordable housing since 1996, except for Kevin Rudd’s relatively short-term social and affordable housing stimulus to help stave off the global financial crisis in 2009 – later discontinued by Tony Abbott when he succeeded Rudd as PM. What is needed, says Pawson, is a more permanent increase in the level of social housing.

Why the focus of stimulus plans has to be construction that puts social housing first [The Conversation, 24 April] University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor of Architecture Geoff Hanmer points to the important role of housing construction in the Australian job market (accounting he says for some 6% of jobs) and concludes that a construction led economic stimulus effort by government could play an important part in kick-starting the economy as we work ourselves out of the Covid-19 induced economic slump. Not only would this be highly stimulatory from a general economic and employment perspective, but it would also be an ideal opportunity to address a number of pressing social needs, not least the shortage of social and affordable housing. This would help not only rough sleepers, who cannot realistically go on living in hotels after Covid-19 ends, but also other categories of homeless, such as those living in severely overcrowded conditions or in temporary or crisis accommodation, or couch surfing. And it could also boost the provision of affordable housing for essential workers who need to live close to the centre of our largest cities – people such as health workers upon whom we’ve come to rely so heavily in this current pandemic.

The need to house everyone has never been clearer. Here’s a 2-step strategy to get it done [The Conversation, 24 April] While applauding the temporary measures implemented by governments and not-for-profit groups around Australia to get the homeless off the streets during Covid-19, RMIT Professor Ron Wakefield (with co-author, Bevan Warner, CEO of Victoria’s Launch Housing) notes that these are stop-gap solutions. He calls for state and territory governments to fund what he terms a “rapid spot-purchasing program” to fund community housing providers to enter the property market to buy up “distressed” or cheap housing assets, which could then be let at below market rent to people who pay 30% of their income as social rent. He estimates the program would cost about $210m in Victoria and argues that it currently costs more to treat street homelessness than it does to fix it. He says “A national social housing stimulus package will help get people back to work, speed the recovery, give the building industry the confidence to retain more workers and put roofs over people’s heads”. And he advocates for such stimulus to encourage new mixed housing models, including “build-to-rent”.

In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and what to do About It is a newly published book by Marybeth Shinn (Vanderbuilt) and Jill Khadduri (Abt Associates). It describes the nature and extent of homelessness in the US, traces its history and how responses to it have changed over the years, compares the experience of homelessness in other countries and advances thoughts on how to end the problem. Not surprisingly, the authors favour a “housing first” approach – permanent supportive housing which provides a long-term housing subsidy to those in need, allied with services for those with chronic health disorders. As Nan Roman, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, points out in her foreword to the book, the authors “make a strong case that ensuring the most vulnerable people have safe, decent and affordable housing would probably cost less and certainly yield far more than allowing tens of thousands of people to become homeless every year”.

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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.

Susan Ryan was Minister for Education in the Hawke Cabinet and Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission 2011-2016. 

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