Burch on back foot over public housing

Minister Joy Burch... Government clutching at straws. Photo by Silas Brown

REVELATIONS that there are more than 2000 people waiting for public housing has left the ACT Government clutching at straws.

As the waiting lists grow longer the Government is looking more and more desperate. Housing Minister Joy Burch has indicated that she is even considering legislation which will turn our public housing system into welfare housing.

What has happened to the principles that drive a Labor Government? Ms Burch has been in the media arguing details instead of presenting the principles. The problem is not the few people in public housing earning reasonable salaries, but rather the lack of adequate investment over many years as Canberra grows larger.

ACT Housing should have the dual role of looking after those in need and being a landlord – using the profits from market rental to subsidise those who cannot afford it.

One voice of reason on this issue has been the director of the ACT Council of Social Services and former MLA, Roslyn Dundas, who warned about the marginalisation of people in the public-housing sector.

She identified one of the key problems of lack of proper investment resulting in conversion of public housing to welfare housing. “It is important to maintain a mix of people,” she told “The Canberra Times”, “as targeting is narrowed, this can lead to greater stigmatisation of people”.

Instead of being on the back foot Housing Minister, Joy Burch, should have been putting the argument in favour of public housing compared to welfare housing.

As with public funding of health care, we do not make accusations about people on high incomes using the public hospitals. That is their prerogative. It should be the same story with public housing – if people wish to remain in public housing by paying full market rent, the benefit can come back to the community. The Government, as the landlord, injects the profit back into the system.

“The Canberra Times” ran a front-page story of a public housing tenant, in need of a bigger house, being “peeved” at the 200 or so people on average incomes or better who are still in public housing. Did anyone explain to Mr Lovelock that, by paying market rental, these people subsidise his own housing and that he actually has a reason to thank such tenants?

The last thing needed by our community is someone losing their home as a disincentive to employment. Minister Burch wrestled with some of the complexity of trying to move people out of public housing once their income improved. They simply should be moved on to market rental. They will then be in a position to make up their own mind if they wish to purchase their current home or to buy privately.

There was a time when Government investment meant that most of Canberra was public housing. There is no reason to attempt to wind the clock back, however, it says something about the movement of politics to the right when the attempt to shift from public to welfare housing comes from a Labor Government.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was Minister for Health and Housing.

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