Back in July, I wrote a piece arguing for the urgent passing of the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) bill, which was, at the time, being held up by the Liberals, Nationals and Greens.
It is pleasing to see that this legislation has now passed, and along with the $10 billion allowing 30,000 new homes to be built over five years, the government has committed an additional $3 billion in direct investment in social housing, $2 billion of which is going into a social housing accelerator and the just-announced $1 billion going into the National Housing Infrastructure Facility.
With estimates of a current shortfall of up to 433,000 units of social housing, and up to 728,600 in 2036, perhaps the only way of not succumbing to utter despair for the project of achieving housing justice is to fall back on Lao Tzu’s dictum that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
The passage of HAFF is a modest step. In talking to housing advocates and analysts there’s a feeling from some that it was not the obvious choice as a funding model but that it does have the advantage of institutionalising a funding arrangement that leverages private capital, making it less likely to be dismantled by a future government less invested in increasing the supply of social housing.
It is, however, difficult to refute the assertion by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) that direct investment in social housing is the cheapest and most efficient allocation of public resources in addressing the housing crisis.
And optimal public housing has the capacity to be a de facto means of rent control. Yet the passage of the HAFF should not be dismissed. It is still a first step and there are three reasons why it is not without significance.
‘It’s time for a change from the neoliberal trajectory. It is up to all of us to ensure that the recent housing measures are seen as a small, yet not insignificant, opportunity to build momentum in an alternative project of lasting social change.’
First, when we talk about the HAFF we cannot ignore the adjacent legislation and reform agenda. Let’s return to the powerful words of the housing advocates at the time when the legislation was being obstructed:
The new institutions it will create, such as Housing Australia and the Housing Supply Affordability Council need to start their important work. We need a robust national response that has a significant expansion of social and affordable housing as its central pillar.
We also need better planning systems for our cities and the roll out of annual state housing targets for social, affordable and at-market housing through the national housing accord.
As advocates, we intend to build upon the new legislation by campaigning for additional resources in the years ahead. We know that the current legislation on its own will not fix the housing crisis. But it does create the institutions necessary to make a start.
We consider this package a floor, not a ceiling. This is especially true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whose housing needs have been consistently neglected, leading to severe overcrowding and poor health. The time for repairing our housing system has arrived.
Additionally, national cabinet has begun some important work on rental security and minimum rental standards as a step towards national consistency on tenancy laws, a matter that has recently been addressed in a detailed report from the Centre for Equitable Housing.
Secondly, social housing providers and advocates are saying that the legislation will make a difference. As Kate Colvin, CEO of Homelessness Australia said: ‘The homes delivered through the HAFF will each make an enormous difference to people who would otherwise be homeless,’ and as Rob Macfarlane, CEO of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Association (NATSIHA) said: ‘For decades, the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals have been overlooked. NATSIHA views these fresh resources as a crucial initial step in tackling the long standing issue of unmet housing needs within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.’
Thirdly, none of us are done yet.
I remember once being taught that the point of advocacy was, in the nutshell, to convince the government of the day to take this pot of money and spend it here.
This might seem like a very neat summation but it does not tell the whole story. The whole story is not, in the first instance, about the dollars. It’s more about the sense! The long-haul struggle is really about transforming the social terrain to the degree that appropriate funding for social housing, including a reclaiming of the role of government in building and managing public housing, is simply and almost incontestably seen as a matter of common sense.
This struggle to change the story of how we understand housing as a society; that is the bigger story, and it is incumbent on all of us who are committed to the fundamental right to housing to collectively work towards changing the national narrative, the national psyche, the collective desire of the nation, so that housing is felt in our guts to be a human right, rather than a speculative sport.
We should use the contexts in which we find community and belonging to prosecute this agenda; our faith-based communities, our civil society organisations, our liberatory social movements, our trade unions, to build the kind of society in which a place to call home is guaranteed to all.
It is also incumbent on all levels of government, with special responsibility at the federal level, to lead this change in the way we think about housing. Governments have enormous power in leading and shaping national debates. It is arguable that no federal government since the Howard government has so thoroughly changed the nation, residualising social security as well as public housing, education and health in ways from which we have not yet recovered, and fundamentally seeking to erase the political agency of working people, especially through the suppression of unions and the atomisation and precarisation of working conditions.
It’s time for a change from the neoliberal trajectory. It is up to all of us to ensure that the recent housing measures are seen as a small, yet not insignificant, opportunity to build momentum in an alternative project of lasting social change.
And momentum is building. The CFMEU recently took a proposal to the ALP national conference to introduce a super profits tax of 40 per cent on excess profits, raising an estimated $29 billion a year which would fund an additional 750,000 new units of social and affordable housing by 2041. National Secretary, Zach Smith, said of the proposal:
The federal government has the opportunity to define its legacy as ending homelessness, boosting productivity and lifting millions out of poverty.
Let’s be the generation that didn’t let this crisis become the norm. Tax super profits, fix the housing crisis.
Not only can government step in to fix big intractable national problems – it must. The state has a role to play and Australians want the state to play it.
And there you have the real ask: not just a single pot of money but a re-purposing of the role of government, divesting itself of its neoliberal mantle of vandalising social infrastructure and crushing the souls of ordinary people, and investing itself instead in the more democratic mission of expanding and reorienting state capacity in the interests not the already powerful few, but of the increasingly empowered many.
Originally published by John Falzon in Eureka Street, 21 September 2023