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Churches and housing

By Harry Herbert - posted Monday, 15 May 2000

Housing as an issue has many component parts. A lot of attention in recent times has been given to the issue of homelessness and while this is most appropriate, it is only one part of the total picture. The adequacy of public housing, the provision of community housing, issues related to boarding houses, both licensed and not licensed, protection for private renters, adequacy of rent assistance, affordable housing measures, and many more issues go to make up the total picture in regard to housing policy.

Like many social issues, housing is a complex issue and dealing with housing policy needs a range of responses. Getting the public housing waiting list in NSW down from its current high level, approaching 100,000 households, could in theory be solved by the Department of Housing engaging in a massive building campaign, but more likely it will be addressed more effectively by a range of responses.

I notice that in most discussions of this issue, the community sector's response to the high levels of housing distress is to argue the need for more resources, while at the same time government officers will argue the need for more co-ordination and better planning and more efficient use of existing resources. I think that both approaches are valid and both need to be applied at the same time. While I have said that many policy responses are required, nevertheless I am the first to say that a major factor in our finding ourselves in the current situation is that the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement has been allowed to wither on the vine for all too long. That occurred during the Hawke-Keating years and has continued under the Howard Government.


Although I acknowledge that rent assistance has been a counterbalancing policy to some extent, it remains the case that during a period of high unemployment and high social need, the resources put into the CSHA have dwindled.

At the same time the client base of public housing has become predominantly social security recipients and the plain facts of the matter are that 25% of social security is not sufficient rental income to maintain properties, and it isn't even sufficient if rent assistance were to be included. Thus the limited number of new units being built, where the Commonwealth often points the finger at the States and implies administrative inefficiency, is simply because the public housing system is not self sustaining in regard to recurrent costs.

No where is this more true than in the Sydney market. No one could build stock today in the Sydney region and expect to maintain that stock with an income of 25% of social security payments. And, that is not taking any profit or surplus into account.

Among those who work in the community service sector, it is a well established fact that unless people have access to affordable and secure housing, very few other issues in their lives are likely to be addressed.

The affordability of housing is therefore a key component of housing policy and a key measure for addressing housing need. We are unlikely to be able to deal with public housing waiting lists, even if there were a massive injection of funds, if affordability continues to be harder and harder to achieve and more people are forced onto those lists.

Not surprisingly large numbers of people in the rental market are paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs. The figure of 30% comes from the National Housing Strategy which was an initiative of the Commonwealth Government conducted from 1990 to 1992. That has now become a well accepted figure. Using it, we find that low income households, which are households earning below $36,400 p.a. in the private rental market in Sydney, amount to approximately 90,000 households. For the rest of NSW, the number is 142,000 making a total of 232,000 low income households in NSW who are renting in the private rental market and who are paying more than 30% of their income in rent.


In addition there are some 90,000 or more low income households who are home purchasers and who are paying more than 30% of their income on housing. More than half of low income households in the private rental market fall into their category. And I am using the 1996 Census figures and I am sure that the situation has not improved but has worsened.

Finding strategies to make more affordable housing available is clearly an important part of the whole picture. I know that the Churches Community Housing Project is a part of that. To the extent that those projects make more affordable housing available, it is an important step. Making church land or buildings available for housing projects can reduce the overall cost and so make housing more affordable.

However, of course, many other avenues need to be pursued. Developers gain massive profits in the wake of Government decisions and Government spending. We hear, for instance, that the increase in rents in suburbs around the Olympic site at Homebush Bay is not the result of increases in rents in existing properties but because many new upmarket developments have occurred in those areas. This is what the Department of Fair Trading is telling us in regard to movements in rents.

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This is an edited extract from a speech given at the Churches Community Housing Conference on the 29 March, 2000.

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About the Author

Reverend Harry Herbert is Executive Director of the Uniting Church's Board for Social Responsibility.

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