Australia lost 20,000 public housing units in a decade, study finds

Decline offset by 55,470 increase in homes run by non-profit providers, but experts warn these have less lease security

State and territory governments have presided over the loss of more than 20,000 public housing units in a decade, marking a “considerable change” as control over social housing is increasingly handed to non-profits.

A new study, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare(AIHW) on Thursday, found the declining number of publicly owned homes was offset by a 55,470 increase in homes run by non-profit providers.

Although overall social housing, which includes government and non-profit run stock, increased by about 27,401 – or about 6% – over the 10 years to 2017-18, the study found the increase had “not kept pace with the growth in households”.

That meant about a quarter of new public housing tenants in 2017-18 who were classified as in “greatest need” had been on the waiting list longer than 12 months, with 13% waiting longer than two years to be housed.

The Australian Council of Social Service’s Peter Davidson said the report confirmed that governments were “under-investing in public and community housing”, while the Homelessness Australia chair, Jenny Smith, called on the commonwealth “to turn the dial on decline in social housing”.

The report pointed to a “considerable change in provision of social housing” resulting from a “gradual but steady policy focus” on “growing the community housing sector and transferring ownership”.

It comes as public housing advocates have decried moves from state governments to sell public housing land to developers. The states argue the extra revenue allows them to boost social housing elsewhere, mostly through non-profit providers, but critics say the reduction in publicly owned homes will have consequences.

Mark Feenane, the executive officer of the Victorian Public Tenants Association, said community housing providers did not face the same obligations as public housing authorities, meaning leases were more insecure.

“Additionally, community housing providers are not obliged to fill all new vacancies from the waitlist which leads to an effective shrinkage in stock over time,” Feenane said.

The long wait for a home

The AIHW report said there were 140,600 applicants on the waiting list for public housing in Australia in June 2018, down from 154,600 in June 2014.

But 45,800 were considered in “greatest need” because they were homeless, their safety was at risk or they had very high rental costs. That was an increase of 2,600 among the most vulnerable.

About 4,100 – or a quarter – of all new “greatest need” tenants had been waiting longer than 12 months for a home.

It’s a familiar situation for Adelaide woman Wendy Morgan, who found herself living in her car in 2013 after she was retrenched at work and could no longer pay her rent.

When Morgan found herself facing an ongoing eviction battle again in late 2015, she contacted South Australia’s public housing authority asking for a home.

Only last December, it finally happened. “If I didn’t get that house when I did, I was within days of living in my car again,” Morgan, 57, told Guardian Australia.

She said it had only been when was facing imminent homelessness that her application appeared to progress.

Morgan, who is a member of the Anti-Poverty Network, said her public housing unit was small, and that she felt “like a hoarder” fitting her belongings in there. But it had also helped her get her life back on track.

“The stability of this house has given me the opportunity to get some part-time work, which has improved my situation a bit,” she said.

The report also found about 4% of tenants in public and community housing units were living in overcrowded dwellings, while about 7,300 social housing units were currently considered “untenantable”.

Of the 20,400 new public housing tenants in 2017-18, 35% were homeless at the time, while 27% were at risk of homelessness.

This article first appeared in The Guardian  @lukehgomes 
Font Resize