Affordable Housing


March 01, 2018

I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017. Deputy Speaker, you may be aware of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as depicted in a diagram of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you need to fulfil very basic needs—nutrition, shelter and safety. These are the key things before you can accomplish anything as a human being, before you can go up the pyramid towards self-actualisation. As we’ve heard from previous speakers, a central issue in this debate is that of housing affordability—basic shelter. More precisely, housing is actually unaffordable for most ordinary Australians. The many homeless people in our society are not even able to get to that basic need as a starting point.

Many young people in my electorate of Wills struggle to get into the housing market and to own a home, and they also struggle with rent. According to a CoreLogic report commissioned by the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, the median house price in my electorate is around $1 million. So it’s little surprise that the rate of home ownership amongst those aged between 25 and 34 has plummeted from 60 per cent to 48 per cent in recent years. Many of those people have written off the idea of buying a home; it’s become completely unrealistic to the majority. Of course, the casualisation of the workforce has a role to play in this regard. And, despite the sage advice of the former Treasurer—I’m being sarcastic—it’s not as simple as getting a high-paying job. People end up in unstable rental properties and get stuck in an endless cycle of leasing. It makes it extremely difficult to save enough to afford a home loan and, on top of that, the expenses that living out of home comes with. So there is an urgent need to get a system in place that ensures sustainable renting while also dealing with the bigger overall issue of housing affordability.

Having an affordable and secure home with reasonable access to services is essential to people’s financial, social and emotional wellbeing—their ability to go up Maslow’s pyramid of the hierarchy of needs to achieve and accomplish things in their life that are actually about helping others. All Australians have a right to secure, affordable and appropriate housing throughout their lives. Having a genuine chance to live near job opportunities is essential for Australians’ social and economic participation. But, for too many people, the housing pressures they face are getting worse, not better.

We know Australia has a housing crisis—a crisis of supply, a crisis of affordability and a crisis of suitability and sustainability. We are all familiar with the fact that the debate on housing affordability has been both fierce and well documented. I understand how out of reach buying a home can seem for many in this climate and how rent is so high. Negative gearing and existing capital gains tax concessions are making housing affordability worse by providing a large tax subsidy to investors, giving them an unfair advantage over first home buyers. This policy needs to change. Labor has a strong policy on affordable housing.

My family were fortunate. We grew up in a housing commission house in the seventies and eighties in inner-city Melbourne, so we were given access to affordable housing, as well as access to universal health care and access to education. These things came out of Labor governments—the Hawke and Keating governments in particular. When I reflect on that opportunity that was given to me and extended to my family, I feel especially fortunate as I see the current state of affairs being so difficult for young people. Rates of homeownership have fallen at the same time that rental stress experienced by low-income households has actually risen to 40 per cent. Levels of homelessness are also rising.

We heard from some of the previous speakers what a destructive and growing social and economic problem homelessness is. It’s no coincidence that public housing stock has dropped from six per cent of total stock to just under three per cent over the past 25 years. It’s unacceptable that in a country endowed with wealth and opportunity that many of our fellow Australians still have nowhere to call home. It should be an inalienable human right for all Australians to have access to safe and affordable housing. There’s no greater or starker example of increasing inequality than many of our fellow Australians having to sleep in the streets, couch surf or live in overcrowded, unhygienic and unacceptable conditions while many others live in luxury and privilege by comparison.

The key purpose of this bill is to amend the Federal Financial Relations Act 2009 to repeal the current national specific purpose payment for housing services and replace it with new funding arrangements under which payments to the states and territories will be contingent on them being primary, supplementary and designated housing agreements. The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement will provide $375 million over three years, from 2018-19, maintaining the current $115 million of annual homelessness funding provided under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. I note, though, that Labor’s 2013-14 budget provided annual homelessness funding under the NPAH of $159 million. In the Abbott government’s disastrous 2014-15 budget, $44 million a year in capital funding was cut from the NPAH. It was the view of the Abbott government that dealing with the scourge of homelessness was the responsibility of the states and not a matter for the federal government. Homelessness is clearly not defined to any state or territory. It’s not geographic in that sense. It is a national issue, and I think it’s a pretty simple proposition that it warrants the involvement of the Commonwealth.

The current Turnbull government has walked back from that Abbott premise and announced its intention to negotiate a new NHHA as part of its 2017-18 budget measures. In doing so, the government has described these measures as a comprehensive plan to improve housing affordability. However, the government’s supposedly comprehensive package of reforms has not been received at all well. That is not just by us on the opposition benches but by experts in the field. Mr John Daley, the chief executive of the Grattan Institute, said:

I can’t see any reason why this budget is going to make a discernible difference to housing affordability; a discernible difference on the number of younger people that buy a house.

James Toomey, from executive operations and fundraising for Mission Australia—and they are on the frontline—said:

Disappointingly, the Budget contained inadequate assistance for the many people in rental stress who remain just one step away from homelessness. Rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable for older and younger Australians alike, with those on Newstart and the age pension struggling to find a home within their means.

This list goes on. There have been scores of criticism of the government’s performance on this front. You just need to take a look at the evidence given to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill to see that.

Many of the submissions received by the Senate committee expressed strong criticisms of the conditionality that the bill places on payment of housing and homelessness assistance to the states and territories. When the subject of tax reform comes up—and it was raised during the public hearing and in the submissions—the universal view is that Labor’s policy of reforms to negative gearing negative and capital gains tax discounts should and must form part of any credible national housing affordability plan. Unfortunately, we know the Turnbull government has painted itself into a corner on tax reform, as with so many other issues, due to the weakness of the Prime Minister. The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who was reportedly rolled in cabinet when he tried to curb what he called the excesses in negative gearing, has also ruled out any changes to capital gains tax concessions, despite calls from his own back bench to make some.

Labor, on the other hand, took reform of negative gearing as a key policy to the 2016 election. That element of our policy proposal would also create more jobs in the building industry, because negative gearing could be continued on newly constructed properties. So we know that there are positives to negative gearing when it is well regulated and the policy adequately reformed, as we have suggested. While reforming negative gearing policy is an excellent start in taking on some of the elements of this issue, it’s just the beginning. There are some areas of competing interests that will need to be rebalanced in favour of the thousands locked out of affordable, secure homes.

We’ll always be unapologetic in advocating for those that now see the housing market as unattainable. Housing unaffordability drives growing inequality in this country. There are many policy areas where there are opportunities for the entire community to be better off. I believe, as I think most people do on this side, that Australians have the right to secure, affordable, and appropriate housing throughout their lives, with a genuine chance to live near job opportunities, which is essential for Australians’ social and economic participation. All it takes is a government willing to listen and to act in the interests of all Australians. Unfortunately, this government is merely tinkering around the edges in what is a very important policy area. I believe that the goal of affordable and secure housing can only be achieved through a future Labor government.