SUSAN RYAN. Tent City, Martin Place.

Aug 14, 2017

The Berejiklian government in NSW showed this last week that it could act fast.   To deal with the reported discomfort of the Premier, caused for months by a tent city of the homeless situated in Martin Place just opposite the Parliament, a new law was passed, peremptorily.  The Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Act empowers NSW police to order people out of Martin Place.  There was no dallying.  Within a couple of days of this enactment, the embarrassing tent city was dismantled and its occupants cleared away. Is the Premier now free of discomfort?

Surely not.  Neither she nor any member of her government deserves peace of mind.  Like its predecessors, including several Labor governments, the present government has deliberately allowed this cruel crisis in homelessness to develop.  Cleaning out the tent city may ease the Premier’s embarrassment for a moment but changes nothing for the thousands of homeless in NSW.  Present government policy and programs offer nothing better for them.

Decades of neglect of public, or social, housing has produced a waiting list in NSW of 60,000.  Eligibility requires severe disadvantage, such as addiction, mental illness, serious disability and so on.  Public housing environments now reflect those problems and can be unsafe and threatening for many tenants.  Social housing no longer provides a secure and affordable place to live for people who have no such severe challenges but are simply too poor to pay private rents.

It was not always like this.  I grew up in Maroubra where in the 1950s and beyond Labor governments built lots of public housing.  These homes were built near jobs, schools, public transport, health services and beaches.  Regular low-income families and individuals like age pensioners got satisfactory long-term tenancies.  I do not recall serious social problems among, or prejudice against, public tenants.  Many decades later that successful housing policy has been allowed to deteriorate drastically.  Over the same period, private rentals have escalated in the interests of landlords, who as well get generous investor tax concessions.  Tenants are not protected.  Even if they can scrape up the high rental, they can’t get long term secure leases.  Social disruption, interrupted schooling, family breakdown and increased poverty inevitably follow the frequent forced moves.

Housing is no longer seen by our policy makers as a basic human right.  Houses and apartments, with the cooperation of state and recent federal governments, are now treated primarily as an asset class.  Investor interests are paramount both in federal government tax policy and state government planning decisions.

What the dramatically displayed housing crisis in Martin Place means is that policy at state and federal levels has failed utterly.  What about the market?  In the provision of housing that is secure, well located, and affordable to medium and low-income earners, like nurses, teachers, emergency service workers, and older people, especially women, we have total market failure.

When we assess the numbers of those affected – those already homeless and those close to it – we are talking about massive numbers and rapidly growing cohorts.

Where this crisis in affordability has happened in other big cities around the world, like New York or London, authorities have stepped in to regulate and direct the supply and cost of city housing so that essential low-income workers can live there and contribute as the economy needs them to.  These policies are socially constructive and facilitate supportive and diverse communities.

Here in NSW affordable housing will only happen if the state government mandates it.  The state Labor Opposition has recently announced a strong commitment to mandating 25% of affordable units in new developments on freed up public land and 15% on private land.  The current government should adopt these approaches and quickly.

Federally, the Coalition has backed out of any significant reductions in investor friendly tax concessions on negative gearing and capital gains.  The federal Opposition, however, continues to advocate cutting back these concessions to give home seekers a fair chance against investors.

These Opposition-supported state and federal measures together would transform the availability of affordable housing.  They are not untried or radical proposals.  The Greater Cities Commission chaired by Lucy Turnbull has recommended a modest 5-10% affordable units in new developments in the Sydney region.  The St Vincent St Paul Society, a longstanding, credible and important provider of services to the homeless, has petitioned the NSW Parliament to legislate 15% affordability across the state.  Smarter private developers see business opportunity in creating long term, modest but stable rentals. Some big players are reported to be planning to retain parts of their new developments for these purposes under a new “build to rent” approach.

The tents have disappeared, temporarily at least, from the heart of Sydney’s CBD.  They will reappear elsewhere.  Most of the tent dwellers will not get long term secure and affordable homes.  As an immediate measure, the Premier should announce a change of policy in relation to Sirius, the large custom-built block of public housing flats conveniently located in the Rocks.  Instead of flogging it off to the highest bidder to pull down and rebuild into luxury units for the rich, the government should repurpose Sirius to serve the purpose for which it was built with public funds in the late 1970s.  If it is reopened, the Martin Place tent dwellers and other homeless could live there securely, conveniently and in enjoyment of their basic rights.

Without mandated affordability and some levelling of the playing field between home seekers and investors, the planned massive new housing constructions around Sydney will be grabbed by investors and more of our fellow citizens will be condemned to tent cities. State and federal governments need to make new laws so that thousands of vulnerable people can enjoy the right to a home.

(Affordable housing is defined as paying less than 30% of gross income on rent or mortgage.

Susan Ryan AO recently completed terms as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. She has led several superannuation bodies and served as a Minister in the Hawke Cabinet.

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