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Canberra Today 3°/5° | Friday, August 19, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Where’s public housing’s promised $500m gone?

Growing and renewing public housing? Between 2011 and 2020, the ACT’s population increased by 63,000 while public housing stock declined by 874 dwellings. Photo: Paul Costigan

“That such a deterioration in the provision of social and indeed affordable housing of any description, has occurred in Canberra under a Labor/Greens coalition, and Labor and Greens ministers, is as remarkable as it is disappointing,” write JON STANHOPE and Dr KHALID AHMED.

IN a previous article, on December 1, based on data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), we noted that the ACT government had, in the period from 2011 to 2020, reduced the number of units of public housing by 874 while the territory’s population increased by 63,000. 

Two months later the Productivity Commission released its annual Report on Government Services (ROGS), which reveals that the number of public housing dwellings in the ACT reduced by a further 126 in 2020-21. 

The Productivity Commission has also reported that, in fact, the number of households in social housing in the ACT decreased over the last year by 1.8 per cent, the largest decrease of all jurisdictions at a time when the ACT also had the least affordable rents in Australia.

The ROGS and its dataset comprise 45 tables and are sobering reading. It is difficult to find any aspect that sheds positive light on the ACT’s performance in the provision of public housing over time or compared to other jurisdictions.

Unsurprisingly, the report shows a significant increase in the number of greatest need applicants. From 2017 to 2021, the number increased by 118 per cent, which is the second highest after Victoria (139 per cent). However, the Victorian government has responded by increasing its expenditure on public housing, while expenditure in the ACT decreased.

In 2020-21 alone, net recurrent expenditure on social housing in the ACT decreased by 3.1 per cent, while nationally it increased by 3.4 per cent. Victoria recorded the largest increase (30.6 per cent), followed by the NT (19.9 per cent) and NSW (6.2 per cent). 

Going forward, there are further cuts to social housing embedded in the ACT Budget. As we have previously pointed out, the 2021-22 Budget forecasts a decrease of 4.1 per cent per annum on average in expenditure on Social Protection, which includes among other things, expenditure on public housing. 

The ROGS data shows that public housing allocations in the ACT are indeed highly targeted with 99.1 per cent of the households on low income in 2021, an increase from 98.7 per cent in 2018, and are the second highest behind NSW (99.3 per cent). While this may reflect an “efficient” use of existing stock, it also points to a higher need for support services. However, the government’s recent budgetary allocations do not respond to that need.

The Productivity Commission’s reporting framework is comprehensive, encompassing access, amenity, dwelling location, customer satisfaction, match of dwelling location to household size etcetera, besides the usual measures on expenditure and stock numbers.

In 2021, the overcrowding rate in ACT public housing was 4.8 per cent compared to a national average of 4.2 per cent, and an increase from 4.5 per cent in 2017. SA (2.1 per cent), NSW (3.2 per cent) and WA (4.3 per cent) recorded lower rates of overcrowding. 

Overcrowding rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households in public housing are much higher across all jurisdictions, ranging from 5.3 per cent in NSW to 12.8 per cent in the NT. In the ACT this rate increased from 6.8 per cent in 2017 to 7.5 per cent in 2021. 

On the other hand, the proportion of stock which is underutilised increased from 17.4 per cent in 2017 to 18.4 per cent in 2021, the second highest of all jurisdictions. The increase in overcrowding together with the increase in underutilisation highlights an increasing mismatch between tenants’ needs and stock allocation.

The ROGS data also highlights a significant deterioration in “dwelling condition” in ACT public housing which is defined as: “The proportion of households living in houses of an acceptable standard. A house is assessed as being of an acceptable standard if it has at least four working facilities (for washing people, for washing clothes/bedding, for storing/preparing food, and sewerage) and not more than two major structural problems.”

In the ACT dwelling condition declined from 80.2 per cent of households in 2018 to 73.4 per cent in 2021. The declines in dwelling condition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households was more significant from 76 per cent in 2018 to 60 per cent in 2021. Likewise, for households with a member with a disability, dwelling condition declined from 82.3 per cent in 2018 to 69 per cent in 2021.

Not surprisingly, customer satisfaction in the ACT, as reported by ROGS, has also dropped significantly in recent years. In 2016, customer satisfaction was 74.8 per cent compared to the national average of 72.1 per cent. In 2021, this had dropped to 63.2 per cent (the lowest of all jurisdictions) compared to the national average of 71.9 per cent.

It is perplexing that the decrease in public housing stock and the decline in performance in the ACT have occurred despite a raft of “flagship” announcements and promises by the ACT government on investment in public housing in successive Budgets over several years totalling more than  $500 million in relation to its Public Housing Renewal Program. The ROGS data does not reveal any such investment in public housing in the ACT. 

In reality, as we noted previously, the program was clearly aimed at freeing up land for sale and redevelopment, which has certainly boosted the government’s coffers, but has resulted in enormous distress and dislocated tenants from their communities and services. 

In the following note to one of the performance measures, namely, the turnaround time for vacant stock, the ROGS report alludes to the renewal program being a cause of the deterioration in turnaround times of 25.9 days in 2017 to 81.2 days in 2020, and 49.9 days in 2021: “For the ACT, the increase in turnaround time for 2019-20 has a number of reasons including the capital redevelopment program, longer allocation times for new dwellings to ensure they meet both housing and community needs of applicants, and time taken to determine management arrangements for new dwellings (eg properties to be managed by NGOs)”.

Coincidentally, at the time of writing, Emma Campbell, CEO of ACTCOSS, blasted as “heartless, cruel and callous” a decision by ACT Minister for Housing Yvette Berry to evict more than 300 public housing tenants from their homes in inner Canberra in order that the houses could be sold on the open market. 

It is quite clear that public and/or social housing is an increasingly low priority of the current ACT government. Investment in such housing not only reflects the values of a government, but also has well established substantial economic benefits. 

That such a deterioration in the provision of social and indeed affordable housing of any description, has occurred in Canberra under a Labor/Greens coalition, and Labor and Greens ministers, is as remarkable as it is disappointing. 

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Jon Stanhope

Jon Stanhope

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7 Responses to Where’s public housing’s promised $500m gone?

Phillip says: March 17, 2022 at 8:38 am

Yes thankyou Jon and Khalid. The Labor-Greens government appears committed to expensive private market housing solution, and thus are out of touch with their own policy platform principles of equity, equality, equal participation and access when it comes to the housing market. They seem to be more interested in build to rent, which is described by housing researcher Dr Cameron Murray as a multi-billion-dollar giveaway to existing large property owners with no benefits to housing occupants.
Stand up for meaningful action on the cost of housing by supporting and sharing this e-petition: https://epetitions.act.gov.au/CurrentEPetition.aspx?PetId=214&lIndex=-1

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Michael O'Loughlin says: March 17, 2022 at 9:45 am

There are two factors to consider in this. One is the complete veil of secrecy under which Housing ACT operates, using client confidentiality as a convenient cover for its sins. As a result, we don’t know how much public housing is actually available and, for that matter, to what extent the public housing estate includes “dodgy tenancies”. By this, I mean public housing occupied by people who have no right to be using up this scarce, in-demand resource. There are rumours that such tenancies even include employees of Housing ACT itself, sometimes with multiple properties, some of which they sub-let. I emphasise these are just rumours. The second factor is the almost complete absence of any semblance of management of the properties or their tenants, with tenants appearing to be absolved of almost all responsibility for things for which tenants would normally be expected to take responsibility. The result? Trashed properties, illegal activities and, all too often, terrified neighbouring private homeowners (you know, the ones who pay all the bills). Housing’s answer? Urban infill of shoddily built residences to expand uncontrolled and often anti-social public housing tenancies even further into and around Canberra’s suburbs.

Jon and Khalid, the answers are all too obvious. Before we start compounding this mess, isn’t it time for a comprehensive independent audit of Housing ACT and its housing estate to shine a light on all the inefficiencies, irregularities, and dubious practices of which we suspect Housing ACT to be culpable? Isn’t it also time for Housing ACT to reinstate the old-fashioned practice of treating a tenancy agreement as an actual contract that defines rights and responsibilities for all parties and sanctions for failing to meet these responsibilities? It may just be that there isn’t quite the urgent need for this ever-growing rate of expansion of the ACT’s public housing estate that people seem to think there is.

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Jane says: March 18, 2022 at 4:10 pm

I agree Michael. It’s worth mentioning that there are also “terrified” neighbours (fellow public housing tenants) in adjoining public housing units. It’s not just the private homeowner neighbours these bad tenants scare. It’s definitely time for a “rights and responsibility” lease clause.

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Red says: March 17, 2022 at 11:57 am

I know of one case where it appears that Housing, with involvement of the Public Trustee & Guardian and ACT Aged Care Assessment Team, succeeded in removing an elderly person forcibly from his public housing home, citing his bad luck not to qualify for subsidised aged care he required but fully qualifying for permanent residential care.

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A Chapple. says: March 20, 2022 at 10:24 am

Bravo Michael O’Loughlin for your honest analysis of the debacle, otherwise known as Housing ACT. Ours and our family’s experiences with bad housing tenants over many years, tenants who have been violent, abusive, who have dealt drugs, trashed their yards and vandalised publicly funded properties, has been horrendous. Complaints to Housing ACT have been met by one huge Government brick wall. Nothing has been done to address these issues or respond adequately to complaints by several neighbours, both private and public. Tenancy privacy is no excuse for the destruction of publicly funded property or for ruining a neighbour’s right to quiet enjoyment in their own home. The ACT Government has sat back and allowed the deterioration of its housing stock and tenancy management over many years.
As a foot note: The two housing properties next to us are now to be demolished so additional Housing ACT units can take their place. Without any enforcement of a tenant’s “rights and responsibilities”, heaven help us all. Housing ACT is broken and a full review is well overdue.

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Jane says: March 21, 2022 at 1:16 pm

It certainly is, Alison, especially based on some awful things we’ve heard from public housing tenants, who suffer at the hands of fellow tenants and live in poorly maintained housing.

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