I have just spent a few weeks in the UK and Sweden and in both countries there was plenty of discussion and debate about social and affordable housing. I’ve penned a few thoughts on Sweden in the article below and already mentioned Scotland and its five year strategies many times before. So to England, where the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has led to signs of a renewed focus on ways to improve landlord’s accountability to their tenants. And so it should, but as this article last week illustrates, there is a lot to do to reassure tenants that their health and safety is paramount.
Here at CHIA NSW, the Board has been debating its vision for the community housing industry. We clearly want both the Commonwealth and State governments to do more and invest big time in social and affordable housing to reduce housing stress experienced by growing numbers of Australian households – see Compass Housing’s ‘The Affordable Housing Income Gap’ for an accessible summary of the current state of the nation.
Understandably here at CHIA NSW we believe that community housing is a big part of the solution and our aim is to see the sector grow. But equally clearly this has to be ‘good’ growth, for a clear purpose and with strong community outcomes.
Last week I read a fine piece of writing by Prof Mark Stephens Professor of Public Policy at Heriot University riffing off the English Social Housing Green Paper to cover in one concise article the challenges facing all providers of social and affordable housing and that paramount need to keep tenants at the heart of what we do. I recommend it to everyone.
CHIA NSW Exchange
The CHIA NSW Exchange is coming up on the 12th and 13th of September! The CHIA NSW Exchange is a sector wide opportunity that allows members from across the state to hear from industry leaders regarding sector innovation and policy updates, as well as ideas sharing and networking opportunities. The CHIA NSW Exchange is free to any Full Member of CHIA NSW, including staff and Directors. You can register here.
National Homelessness Conference
The National Homelessness Conference, held in Melbourne, attracted more than 800 delegates from across Australia and beyond for two full days of the very latest developments and innovations to end homelessness.
Key note presentations from high profile international speakers included Professor Marah Curtis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) on the intersection between housing stability and wellbeing, Juha Kaakinen of Y-Foundation (Finland) on the housing first approach and Finland’s success in reducing homelessness, and Professor Nicholas Pleace of the University of York (UK) with a comparative analysis of housing first approaches in different jurisdictions.
A standout contribution came from our very own Aboriginal Specialist, Paula Coghill, who joined the opening plenary session to speak to the topic Redressing Aboriginal Homelessness. Homelessness did not exist in Australia before the invasion, so the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain massively overrepresented in homelessness counts is nothing short of a national travesty.
‘As First Nations people, we were the first to be homeless in this country’ said Paula ‘and 239 years later, we’re still homeless’.
Highlighting the ongoing impact of dispossession, colonisation, displacement and violence, Paula called for self-determination and autonomy for Aboriginal communities working to address homelessness and the widespread shortage of affordable housing. Aboriginal communities face unique challenges – from overcrowding to high rates of incarceration and the ongoing removal of children from their families. But of course, it is these communities who are best placed to implement strategies to address these challenges. And it is the responsibility of the mainstream service sector to support this self-determination.
In NSW, the homelessness service sector has formalised its commitment to reconciliation and working collaboratively and respectfully with Aboriginal people and communities through the Redressing Aboriginal Homelessness Accord.
With the elections for the first Aboriginal Community Housing Industry Association (ACHIA) board coming up in November, we look forward to seeing more innovative policies, programs and initiatives by Aboriginal organisations, for Aboriginal people and communities.
The Australian Conference of Economists
Supply, Supply, Supply – and other stories about Australia’s housing affordability problem – a slightly irreverent synopsis of my day with the economists – Deborah Georgiou Head of Policy and Communications, CHIA NSW.
It’s always good to get out of your own bubble and listen to the views of economists! That’s what I was lucky enough to do when attending the Australian Conference of Economists in July. The issues of housing affordability were high on the agenda with speakers including the eminent Professor Rachel Ong from Curtin University, the newish kid on the block Brendan Coates from the Grattan Institute and Peter Abelson from Applied Economics Pty who has a long and distinguished career advising successive governments.
The panel in the Great Debate on Housing Affordability was firmly split between those that thought that supply would fix housing affordability problems for all but the most marginalised households, and Rachel, whose early research on new supply price inelasticities indicates that we can’t just build our way out of unaffordability. She commented that there was actually enough supply and that this hadn’t improved affordability.
Brendan thought that if we had kept up with increasing demand from un-forecast higher levels of immigration house prices would have been kept in check and was firmly of the view that we needed to concentrate on increasing supply.
Peter said house prices had risen evenly across capital cities in Australia and that therefore prices were increasing as a result of national drivers. He stated there has been no increase in unaffordability as housing costs as a percentage of income have been around 20% for the last 10 years – in his view the problem is all about the cost of a deposit and he supported first home owner grants.
In the midst of all of this my favourite session of the day was about the impact of playgrounds on property prices: evidence from Australia presented by Dr Syed Hasan, Massey University – apparently if you build homes within 300-500 metres from a pocket park it will add more than 5% to their value – economics at its best!
Cities for Us Summit
On 25 July, SSROC and Shelter NSW hosted a summit on density, local infrastructure and liveability.
The summit focused on the challenges ahead for Sydney and how, in the context of higher density living how we can think about the concepts of fairness, equity and inclusiveness.
The summit featured a wide range of speakers, and looked three key themes:
- Implementing the GSC Plans, looking at integration, collaboration and governance
- Funding the delivery of local infrastructure and affordable rental housing
- Engaging with communities to help them have a say as their built environment changes
Highlights of the summit included Dr Marcus spiller talking about what could change to better fund local infrastructure and affordable housing (read more about this here) and Monica Barone talking about engaging communities in the City of Sydney.
The outcome of the summit will be a communique for the Planning Minister so watch this space.
Retiring into Poverty – A National Plan For Change: Increasing Housing Security For Older Women Report Launched
On 23 August 2018, the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group delivered a paper, Retiring into Poverty – A National Plan For Change: Increasing Housing Security For Older Women.
The paper identifies the systemic and compounding causes of older women’s homelessness, examines the devastating impact of gendered economic inequality and the key policy areas that require attention. It outlines a national agenda to address this issue, including additional permanent social and affordable housing options for women and special measures to assist women at retirement age who have not accumulated adequate superannuation. Action is urgently needed to address the alarming 31% rise in homelessness amongst older women between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.
The report goes on to call for the establishment of a Seniors Housing Gateway Program, as well as expansion of the Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH) Program and better consideration of housing adequacy in national aged care policy and programs.
Women’s Housing Company CEO and National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group member, Debbie Georgopoulos, said “housing is amongst the most basic of needs; it’s essential that a national housing strategy provides the affordable, permanent housing that is essential to ageing well.”
Cracks emerging in the Scandinavian housing model
– Wendy Hayhurst, CEO , CHIA NSW.
Being a housing tragic wherever I go on holiday there’s an irresistible temptation to learn how different places tackle affordable housing. This year it was tropical Stockholm, a city that was experiencing its hottest-ever weather. This explains why we ended up passing one of the city’s municipal housing estates on the way to joining the locals at the nearest beach. Although, like other estates we saw, it was large and rather functional-looking, it seemed well kept and was flanked by an impressive series of sports and play facilities all well-used by a multicultural crowd. So far so Scandinavian as I had assumed the region’s long-standing reputation for decent social benefits and its relative egalitarianism would translate into an enviable affordable housing system.
So it was a bit of a shock to find stories such as the one from the BBC suggesting that Stockholm was one place ‘you would never find a home’ and another article explaining that the waiting list for apartments in the city had risen to 580,000 in July 2017 – more than doubling since 2007. Wait times averaged nearly 11 years – well over 20 in central areas. So what was the story?
For a start Stockholm needs a lot of housing to keep pace with its growing population. It is the fastest growing capital in Europe with proportionally high rates of immigration and one of the highest birth rates too. Housing supply simply hasn’t kept up but that isn’t by any means the whole story. In a fascinating article Brett Christophers from Uppsala University clearly explains the post-war evolution of the Swedish housing system including the “Million Program” – the 1960s Social Democrat government housing scheme to build 100,000 new homes each year for 10 years. An extraordinary 40% of these were built by the state. Dr Christophers’s title ‘A Monstrous Hybrid’ encapsulates his theory well. In a nutshell he argues that relatively recent shifts in policy to marketise housing combined with retention of key regulatory features have served to reduce opportunities for lower income households to find good quality, stable affordable housing. How so?
First it is important to understand a bit about Sweden’s housing tenure mix and key features. Until the 1990s the country’s housing policy was internationally renowned for its active support for ‘tenure-neutrality’ – promoting equal standards, costs, and occupier rights for renters and owners that aimed to equalize their tax benefits and social status. This started to change in 1991 when the new centre-right government began dismantling this policy and brought in market reforms triggering public housing privatisation, and privileging home ownership.
While traditional homeownership which is mainly confined to houses rather than multi-unit blocks – has remained relatively stable at circa 41% of all housing; there has been a sharp rise in tenant owned apartments – or bostadsrätt a form of coop housing since 1990 from 15% to 23% in 2016. Tenants pay a basic fee or down payment (financed via a mortgage) and an annual fee to the co-op for the right to occupy a unit indefinitely. Tenants can transfer (sell) the ‘occupancy right’ or share, via an open bid auction style sale. This tenure type benefits from same tax relief granted to owner-occupiers and increasingly involves higher income households.
Public housing has fallen back from 25% of all housing to 16% in the last 25 years. Although owned and controlled by municipalities (Councils) it is operated by arms length public shareholder companies. Theoretically it remains available ‘for everyone’ regardless of income or other circumstance. The companies constructed homes using state loans, and received tax advantages, government guarantees and large interest subsidies.
Private rental housing – 18% in 2016 – mainly offers secure tenancies and is remains generally rent-controlled atlevels historically pegged to those charged by the municipal housing companies. Recent changes mean that rent setting is now increasingly influenced also by the general level of private sector rents – over time this may mean more a divergence in rents between the two sectors.
So what has changed? First, municipal housing company privileges have been substantially reduced and MHCs now have to compete on a roughly equal footing with private landlords. Portfolio ageing and declining public subsidy have generated cost pressures leading to sell-offs (especially of more attractive stock) to both the co-op sector and to sitting tenants at heavily discounted prices.
Secondly, home ownership – including the co-op version – has become more financially attractive. In the 1990s access to mortgages was made easier and a credit guarantee for first-time homebuyers was introduced in 2008. Other incentives include mortgage interest tax deduction, a low ceiling on property tax, and deferred capital gains tax on primary residence.
Thirdly, housing allowances for low income households have been ‘slashed’ with a 70% reduction in households entitled and claiming these between 1995 and 2009.
A key features of the Swedish regulatory system which exacerbates problems for lower income households needing to access a tenancyis the operation of the bostadsformedlingar – the rental queuing system administered via housing exchanges (see here for an example ). This covers both the public and most of the private sectors. Length of time in the queue is a key criterion along with applicant preferences on location and size, and the maximum rent they are willing to pay; and an assessment of priority ‘needs’. The latter can take precedence over time in the queue with Councils setting the attributes for their areas.
However, landlords’ discretion is considerable and can, reportedly, override stated allocation principles. Equally, vacancy advertising is not universal , partly because of the healthy black market that has developed given high demand for properties and the opportunity for landlords to charge rather more than the regulated rent level. Another factor is that tenants have ‘considerable rights to transfer their rental contract or privately organise a direct swap of flats’. Both tend to work against lower income households.
So what options do lower income households have? The most common alternative is to rely on a series of short-term, second-hand contracts increasingly widespread in both the private rental and co-op sectors. Tenants have considerable rights to sub-let entire homes, though sub-tenants lack full protection on rent levels or security.
The shortage of affordable housing is predictably leading to rapidly rising rates of housing stress and deprivation. While in the past mental illness and social issues like abuse tended to be key factors, there are now more people becoming homeless because they have a low income – young people, immigrants and older people on pensions.
There is currently little sign of any national strategy and into the vacuum are piecemeal short term (temporary housing) or ‘boutique’ initiatives such as a crowd funded scheme for co-op housing neither likely to do much for the many households missing out on decent homes. Maybe Sweden needs its own ‘alla hemma’ (Everybody’s – or All at – Home) campaign.
I would like to thank Annika Wahlberg, Secretary General at the International Union of Tenants for kindly reviewing the article and advising on obvious errors. The opinions are my own.
A Focus on Older People: Ageing on the Edge – Let’s Change This
At the National Housing Conference on the 28th November 2017 we launched the NSW Ageing on the Edge report ‘The Older I Get the Scarier It Becomes’ to a packed hall who listened to a stellar line up including the wonderful Susan Ryan and the indefatigable Jeff Fielder talk about the many, many older people who are reaching retirement without a safe secure and affordable place to call home. We heard from two older women too who after a lifetime of hard work were being forced to eat into their super capital to fund the rent or facing the prospect of successive short term rentals.
This was a report that could not sit on a shelf and gather dust. The 2016 census data released after the conference only reinforced the need for action. There were 6411 homeless older people on census night a mind blogging 43% increase since the last census. Across Australia older people (aged 55plus) now make up 16% of the total homeless population.
Which is why the groups who worked with the report authors HAAG and University of Adelaide as advisors agreed to continue to work together on practical projects that will make a difference not just by reducing homelessness and rental stress but also promote better more responsive housing services for older people. Our membership is drawn from the older persons’ sector, NSW government, housing providers, homelessness services and even, believe or not, older people themselves….
And we won’t just talk. The group have already started to put together some concrete projects for our first year including:
- Filling the data and information gaps that were identified in the development of the report (e.g. information on Aboriginal older persons housing and support needs, CALD older people)
- Bringing the aged care and community housing sectors together in a project that will help older people in social housing age in place
- Working together to share data and collectively routinely produce indicators around older peoples housing/ homelessness
- Continue to advocate and promote a service that will help older people at risk of homelessness find suitable accommodation. Victoria has its Home at Last, so why can’t NSW?
If you want to join us or find out more then get in touch via email@example.com
CHIA NSW has announced another round of free energy training for Community Housing staff and tenants. The training was designed by The Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON), The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and CHIA SNW to respond to rises in energy prices in recent years.
The training is designed to help reduce energy costs and promote energy efficiency. Topics covered include:
- understanding the energy sector
- how to choose an energy contract
- energy use in the home
- accessing energy hardship programs
The next training dates are:
- Liverpool: 3rd October 2018
- Sydney CBD: 30th October 2018
- Dubbo: 6th December 2018
More sessions are planned throughout 2019 and will be announced in the New Year.
To apply for a free place or for information click see: Energy training flyer with application form.
Housing and support help turn lives around: Heading Home evaluation
During this year’s Homelessness Week, multi-awarded Heading Home project, led by Wentworth Community Housing, launched today an independent evaluation of the impact its activities have had in the Nepean district and on the lives of people rehoused during Registry Week. The report brings information on remaining challenges and points to local housing solutions.
As a result of Registry Week, held in November 2016, 26 people and nine families were rehoused in Penrith, the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury. This is in addition to existing housing and supporting services in the area. At follow up after six months, the study found 24 people and eight families remained housed and over 92% reported improved wellbeing.
Once housed, 71% of people had more support to call on in time of a crisis and 50% had started using a new health or community service.
“The people who participated in the study said that having a safe place to live has been most helpful for them to get their life sorted,” Wentworth Chief Executive Officer, Stephen McIntyre, said.
At a community level, the report shows that the people in the Nepean region, including influencers such as MPs, Councillors, community, and business leaders are now more informed about local homelessness.
On the challenging side, the report revealed a shortage of affordable local rental properties for permanent housing.
“The main focus of our project group now is to find local low-cost housing solutions, especially for people looking for a smaller place to live that they can afford.”
“We want to build on the strong community momentum achieved to tackle the shortage of affordable permanent housing.”
At the launch of the report, Wentworth will also announce plans for a Garden Flat EXPO to encourage local home owners to invest in garden flats.
“We think this is a win-win, where homeowners can secure a regular income and local people seeking a smaller home can stay in our communities.”
Link Housing is Moving
Local community housing provider, Link Housing, has recently opened a new office in West Ryde and will soon unveil new larger office facilities in Chatswood on 17th September 2018.
The new offices will give the not-for-profit organisation the space to continue to provide quality, client-focused and comprehensive service to their growing community of housing applicants and residents within Northern Sydney and beyond.
Link Housing CEO, Andrew McAnulty, who has been at Link Housing for five years now, has led the organisation through a period of significant growth. Last year the organisation won tenders to manage 235 specialist disability accommodation tenancies and almost 1900 social housing tenancies, previously managed by the NSW Government.
The new Link Housing West Ryde office is located minutes from West Ryde train station and in the same building as the FACS Northern district office, allowing Link Housing to work closely with FACS in the lead up to the SHMT “go live” in December this year.