A safe place to call home

You are reading Chapter 1 of 'Delivering Fairness', 2019 VCOSS Budget Submission

Amidst Victoria’s prosperity, many people struggle to pay the rent, or worse, have nowhere to live.

Victoria continues to face the most basic challenge of government – making sure everybody has a safe place to call home. 

Having a safe place to call home is a basic human need. A home is more than a roof over someone’s head; it is a place to spend time with family and friends, a place to stay safe, warm, clean and healthy. Having a home allows people comfort, personal expression, and a sense of refuge.

Every person has a right to a home. Delivering affordable social housing, tackling homelessness and making renting fair gives every Victorian a chance at living a good life.

 

 Supercharge social housing construction

Accelerate social housing construction by pumping up public investment

Social housing is Victoria’s best tool to reduce poverty. A re-elected Andrews Government can rise to the challenge of providing people’s most basic need: shelter.

Over 82,000 people are currently on the public housing waiting list, many forced to sacrifice essentials like food and energy to keep their homes.

Social housing gives struggling Victorians a secure base for a decent life – from which to find work, get educated, stay well, raise healthy children, and retire with dignity. Without it, people risk spiralling into poverty, homelessness, sickness and entrenched unemployment. As an extra bonus, accelerating social housing construction creates new jobs for Victorians, and support our state’s economic growth.

Victoria currently languishes behind all other states when it comes to social housing, comprising just 3.5% of homes.[1] New social housing placements have slowed to a trickle, and people are left struggling on lengthening waiting lists, [2] impoverished by an unaffordable rental market.[3] We need an extra 30,000 new homes over the next decade, just to meet demand.[4]

The Victorian Government can meet this challenge. Currently the Government is committed to building 1,000 new public homes in three years,[5] supporting 2,200 community housing dwellings through the Social Housing Growth Fund,[6] and delivering extra homes with the Public Housing Renewal Program. This pipeline will need to be supercharged to deliver what’s needed.

 

 

 Build on vacant land and compel developers to include social housing

Build social housing on vacant government land and mandate inclusionary zoning

For some Victorians, a safe and secure home isn’t available. Growing competition for rental properties has caused rents to increase, with most private rental properties unaffordable to people who are living on low incomes.[7]

Melbourne has nearly 200 hectares of vacant government-owned land that can accommodate 30,000 homes.[8] Using this for social housing will reduce development costs and help keep people in their local communities, close to jobs, services and social connections.[9]

We can also leverage private construction. ‘Inclusionary zoning’ requires developers to deliver a proportion of social housing among new apartments. Private developers build around 30,000 apartments in Victoria every year.[10] Requiring a percentage for social housing would generate thousands of new homes, helping rapidly achieve our targets.

Building new social housing means we can optimise it for the future. It can provide more options for single people, including single parents with children, and be fully accessible for people with disability. Social housing must also be energy efficient and include insulation and air-conditioning so people aren’t forced to live in properties that don’t protect them from extreme weather.

 

 Stop homelessness before it starts

Fund more homelessness prevention services and join up our fragmented system

The best way to stop homelessness is to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Victoria can better prevent people becoming homeless by funding more homelessness prevention services and improving the alignment and integration of the existing services.

A better service system could assess a person’s needs, and combine legal assistance, financial counselling and emergency financial relief, flexible funding packages, negotiation with landlords and real estate agents to save tenancies, and links to other social supports, regardless of whether they were in public, community or private housing.

As things stand, there is a hodgepodge of under-funded, narrow and disconnected homelessness prevention programs. The help people get depends strongly on where they turn. For instance, Tenancy Plus helps save public and social housing tenants from eviction, whereas the Tenant Assistance and Advocacy Program helps in the private sector. Other services respond where they can: community legal centres may fight evictions, financial counsellors or emergency relief services might deal with rent arrears, or people might access Private Rental Assistance.

Flexible support means combining legal, social and financial responses, wherever people live. The Victorian Government can fight homelessness with a clear, integrated, multi-disciplinary and properly funded homelessness prevention program.

 

 Help homeless people access private rental

Keep funding the Private Rental Assistance Program to help people access the rental market

Every night, over 24,000 Victorians are homeless, with many sleeping in their cars, couch surfing or staying in temporary accommodation. More women[11] and older people are experiencing homelessness than ever before.[12] In regional areas, housing and crisis accommodation can be difficult to secure for people experiencing homelessness, especially in competition with influxes of tourists or seasonal workers.

The Private Rental Assistance Program (PRAP) is a lifeline to many Victorians experiencing homelessness. With so few social housing properties available, the program helps people to find, secure and sustain private rental housing, and steps in if the tenancy is at risk. The program has supported more than 4,500 people to access and sustain private rental housing.[13]

This program is a good-news story, but funding for PRAP is due to end on 30 June 2019. Although private rental is not suitable for everyone experiencing homelessness, PRAP provides one effective tool to rapidly rehome thousands of Victorians who would otherwise get caught in the expensive and ineffective scramble for short-term and crisis accommodation. Without it, specialist homelessness services will have diminished ability to find secure homes for people, and social housing lists will balloon.

The Victorian Government can extend PRAP funding to keep every available tool working to end homelessness, and make sure all Victorians have a secure, affordable home.

 

 

 Deliver renting fairness

Draft strong rules to make rental law changes work for tenants

The Victorian Parliament passed historic rental law changes last year. The timely reforms respond to an unaffordable housing market in which more people rent for longer, including more families and older people. They especially help Victorians facing disadvantage, who are more likely than other Victorians to live in rental housing, and to be unnecessarily evicted, disempowered in disputes, exposed to exorbitant costs, and vulnerable to poor housing conditions.

But now the detailed work begins to write the specific rules so the new laws can work properly. They will set out crucial details on exactly how the law will operate. For example, what kind of modifications can be made to a rental home without having to ask for permission? What information about a dwelling must be disclosed to prospective tenants before they sign a lease?

Badly written regulations, loop-holes and carve-outs could undermine the intended protection of renters’ rights. Deep, constructive consultation with tenant representatives and community organisations can deliver strong rules helping level the playing field, so renters can create safe, stable and livable homes.

A fair and equitable system incorporates strong minimum standards for health, safety and energy efficiency, clarifies tenants’ rights around modifications and repairs, regulates a reasonable bond cap threshold, allows people to keep pets, and requires evidence for eviction. Vulnerable people, including those experiencing family violence, must also have their rights protected.

 

 Establish a Housing Ombudsman

Create a simple, streamlined system for resolving housing disputes

Introducing an independent Housing Ombudsman creates a fairer, faster and more affordable way to deal with housing problems, helping overcome people’s fear and bewilderment.

Victoria already has an Ombudsman for Energy and Water, and for Public Transport. Victoria has also appointed Australia’s first Residential Tenancies Commissioner, providing independent advice to government on our renting system. A Housing Ombudsman goes beyond this role, being able to directly help renters, investigate dodgy landlords, and solve disputes.

Current dispute resolution processes do not work for tenants. Just 11 per cent of around 53,000 VCAT residential tenancy cases were initiated by renters.[14] The adversarial VCAT process is intimidating, complex and convoluted, which works against renters. On the rare occasion cases are challenged, they are often overturned in the renter’s favour,[15] but most renters don’t get this chance.[16]

VCOSS believes a Housing Ombudsman must have jurisdiction to investigate all housing tenures, including for older people, those with disability and people facing homelessness. For instance, some retirees are swindled by retirement villages with unfair charges; the NDIS will bring new issues through Specialist Disability Accommodation; and there are ongoing issues for people living in rooming houses and Supported Residential Services.

 

 Further strategies

Address high Aboriginal homelessness rates
One in five Aboriginal Victorians sought help from a specialist homeless service last year.[17] Aboriginal Victorians disproportionately experience worse health outcomes, over-incarceration, and family violence.[18] Homelessness compounds this disadvantage. The Victorian Government can build upon self-determination principles to deliver the Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework currently being developed.

Champion accessible housing standards
Just 5 per cent of Australian homes are accessible.[19] The Victorian Government can support incorporating minimum accessibility standards in the National Construction Code. These standards can deliver appropriate homes for Australia’s ageing population, and reduce the costs of injuries, preventable deaths, loneliness, social isolation, future home modifications, and forced relocation.

Make public housing energy efficient, comfortable and healthy
To ensure some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people can afford to be comfortable in summer and winter, Victoria needs energy-efficient public housing buildings with efficient appliances. Victoria could create healthier homes by expanding the EnergySmart Public Housing Project beyond the current upgrades to 1,500 homes.

Permanent supportive housing
Permanent supportive housing addresses chronic homelessness by providing housing and support for as long as it takes for people to live independently. The Victorian Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan includes key elements such as outreach, intensive case management and multidisciplinary supports. It needs dedicated housing access to succeed.

Education-linked housing for young people experiencing homelessness
Children experiencing homelessness are more likely to struggle with housing as adults.[20] Education improves future job prospects and housing stability.[21] Support for young people experiencing homelessness must include wrap-around education support. Extending education-focused accommodation options across Victoria helps young people find future success pathways without leaving their community.

Cut home purchase costs with a broad-based land tax
Victoria’s reliance on stamp duties adds cost to home purchase, and risks sudden revenue falls, threatening service funding. We can develop a more stable, efficient and fair tax system by progressively replacing stamp duties with a broad-based land tax. A good land tax system needs appropriate concessions, exemptions and deferrals.

 


[1] Yates, J, Victoria’s social housing supply requirements to 2036, 2017, p. 2.

[2] Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, Inquiry into the Public Housing Renewal Program, 2018.

[3] K Raynor, I Dosen and C Otter, Housing affordability in Victoria, 2017, p. 7.

[4] Community Housing Federation of Victoria, Quantifying the shortfall of Social and Affordable Housing, 2016, p. 3.

[5] Premier of Victoria, Building New Homes To Fight Homelessness, Media Release, 17 October 2018.

[6] Victorian Minister for Housing, Social Housing Growth Fund Open For Business, Media Release, 6 August 2018.

[7] Department of Health and Human Services, Rental Report – September Quarter 2018.

[8] M Palm, K Raynor, and C Whitzman, Project 30,000: Producing social and affordable housing on government land, 2018, p. 3.

[9] Ibid. p. 20.

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Building Activity, Australia, Spreadsheets table 34, September 2018.

[11] Mercy Foundation, Retiring into Poverty, September 2018, p. 6.

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016, 2018.

[13] Department of Health and Human Service, Annual Report 2017-18, p. 42.

[14] Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Annual report 2017-18, p. 57.

[15] Justice Connect Homeless Law, There’s no place like home: submission to the Residential Tenancies Act review, 2015, p. 25.

[16] I Ross, Transforming VCAT (Discussion Paper, VCAT 2010), p. 9.

[17] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Specialist Homelessness Services Annual Report 2017–18: Indigenous Clients, 2018.

[18] State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services, Korin Korin Balit-Djak; Aboriginal health, wellbeing and safety strategic plan 2017–2027, 2017.

[19] Liveable Housing Australia, cited in Australian Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, Delivery of outcomes under the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 to build inclusive and accessible communities Inquiry Report, 2017.

[20] G Johnson and C Chamberlain, From Youth to Adult Homelessness, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 2008, p. 576.

[21] G Johnson, H Gronda and S Coutts, On the Outside; Pathways in and out of homelessness, 2008.

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Artwork by artist Jacob Komesaroff. Follow on Instagram @jkomments