What to do about Affordable Housing in Victoria?In Affordable Housing, Social Justice
I’m finding myself increasingly disturbed by the direction of the debate forming around the mooted changes to some of the inner city public housing estates. The issue was ignited by the Age’s release on Monday 14 January of draft departmental briefs relating to estates in Fitzroy and North Richmond.
The flurry of criticism and condemnation of these “proposals” has resulted in the real problems facing the affordable housing sector (public housing, community housing and cooperative housing) in this State to be swept aside. The tide of misrepresentation regarding these and other public housing estates and the people who live there, together with the heartfelt emotion about the potential loss of precious open space, has meant that the fundamental need for safe and secure housing for all people has been relegated to minor status in favour of campaigning to save these particular estates, important though that may be.
So let’s be clear. The public housing system in Victoria is broke and needs much more to fix it than tarting up a couple of estates by changing the demographic mix and paying for it through the sale of private properties and allowing commercial and retail uses around the edges where there is some “spare” land.
The Auditor General’s report last year was unequivocal about the parlous financial state of public housing in Victoria, i.e. it is unsustainable in its current form. But I think more important was his finding that it had been “without direction” for years. The subsequent KPMG discussion paper in May had a number of proposals, including the type now being mooted for Fitzroy and North Richmond, but in typical fashion, either because of their terms of reference or their natural inclination, they went straight to proposed financial “solutions” which could be read as trying to do it on the cheap.
When will we ever again see our Governments tackling these big important issues from a principles base. Safe, secure and affordable housing should be seen as a fundamental human right, ensuring an adequate standard of living that is a measure of our society’s equity and fairness. Therefore our elected governments must treat it in that fashion, not just another budget issue to be engineered out of existence. A waiting list of more than 40,000, with expected wait times of up to ten years in some circumstances, should be viewed as a disgrace that our State Government mustn’t allow to continue.
So the principles supporting affordable housing need to be spelled out loud and clear and then we will be in a position to assess these sorts of Fitzroy/North Richmond proposals. Safe, secure and affordable housing should be available to everybody. The style and the provider will vary depending on circumstances. Public Housing must continue to be provided by the State Government and the quantity, if not significantly increased, at least mustn’t be reduced from current levels, and quality, such as the provision of adequate public open space, must be assured. More resources need to be put into Community Housing to continue the development of the much needed local focus for affordable housing. And we should ensure the legislative and governance requirements for cooperative housing are such that these newer, growing forms of affordable housing provision have a strong future.
There is some real potential for Community Housing Associations to take over some Public Housing Estates (which could be the basis of the Fitzroy and North Richmond proposals) but it mustn’t be done as a cheap way out. The State Government has to retain the responsibility to bring its current housing stock up to an adequate standard or to provide the funding for others to do it. Housing is too important an issue of human rights to push such provision out to the private sector. One might contemplate the terrible state of many private rooming houses to know that the private sector doesn’t always have the rights or safety and security of its tenants foremost in its mind.
The Minister Wendy Lovell has been quoted as wanting “to reduce the concentrations of disadvantage”. It would be far preferable if the Government wanted to reduce real disadvantage rather than just trying to disperse it. They need to consult the people who will be most affected so that the focus can be on the people issues not just a land development opportunity.
Disclaimer: Frank O’Connor is a Director of Port Phillip Housing Association which has more than 1000 tenants in a significant number of housing facilities around Melbourne suburbs.