STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES – Wednesday, 9th August
STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES
Wednesday, 9 August 2017
Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) — I rise today to speak in relation to the Greens motion as it relates to public housing, and I note the numerous elements of this particular motion and the extent to which they deal with public housing as opposed to social housing. There is a really important context here that I think warrants some exploration. I would like to take the house through the various components of the motion against what has been done historically, because a really important series of aggregate policies and decisions across various levels of government over many decades have culminated in very, very significant policy and resourcing challenges as our communities continue to grow, again in looking at what we are trying to achieve here as it relates to providing that very important component of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Essentially we are talking about the capacity for people to feel safe, to have shelter, to participate within their communities, in essence to find dignity through inclusiveness and through contribution in a way that enables them to participate fully in their own day to day lives and in the day to day lives of others.
You would have to have been living under a rock, perhaps near a lobster, to miss the point about just how dire the levels of housing stress and homelessness have become in the state of Victoria. Not a day goes by where we do not hear about people sleeping rough. The Lord Mayor in fact has done a considerable amount of work discussing this issue in recent days. The numbers of people sleeping rough within the CBD are estimated at around 250 a night. They are not the same people according to the service providers but they are people who do sleep rough in and around the CBD, and that number in fact is reflected and indeed built upon in the inner urban areas, the suburban areas, the peri urban areas and, to go to my part of the world, regional Victoria as well.
We have really significant levels of homelessness, and one of the problems and challenges that we have, as much as anything, is collecting data around understanding the extent of the problem, particularly in rural towns, settlements and regional centres where it can be very, very difficult. It can be all but impossible in certain circumstances to understand the depth and reach of homelessness problems and of people who are sleeping rough, because that includes people who may be quite transient in moving from one part of the community to another, and in Gippsland we have more than our fair share of that. We have very significant numbers of people who couch surf and who therefore are not necessarily captured within the data but who absolutely have that need for safety, security and the dignity of a door that can be locked.
There is not a day that has gone by in recent times that we have not also heard about some of the incredibly trying and testing circumstances that people have faced when they have stayed in residential accommodation of whatever variety that has compromised their privacy, their dignity, their right to self determination on everything from accessing bathroom facilities through to having somewhere — if they are escaping, for example, a family violence situation — that enables them to spend time with their children other than in a communal area.
We all know that the causes of housing stress and homelessness are many and varied and that in addressing the challenges that are posed by this multifaceted problem we have to in fact provide solutions at every level of community policy making. We have to and any responsible government has to make sure that we are providing not just the immediacy of accommodation for people in crisis and emergency situations that require it but the medium and long term options and opportunities for people who may find themselves on very long waiting lists and who may find themselves through a number of circumstances coming together in situations of underemployment, unemployment, loss of resources and — a term that was coined only in the last 20 years or so — sexually transmitted debt. In particular, women are disproportionately affected by decisions made within matrimony that affect their legal rights, that affect their asset bases and that affect their general capacity to create and maintain assets and wealth.
Women, also being primary carers of children in the large majority situations, will also often find themselves in a situation where they have to provide for their children at short or no notice, and the extent to which mothers will go to make sure that their children are safe often means that they do not have security or certainty or dignity or privacy themselves, because they would rather put their children ahead of their own interests.
These are social problems that are related to skills, education and training; to access to public transport; to the idea of a fixed address; and to a way in which we take our domiciliary lives for granted in many cases until such time as they are taken away. We see time and time again the indignity that is compounded when people are not in a position to determine a fixed address, are not in a position to prove identity and are not necessarily in a position to challenge or to fend off infringements or fines that they may accrue as a consequence of sleeping rough. There are so many components to this and, as I said, good, responsible government is required to consider all of them proactively and collaboratively with other levels of government.
We have over 35 000 people on the housing waiting list, and we know this because there is accurate data in relation to the waiting list through the single Victorian Housing Register, and that has been a positive development. It means that we are moving away from the anecdotal gathering of materials and of evidence around homelessness and around sleeping rough into something that is more consolidated. Having that consolidated list of all housing and homelessness agencies gives us a better picture as a community of the housing crisis that these vulnerable people in our communities face.
We know in particular — and this has received media coverage in recent days, as it should and as it should continue to — that older people in housing crisis are a number one priority group for the purposes of the increases that we will see. The priority list will jump to over 22 000. This, to go back to my opening remarks in relation to underinvestment and cuts, is the long tail of a legacy of underinvestment and the long tail of a legacy of neglect of a commitment to public housing from the commonwealth — the ones with the deepest pockets. We then look at that in a contemporary context and see that the continuing pressures and cuts from the coalition government at a federal level and the cuts that occurred here in Victoria under the former government have compounded these problems and these challenges. They are not necessarily evident straightaway; they have a long tail on them.
We see that in the years to come the waiting lists get longer, the services are compromised and the capacity to gain redress or improvement is reduced, and we have seen also that the Tenants Union of Victoria has in fact suffered a compromise to its commonwealth funding that means that the outreach program will be compromised as well — again, another component which undercuts the dignity that is at the heart and the locus of providing safe, private, dignified accommodation.
In recognising the damage that has been caused there have been a number of really decisive and significant actions taken to date. We have already added more than 1100 social housing properties to the register, and there will be another 600 new properties that will come online this coming year through purchasing and leasing programs. As far as investment goes — and it is not just bricks and mortar, it is money as well — there is $800 million in that investment, and we are preparing for the future through $2 billion in investment with the Social Housing Growth Fund. In providing this long pipeline of significant funding we will assist more than 19 000 Victorians to access and sustain housing and deliver more than 6000 social housing properties. In building and providing these facilities, these amenities and access to this dignity around social housing, we are moving away from the legacy and the long tail of decades of neglect in this particular area.
That is not to say that this will be the magic bullet, because it will not be; there is a lot more work to do. It will take sustained effort, as I said, across numerous levels of government. It will take governments of all persuasions to make sure that we do not create further intergenerational gaps into the future. The public housing renewal program is about giving tenants access to safe, secure and affordable accommodation. We need to make sure that certainty, that thriving communities, that recognition and respect and that self determination are part of what is generated in the new social housing commitments and infrastructure that are being developed. Part of this is about using public land in the public interest to get that very best value, to achieve the best results and to make sure that we increase the number of public and social housing units. It is in fact a smarter way to use public land, and where the financial model is right we can help to unlock the supply of more homes for affordable inner city living for key workers.
For 30 years now we have been promising to get rid of out of date and unsafe concrete walk ups. Everybody knows them. You cannot escape them. They are on the skyline of just about every turn and every bend on every major road in Melbourne. We are actually doing it. It is about providing more social housing and not less and about working to break down the exclusion and stigma of public housing estates. Building safe and inclusive communities is a key part of achieving this better balance. We have been really honest with tenants about the challenges, however, that are faced in achieving these ends, and there are going to be continuous challenges in the way that this change is effected and implemented, in the way that more stock is allocated as it is brought online and in the way that we do address the existing waiting list in the most appropriate and equitable way that we can.
This government has, however, made a very significant commitment to continue to work side by side with tenants through the Victorian Public Tenants Association, councils and housing associations. The government has in fact signed a pledge with tenants to provide the assurance that the renewal will not result in a reduction in security of tenure, that residents will have the right to return and that rent will be capped at 25 per cent of household income for returning residents. This has to be about more than playing party politics with people’s lives. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, the need for secure accommodation is very close to the top of what we as humans prioritise: shelter, safety, engagement, food, water. Housing is a crucial part of this. With housing comes security, comes identity and comes dignity. Making sure that the relocation process includes individualised support to assist tenants — individualised support that is tailored to what they require — will be a key part of this.
We are acting on what we are hearing during these consultations. In particular the Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing recently announced more lighting on the Flemington estate, and we are working on a range of other actions that have come out of those consultations — really practical things to improve the everyday lives of the people who are part of those communities to make their lives easier now. We want people to build better communities and to co design improvements that they wish to see. With that growing list of over 35 000 that I referred to earlier in my contribution we need to act now, and that renewal program I have talked about is not the only way to do this. We need to provide more support to Victorians in housing stress across the board.
The Greens motion refers to the adequacy of a proposed 10 per cent increase in public housing, or 1100 public units, on the redeveloped sites, given the size of the waiting list for public housing. In fact we are looking at a minimum 10 per cent uplift in social housing from each site and mixed communities. We are looking to end unacceptable housing poverty and unacceptable conditions. The amount of public and private housing to be built on each site will be determined by the planning process that is currently underway. We have said that we are looking for that minimum 10 per cent, but it is really important to make sure that that message is not distorted; I say that particularly with reference to paragraph 1 of this motion, which would seem, and I would hope inadvertently, to be connoting that the message is the adequacy of a proposed 10 per cent increase rather than a minimum of 10 per cent.
The second paragraph of the Greens motion relates to the ability to cater for all demographics, including families, couples and singles, with the proposed housing mix. The public housing renewal program will mean that the development of 2500 ageing public housing properties across public housing estates, regional centres and growth corridors is a focus, leading to a transformation to more inclusive mixed communities, encompassing social, affordable and private housing, with increased social housing acting as a long term bedrock of these new communities. This moves us away from the concrete jungle towers of isolation that have for too long stood to stigmatise, at least in some people’s view, the notion of public housing by putting everybody together — lumping everybody into one bucket.
Mixed housing is a way to not only deliver that housing security and certainty but to walk the talk by saying that people in social and public housing are as valuable to the community as people who are in private housing and that it is appropriate, as we walk in our everyday lives, as we work in our everyday lives, to have people around us who are from a variety of different circumstances and backgrounds. Here in the chamber we like to think that we do it. I think we have a long way to go to be as representative as we should be as parliamentarians. That is not to say that responsible government cannot then make all possible endeavours to get the best possible mix of people in our community living together.
Being more inclusive will lead to social benefits around inclusion that go far beyond the security of housing and the housing affordability and stress argument that I talked about earlier as being one of the drivers behind these changes. This requires a partnership based approach — having community housing along with the government sector and the private sector working together, whether it is through the development process, through ongoing maintenance or through the way in which programs, services and infrastructure are delivered in our communities. This is about co design wherever possible, it is about ongoing engagement and consultation and it is about dignity, which is at the very heart of it all.
What I am concerned about is that the Greens motion does not recognise or adequately value the role that social housing providers play in creating these communities. What I am concerned about is the fact that a motion like this one is very easy to bring before the house; however, we need to make sure that we take account of more than simply the context of the motion and look more broadly at the drivers, the challenges and the opportunities that present in improving social housing and improving community participation across the board.
The third paragraph of the motion is about the effects on current public housing tenants, including whether they will be moved to accommodation that is secure, stable and fit for purpose; whether they will be moved to accommodation that is close to existing social support networks, educational, health and welfare services; and whether current tenants will be able to return to the estates. As I mentioned earlier the government signed a pledge with tenants to provide the assurance that renewal will not result in a reduction in security of tenure, that residents will have the right to return and that rent will be capped at 25 per cent of household income for returning residents. As I said earlier, this has to be about more than politics. The relocation process has to be done in consultation with, in partnership with and through engagement with the people who will be directly affected. Retaining bonds with the local community and being close to existing employment services and training is a crucial part of this. We will meet the costs associated with relocation for these tenants.
Working alongside tenants and the Victorian Public Tenants Association will also enable the inclusion of visions for their homes and their estates. This is not simply about taking up an opportunity or a cheap shot to spread fear among public housing tenants.
The fourth paragraph of the motion refers to the allocation of parts of the sites to the proposed new private housing units on designs made public. The amount of public and private housing to be built on each site will be determined by the planning process that is underway now. What we see from this motion is an attempt at scaremongering by bringing up issues of density or private housing to cover for a lack of support that the Greens hold for new social housing across the board.
The fifth paragraph of the motion relates to a lack of public condition assessments on the estates or alternative options, such as refurbishment of all or part of the existing housing units. Let me be really clear: these housing estates have been talked about for 40 years. As more sites are talked about, more come online as needing renewal. What we need is action to begin getting on with updating, upgrading and improving not just the housing itself but the access to infrastructure, programs, services and dignity across the board, not just for current tenants but for future tenants as well and not just for those people on that list of 35 000 but for the people who will come onto the list in coming years and decades. This has to be a medium to long term plan that takes account of the enormous growth in population that we will see in the coming decades. With an additional 4.6 million people estimated to be within Victoria’s borders by 2050, whether born here or coming here from elsewhere, we need to take account of the impact that this will have across every single facet of public policy and lawmaking, and public and social housing is no exception to this.
I am going to continue talking about paragraph (5) — the lack of public condition assessments — and the way in which people have for too long accepted the status quo as being something that could never or would never change. The discussion we heard earlier related to rebuilding and renewal of estates, and there was the argument that renovations could take place for places that are not fit for housing in 2017, with no funded plans. It is all very well to talk about, as we have done for the last 40 years, the importance of doing something, about the levels of amenity, about ventilation, about maintenance, about temperature control, about insulation and about the way in which security is maintained in and around these areas, but we are well past being due to get to the point where action is taken.
The sixth paragraph is about the proposed significant increase in density and heights, loss of open space and mature vegetation and other local environmental impacts of the proposed public housing developments. Growth in social housing is something that we need to accept as part of future growth in general. Making these Trojan horse arguments around density does not do anything to advance the discussion. It comes down to how we build stronger communities. It comes down to how we create better diversity. It comes down to challenging and dismantling the poverty and disadvantage that public housing tenants face.
There will perhaps be people reading or listening to this debate who have never set foot on a public housing estate. I can assure you: these places are a mix of the very best and the most challenging that you could ever wish to see in accommodation. There are signs that people go to the greatest extent that they can to make their homes and the environments around them as welcoming, as inviting and as inclusive as possible. These estates have some of the most extraordinary stories within them — generations, families, traditions, history. The sorts of things that make up any community are thriving and alive and well on these estates, but the environments do not match the vigour, the determination, the pride, the resourcefulness and the tight knit nature of the people who live there, and that needs to change.
We also see that with ageing populations and changes to the demographic, security is important, disability access is important, better facilities and resources for families are important and better design of open space is important. These are all things that need to happen necessarily through effective co design and engagement with communities, with councils and across various levels of government.
The removal of planning controls from local councils is the seventh point, along with the proposed loss of third party appeal rights. On these particular elements of the motion we are working with every local council, and that requires us to welcome civic leaders and the people they represent and the communities of which they are part to take part in and contribute to a renewal of the conversation around these run down housing estates and make sure that we get positive outcomes for these communities.
The ninth point of the motion reads:
the transparency and genuine community consultation with affected residents, neighbouring communities and the broader Victorian community regarding the short, medium and long term implications of the … model as currently proposed …
We know that these renewal projects are significant periods of change. It is not rocket science; any period of change that relates to the relocation of everything that you have had around you in your immediate domestic physical environment is going to be challenging. That is why in addition to promising to increase social housing units by a minimum of 10 per cent — not 10 per cent, but a minimum of 10 per cent — we have pledged to current tenants that there will not be a reduction in security of tenure, that there will be a right to return to a new home, that rent will be capped at 25 per cent of household income for returning residents as per current arrangements, that retention of bonds will occur for the local community as an undertaking, that housing will be close to employment services and training, and that costs will be met that are associated with relocations that are caused as a consequence of this. Again this requires us to work very closely with the Victorian Public Tenants Association to include their visions for their homes and their estates.
Again it is important not to spread fear or misinformation, because these are the things that get in the way of mature debate and discussion and collaboration around achieving long term ends that assist the people in our community who deserve proper representation and consideration in the way in which public policy is delivered.
The 10th element of the motion refers to:
public housing estates where similar models are envisaged or underway, including —
(a) Markham Avenue, Ashburton;
(b) Koolkuna Lane, Hampton; and
(c) the corner of Stokes Street and Penola Street, Preston …
and the 11th component reads:
previous Victorian public housing renewal projects, including but not limited to the Kensington, Carlton and Prahran public housing estates …
Further, the 12th component of the motion reads:
best practice models for the provision of public housing from within Australia and overseas …
It is telling that we see this confected outrage about the way in which public housing policy is developed and about the way in which decisions are being taken from parties which have never in fact delivered substantive reforms to this part of the community over 40 years. We have seen people, as I indicated earlier, talk ad nauseam, and people listening to me now might think that in fact that is a little rich, but there has been so much talk. There has been so much talk about changing the public estate and about changing the way in which public and social housing is managed in Victoria, but no one has done anything on a large or significant scale in an accountable way that allows for people to in fact get the improvement in amenity over time that continues to improve.
Let us compare the record with the previous government. The Royal Commission into Family Violence outlined the previous government’s $330 million cut to housing. Investments in acquisitions and renewal fell from $462.8 million in 2009–10 to $131 million in 2014–15, and where were the Greens then? The $799 million increase in funding by this government since March 2016 means that we have almost doubled the amount of new funding that the Liberal government cut out across four years of its slashing of resources for housing and homelessness. We would be really happy to test our commitment — our demonstrated commitment, not some aspirational set of objectives that can be put on the record by those who will never in fact have to fund them — but let us include in the debate the best practice models contained within the broader Homes for Victorians framework and what that brings.
Included in the Australian first $1 billion Social Housing Growth Fund there will be an additional 2200 homes in four years. The $1 billion loan guarantee, the $100 million loan facility and 4000 management transfers will help build even more homes. This is the action that needs to be taken. This is more than the sum of the talk that has occurred to no avail in the last 40 years. This is substantive change that will make a difference to the everyday lives of those in our communities.
It is disappointing that I hear and see the people sitting on the Greens benches laughing at this, because they have never actually had to deliver anything. They have never had to deliver any improvements at all, because they have never been responsible for anything. Rather than engaging in gratuitous grandstanding and scaremongering, as this has been about, we are trying to work in good faith with communities and with public housing tenants. We are in a position to do so because of not just our commitment to work with people but the fact that we have walked the talk, the fact that the funding has been allocated, the fact that the engagement is continuing and the fact that this is part of changing things for the better over the long term. This is not because of anything that the Greens may wish to take credit for.
We are renewing and growing our public and social housing stock. We are including in this the four storey blocks that have no lifts. Again I go to the disability access point. Again I go to the point of young mums having to take strollers up and down multiple flights of stairs. Again I am talking about areas which have not been safely designed and which have not actually given people an environment which makes them feel secure when they are coming home at night in the cold or when they are leaving in the morning when it is still dark.
Making sure that we do this properly is key to creating a policy framework to help people to find and stay in affordable housing, helping people to be included and helping to reduce and address disadvantage. We have in essence demonstrated, through the allocation of funding, that there is a transformation in process to provide more inclusive, mixed communities, to provide better social, affordable and private housing together and to provide partnerships to make sure that this is maintained.
Making sure that we grow and renew public housing in Ashburton, Preston, Flemington, Prahran, Ascot Vale, North Melbourne, Brunswick, Northcote, Clifton Hill, Heidelberg West, Hawthorn and Brighton is crucial. That is what we are doing. We are looking for a minimum 10 per cent uplift. For example, in Preston we are rebuilding with 68 units on site over four levels, and finally Darebin council has approved it rather than continuing to waste time and money on lawyers at VCAT.
We know that renewal projects are significant projects for public housing tenants, so we are making sure that they are partners in the conversation, making sure that the public housing renewal program builds on the investment and support in the Homes for Victorians project and the Social Housing Growth Fund. On this basis, the way in which the motion has been drafted suggests that in fact the government has been idle or has been left wanting in relation to the work it is doing in social and public housing. For the reasons that I have outlined, this is not the case. For the reasons that I have outlined, this government has made up for the shortfalls of previous governments, has made up for the shortfall from the commonwealth coalition, has made up for the neglect and has made up for the fact that these estates have been a blight in the perception of too many politicians for too long. Now things are changing.
There is a $25 million expression of interest process for community sector proposals for new accommodation for the homeless as well and which will also build new crisis and supported housing options. This builds on our last budget’s $25 million fund invested in projects such as the McAuley House Footscray development and VincentCare’s Ozanam House, a remarkable facility that provides so much assistance to those in need.
Tony Nicholson, the executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, has been appointed to chair the strategy on responding to rough sleeping in Victoria as well. To get back to my remarks made in the initial part of my contribution, this is an important part of making sure that we get further outcomes to work with our housing and homelessness sector partners, using the best evidence available over time. The register is a big part of that.
The $49 million we have invested in the private rental access program over the last two budgets for rental brokers across the state to support people accessing private rental housing will also make a difference, reducing the likelihood of failed tenancies and consequent homelessness. The precarious nature of the means by which people make their rent from month to month will in fact have redress through this particular access program. Rental brokers are working in every part of the state, and they are equipped with flexible funding, such as rent in advance or rent arrears, and an aim to develop relationships with local real estate agents, because it is on the ground that these things occur. It is in our towns and our regional centres, in our settlements and in places where otherwise it would be too easy not to notice. That work on the ground with the private sector, with councils and in partnerships is crucial to achieving these long term improvements.
Family violence, as I indicated earlier in my contribution, is another cause of homelessness for women in Australia. Providing stable and secure accommodation for victims and survivors of family violence is really key to making sure that they can get on with their lives. Our package of $1.9 billion to end family violence is a crucial part of this, as it relates to homelessness and to housing stress. We are building on this investment in housing and homelessness support with the funding of an additional $133 million towards the redevelopment of family violence refuges to the ‘core and cluster’ model, extra long term housing and an expansion of our really successful head leasing program. This investment goes toward acquitting a number of the recommendations from the family violence royal commission as they relate to secure housing for family violence victims.
The bottom line is that those opposite, including the Greens, who are proposing this motion, do not in fact want more social housing built. They are opposing growth in not for profit social housing and increased density, whilst also simultaneously pretending to be supporters of social housing. The Greens oppose the rebuilding and renewal of estates, and they argue for renovations. The Liberals and Greens at a local level are all too happy to spread fear, misinformation and misunderstanding to those who in fact deserve accurate information, deserve proper advocacy and deserve outcomes that make a material difference to their lives.
We need to make sure that we do not lose sight of what we are trying to achieve in the long term. That also involves holding Canberra to account. Looking at the coalition government that currently sits in Canberra, in 2015 the Productivity Commission issued a report on government services that revealed that the federal government had made a $470 million cut when its cuts were added in. Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government drives social housing demand. In fact it is pursuing cuts to welfare. There is no new funding for housing and homelessness, only really vague and amorphous plans — parenthood statements that amount to nothing. The federal government abolished the ministerial council on housing and homelessness and the Prime Minister’s Council on Homelessness. It is winding down the national rental affordability scheme, and it has inadequately funded commonwealth rent assistance, which has not kept pace with the rising costs of living. We all know that the rising costs of living and financial pressure and stress are key not just to housing affordability but to being able to make ends meet month to month.
Homelessness and housing across Australia is an enormous problem. What we are doing at a state level is calling continuously for a national partnership to address homelessness and to include a long term plan and agreement on how we can proactively, meaningfully and practically help people in need. It is about achieving better outcomes for people right across the nation, because with the ebbs and flows of economic success and failure, when commodities markets boom and then bust, when housing affordability is out of the reach of most and when we have seen the lowest wages growth on record, we are in fact seeing the squeeze from every different angle. That means that we will see a corresponding increase in the demand for social and public housing.
The commonwealth government was dragged kicking and screaming just this year to a transitional agreement. This transitional agreement does not provide any certainty to the homelessness support service providers who do that really vital work on the ground that I was talking about earlier, to get people off the streets and to help them to rebuild their lives.
We have in fact received significant recognition from the Victorian Public Tenants Association around budget spending on public housing. As I indicated earlier, there is $36 million for the Flemington estate redevelopment, $26 million for the high rise upgrade, $48 million for long term housing, $23 million for the Markham estate redevelopment and $185 million for the public housing renewal project. Making sure that we have that shared commitment, making sure that future governments do not simply see this as all too easy to cast aside when they find themselves in government, is the key to making sure that all parties represented in this chamber walk the talk and do not simply make up rhetoric that says that they are all about effecting change, without delivering any of it.
On that basis, the government will not be supporting the motion as it has been put by the Greens today. The principles are not without merit, as I have just indicated. The principles around improvement, collaboration, partnership and engagement over time are in fact necessary and crucial parts of giving people dignity in security of housing and in making sure that people in social and public housing and their children and future generations have access to that dignity. However, the wording of the motion itself is flawed for the reasons that I have outlined, and we will not be supporting it.