REBECCA THOMAS. Disability scheme housing should be more responsive to need

Despite Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) payments having been rolled out initially in 2016, with good intentions, the level of suitable disability accommodation in Australia is still woefully low. The approval process for individuals to get SDA into their NDIS plans has been slow, inconsistent and not transparent. Even the eligibility criteria are unclear.

When the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was introduced in 2013 it marked the first time in Australian history that legislation mandated long term committed funding to provide support and services to Australians with significant disability.

The NDIS is designed to give individuals choice and control over how they spend their funding. Before funding is allocated, individuals take part in a planning process which details and documents their needs and goals. The independent National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) is responsible for implementing the NDIS.

The NDIS addresses housing needs through a Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA), which funds accommodation for people with specific, acute needs. But how effective is this mechanism at providing choice and control to the people it aims to support?

Historically, people with disability have struggled to access appropriate housing. If the spirit and purpose of the NDIS is to be met, this needs to change. To provide real choice for people with disability there needs to be appropriate high-quality housing, varied in design.

The NDIA designed the SDA to deliver some of this much needed supply. SDA refers to accommodation for people who require specialist housing solutions, including catering for ‘extreme functional impairment or very high support needs’.

To date the approval process for individuals to get SDA into their NDIS plans has been slow, inconsistent and not particularly transparent. The eligibility criteria are not clear, making it difficult for service providers to predict which clients will be deemed SDA eligible.

It is intended that the SDA will stimulate the market by catalysing the required parties – investors, developers, builders and service providers – into delivering homes for 28,000 people (6% of NDIS participants) that the NDIA estimates are eligible for SDA funding.

This does not mean that other NDIS participants do not require suitable accommodation. Many are in dire need of a suitable place to live but, for these people, additional government funding is not available through NDIS. This complicates the situation and concerns many service providers in the sector.

Despite SDA payments being rolled out initially in 2016, the level of suitable disability housing in Australia is still woefully low.

One reason is many people with disability and their families are not aware of SDA. Data from the NDIA shows that at the end of March 2019, around 12,000 people are accessing SDA funding. We also know almost 3,000 SDA dwellings have been enrolled throughout Australia. Even though these dwellings accommodate from one to six residents, there is still a significant gap between available SDA accommodation and individuals with the funding to live in these dwellings.

Critically, what the data doesn’t provide is where the exact need is. It shows where SDA approved individuals currently live, but not the SDA design category they require.

A recent report from the Summer Foundation and Social Ventures Australia, SDA Supply in Australia, provides more granular data on housing under development and more detail on SDA shortfall by state. The report’s goal was to show developers, investors and market intermediaries where SDA supply is needed and to increase the supply of appropriate homes in these areas.

A lack of information results in investors, developers and builders taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. This is at odds with the participant-led model SDA is intended to support. While supply is increasing, there is risk of housing being built in the wrong locations, or at specifications inconsistent with an individual’s needs. This can lead to long-term vacancies which jeopardise returns.

To circumvent this lack of data, stakeholders are working with families, community housing providers and Support Independent Living providers (SILs) who can give strong insight into demand.

Being responsive to the needs of tenants is at the heart of the NDIS. There are no specific NDIS funded services that match tenants to houses. SILs and community housing providers may be filling a need in matching demand to supply, thanks to their deeper understanding of existing clients and ability to provide direct links to potential tenants for investors and builders.

SILs expend a lot of resources matching people for group homes, a process that requires sensitivity, care and is not covered by the NDIS. These additional costs come at a time when SILs are under greater financial pressure. More needs to be done in this space.

The SDA pricing framework has different payment levels across the various design categories and housing types. It has been designed to consider land, construction, finance, ongoing maintenance and property management costs. Its transparency enables investors to understand their investment’s revenue stream.

However, the assumptions behind the framework still need to be redesigned to deliver a range of housing types and locations to provide individuals meaningful choice.

Earlier this year, to address some of the deficiencies in SDA, The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Disability Reform Council announced a number of actions. They set out to improve the planning process for participants, provide pricing certainty and market information for investors, and clearer design guidelines and incentives for innovation for SDA developers. It’s unclear whether these actions will improve the system enough.

The premise and intentions behind SDA and the NDIS are good. However, in its current form, they are not fully delivering what they set out to do. Some improvements could really make a difference in bridging the gap between disability housing supply and demand, while giving people with disability real choice.

Rebecca Thomas is Director, Impact Investing, at Social Ventures Australia.

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