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A roof over their heads ...

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Back in early 2008, I was working with a Somali community organisation in Flemington on settlement issues. What shocked me the most was seeing a family with five children living in inadequate space and amenities with all five kids living and studying in the same bedroom! To me, housing is not only essential to provide shelter and protection, it is a fundamental human right, yet many people in Australia do not have access to adequate and affordable housing, whether this is through home ownership or private rental markets. This has motivated me to conduct extra research and make a difference in this policy area.

Housing affordability in Australia is reducing with significant and differing implications for different areas and socio economic groups. In some communities key workers are unable to afford housing and in other areas entry level or first home-buyer properties are scarce. Demand for government housing is growing faster than supply. Both State and Federal governments have recognised this with programs to increase supply of social and public housing and to support access to the private rental markets.

A number of factors have led to increases in house prices and contributed to the current affordability problem. These include population and household growth, emphasis on housing as a form of investment, grants for homebuyers, negative gearing, population concentration in capital cities, financial deregulation and access to credit.


Housing stress is also on the rise. According to the St Vincent de Paul Society the term housing stress refers to a household’s position when housing costs are unsustainable or comprise an unduly large proportion of household income. Housing stress does more than just reduce household spending power. It has a significant effect on people’s ability to get a job, puts pressure on relationships, makes it difficult for children to be educated, and in extreme cases, can lead to homelessness. Initiatives to combat housing stress have included investing in new public and social housing properties, maintenance and physical improvement works and instigating an increase in bond loans to assist low-income earners.

A shortage of affordable accommodation can limit the ability of a local area to attract essential workers to maintain services such as transport, medical support facilities, schools, local council utilities and childcare. Importantly, limited housing choices can reduce diversity in the community and impact on community cohesion if entire sections of a population are excluded from particular locations due to cost factors.

Local councils benefit from having affordable housing that can accommodate a diverse local workforce, provide economic benefits to the local community through increased goods and services, while also meeting the needs of the increasing number of smaller households.

Local government is very well placed to distinguish local need and provide localised responses to affordability problems with their communities. Councils can influence housing supply and impact on housing affordability through land use planning and building control functions, as well as through social and community planning, community service provision and local infrastructure provision.

Over the last 30 years, the ratio of median house prices to median household income has more than doubled across the country making not only home ownership impossible for many, but also pushing up the cost of renting. As both the State and Federal governments are implementing a raft of measures to address housing affordability, it is an opportune time for local government to take a proactive role to ensure best outcomes for their communities.

As the economy rebounds from the global financial crisis in association with higher population growth, the impact of higher house prices, interest rates and no significant increase in housing stock, affordability and housing stress will not only be a state and a national issue but a local issue as well. Councils across Australia need to be in a position to be able to respond.


So what can local councils do? As the planning authority, they have the ability to support affordable housing through various policy instruments including land use planning, development facilitation and advocacy and integrate affordable housing objectives with policies and programs. Another effective measure includes developing partnerships and supporting the community housing sector and developers to create social and affordable housing outcomes. Councils can also consider providing surplus land, building capital or other market resources to assist the development of affordable housing.

At the Municipal Association of Victoria’s (MAV) State Council, the City of Monash presented a motion requesting the MAV develop an Affordable Housing Local Government Strategic Framework. This framework will assist local governments in Victoria to integrate affordable housing objectives into their strategic policies and programs, share knowledge and improve councils’ effectiveness in this important policy area and assist in identifying common issues, challenges and opportunities at a state and federal level. The motion was effectively combined with another motion requesting the MAV to advocate and support the provision of affordable housing recognition of the role of rooming and boarding houses as a type of affordable housing and the need to improve their regulation and management through planning, social impact assessment and neighbourhood consultation. This motion was convincingly passed without any objections.

More and more councils around Australia are assuming increased roles in supporting access to affordable housing through their policy frameworks, planning schemes, advocacy and even direct provision or partnership projects. The changing demographic and social patterns such as the ageing population, new migrants and arrivals and an increase in lone person households, students, both local and international are creating a high demand for greater diversity in housing stock than it currently exists. It is about creating an affordable alternative to the private rental market or public and social housing. This is more than just getting a roof over peoples’ heads, it about the potential to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

All Australians deserve accessible and affordable housing. From what I have seen, the local government sector can rise up to the challenge.

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First published in Councillor Magazine, a quarterly magazine for Australian Councillors (December 2009 to January 2010 edition).

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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