It should no longer be a surprise to readers of this publication that Victorians, like many other Australians, are experiencing a housing affordability crisis. It is a crisis predominantly affecting lower and middle income renters who are stuck in a shrinking rental market with rising rents pushing them further away from ever being able to own their own home.
The persistent and chronically low vacancy rate is evidence of a market so dysfunctional that even rising rental returns and generous land tax cuts are not sufficient for landlords to enter the market.
The real victims of this crisis – as opposed to wealthier Victorians with large mortgages – are increasingly becoming the forgotten Victorians. They are single people of all ages, sole parents and low income families many of whom can no longer afford, or are excluded by landlords spoilt for choice, from renting in the mainstream market. These people are hidden, often in outer suburbs, spending record proportions of their income for often poor quality, energy inefficient and even exploitative housing in the private rooming house and caravan park sector. They are only making do, giving up on essentials, defaulting on bills, relying on emergency relief or by going into debt.
The staff and volunteers of the St Vincent de Paul Society see these people every day of the week. They should be commended for their efforts in providing not just personal support and charity but advocacy to the highest levels of government.
The crisis has its foundations in a range of social policy failures over decades. The decline in funding for public housing, the gentrification of our inner city, changes in the labour market, the rise of sole person households, the ageing of the population, increasing levels of immigration and taxation policies are just a few of the issues that have contributed to this crisis.
Yet with all of the dire statistics, social and demographic changes and increasing evidence of hardship it’s been concerning to see the lack of urgent action by the State Government.
It’s not that the government doesn’t recognise the problem, nor is it that they are unsympathetic – it’s just that they are failing to introduce any measures to improve the lot of renters in the private rental market.
From refusing to ban the practice of rental bidding, to failing to prosecute dodgy landlords, to ignoring calls to mandate energy efficiency in rental housing, and failing to ensure that tenants have a decent level of privacy and tenure security in their proper- ties, the State Government has done nothing to improve the lot of tenants. And, sadly, the Opposition has also failed to offer any alternative policies or vision.
After years of persistent lobbying, housing advocates gained commitments by the then-Bracks Government to address these issues. Yet almost half way into this term of government there is nothing to show for it.
It is almost a year since submissions closed to the Residential Accommodation Strategy and Consumer Affairs Victoria has not even responded to those who made submissions let alone made a single public statement on how it intends acting on any of the problems highlighted in its Issues Paper. Its only public act has been to cut funding to the Tenants Union of Victoria, a move so unpopular it is quietly being reversed.
In its Towards an Integrated Victorian Housing Strategy document, released prior to the 2006 election, the Government promised to address the issue with a whole of government approach that included “minimising housing stress for private renters”. Despite this promise, rental stress has reached record proportions and there is still no broad based state housing framework.
This is not to say the State Government has done nothing about housing for low income Victorians. Its principal response has been to invest in public and community housing – the very thing that the community expects and has applauded. The government has every reason to be proud of its record investment of $510 million over four years, in the 2007 budget. Yet everyone involved in housing policy knows that while important, this amount needs to be spent year after year, before making a real dent in the public housing waiting list.
And where are those on the public housing waiting list waiting? Almost always in the dysfunctional private rental market that the State Government is refusing to reform. It is ironic, but by constantly referring to its public housing investment whenever criticised about a lack of action on the rental housing crisis, the government serves only to reinforce the impression that it either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand anything about private renters.
Rather than tackle the crisis with an integrated series of measures designed to assist those being pushed into poverty, the Victorian Government has appeared paralysed by fear. Fear of criticism by landlords, fear of increasing pressure on the public housing system if dodgy rooming houses are closed. Fear that if it did something, anything, it might not be the right move.
It’s time, for the benefit of all low income and Disadvantaged Victorians, that fear was faced and that practical measures were undertaken to address the crisis in affordable housing.
David Imber is the Policy and Public Affairs Manager of the Victorian Council of Social Service.
This article has been taken from the 2008 Spring issue of the Record (TheRecordSpring2008).