Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Social Housing in NSW' discussion paper... and what's not up for discussion

The NSW State Government has produced a discussion paper on the future of social housing in New South Wales. Its major theme is 'providing opportunity and pathways for client independence', by which it means 'more actively supporting clients' – particularly working age tenants, and young people – to 'transition out of social housing'.

As for what they would transition into... that would be private rental housing, though the paper has hardly a word to say about it.

This is the biggest gap in the discussion paper, and in current discussions about social housing generally. Much gets said about the failings of the social housing system; not nearly enough about the failings of the private housing system, and private rental in particular.

But you really cannot have a proper conversation about social housing – much less actually do any of the things the State Government says it wants to do to social housing – without also saying and doing something about private rental. 

Private rental fails low-income households (ie those in the bottom 40 per cent of the population by income). The 2011 Census counted 219 202 low-income households privately renting in New South Wales. Of these households:
  • 78 per cent – 171 563 households – were paying more than 30 per cent of their income in rent; that is, they were in 'housing stress';
  • 43 per cent – 94 959 households – were paying more than 50 per cent of their income in rent; that is, they were in 'housing crisis'.

Research by Terry Burke and Simon Pinnegar tells us a bit more about experience of low-income households in private rental. Their survey found:
  • 86 per cent 'worry constantly about [their] financial situation'
  • 84 per cent 'don't have enough money set aside to meet unexpected expenses'
  • 75 per cent experience a 'constant struggle to pay regular bills'
  • 61 per cent say 'costs put stress on household relationships'
  • 42 per cent say that their 'children have missed out on school activities such as excursions'
  • 26 per cent say that their 'family has sometimes gone without meals'.
Focusing on those in housing stress, they report these additional effects:
  • 35 per cent say that their 'children have had to go without adequate health and/or dental care'
  • 32 per cent 'sold or pawned personal possessions'
  • 28 per cent 'approached a welfare/community/counselling agency for assistance'
These rates are between 50 per cent and 100 per cent higher than the rates for households not in housing stress.

That's just how private rental fails on cost; it also fails on security (about one in six tenancies end at the instigation of the landlord, and everyone is subject to termination without grounds at the end of their fixed term, or on three months notice otherwise); and it fails on consumer protection (according to our own survey, 79 per cent of private renters have put up with a problem, rather than assert their rights, because they feared adverse consequences).

It is simply unreal to expect appreciable numbers of households in social housing to happily 'transition' into this. And we know this because Housing NSW already operates such a policy (it reviews tenancies for continuing eligibility at two, five or ten year periods), and has done for seven years, and over this time the rate of exits from public housing has declined. This policy has made matters worse for public housing tenants (who stay poor to stay housed) and for those on the waiting list (who are stuck longer in private rental, or homelessness).

If the NSW State Government really wants to help those on the waiting list, and make 'transitioning' out of social housing a realistic prospect, it must discuss reforming the private rental market too. It should also be open to discussing increased funding for social housing, so that there's more of it. Unfortunately, this too is not up for discussion in the paper, which is predicated on funding 'within the existing envelope'.

At a briefing on the discussion paper, FACS Minister Gabrielle Upton was asked about the lack of reference to the private rental market and its problems, and she replied that the policy levers for reform were not within her grasp, but instead with others in the State Government and, even more so, the Federal Government, and that rather than wait for any action from them, she just had to get on with it. Fair point. But if the social housing policy that follows from the present discussion does not consider the reality of the private rental market, and how it fails low-income households, and how other government policies have shaped it that way, any initiatives for 'opportunities and pathways' out of social housing will only raise false hopes, or real fears.


  1. Chris
    since transitioning into my first hnsw property I have to say that my impression is ... why did I oblliterate myself in an 80hr a week job, study at night and on weekends ... you know the routine. when I could be living the life of Riley in a primarily free property in the upper echelons of Sydney's eastern subs. the disposable income in these tenancies is PHENOMENAL. every unit has a large screen tv and how many foxtel channels you access is the daily bent. brand new cars are commonplace. sick looking after the sick in order to garner carers payment is also norm.
    who has been making up this waffle about the inequity of these tenants hasn't REALLY visited this subterranean Narnia world. the haves are the ones on continuing term leases the have nots are the fixed termers AND those in the real world on 6 month lease agreements or living with flatmates. the gap between public and real world housing is approx. $450 a week in the east. instead of rolling over tenancies put that foxtel and car payment into a transition EXIT account. Gabrielle Upton needs to stop listening to do.gooders and start expecting more self.efficacy from housing tenants. AND MORE .... I WILL be submitting a response to this paper about the inequity of this housing system both internally and externally. amazed! Reform OVERHAUL ASAP needed .... NGOs and Consumers alike! ... and that includes SHS!!!!

  2. Hi Anon

    You are quite right: our housing system is terribly inequitable. On the one hand, we've got private market housing (owner-occupied and rental) that is far too expensive, particularly for people on low to moderate incomes (and so forces people into the sort of 'obliterating' routine you've experienced). On the other hand we've got social housing, which is affordable, but which asks people to get sick and stay poor in order to be affordably housed.

    None of this is changed just by 'expecting more self efficacy'. 'Expectations' should be formed on the basis of a rational assessment of the choices people will make between the options available to them. As you say, the options are: stay poor and stay affordably housed, or go private rental and get obliterated. We should expect public housing tenants to stay poor and affordably housed, and believe them when they say – as tenants have said to us – that they hate making that decision.

    Regarding Foxtel: is it really fair to call this a luxury? Costs about $1 per day – there are more expensive ways of passing the time. Regarding cars: take care not to jump to conclusions. Parking spaces in social housing buildings sometimes get used by other drivers - including by commercial arrangement with Housing NSW.

  3. My neighbours park their 2012 cars on the street but nice to know that landlord enterprise is alive and well in social housing.
    as far as foxtel goes I couldn't afford it when I was trying to cover my rent in the private sector.
    thank you for the value add. :)

  4. It looks like this Liberal government want's to move the poor the sick and the vulnerable away from the city.
    I also sense they are wishing to impose mutual obligation, like centrelink does with job networks.

  5. Lots to add here, but the fundamental issue is actual queue times and policy in place.
    Its all about discretion. People over the counter look at your papers and the next one over... so its wise to hammer as much info as you can, else youre wasting your time.
    Aside from affordability, being on the queue forces people remain under a certain rental payment threshold. Typically one third of their income and NO MORE is to go to rent, if youre to remain on this unacceptably long bias, sexist and discriminatory list. One must remain under a certain threshold of income and spending. Fair enough, but for how long? How is one to evolve in life if all they can afford is to live in a crap roach infested boarding house with inconsiderate tennants and greedy landlords who think anyone living in a boarding house is street trash? They and the dept dont really consider the health issues which may have lead us into this position of dependancy, unless one makes an issue of it and becomes a stereotype just to be heard.

    Unless Im female or a junky or better yet, both, or even better than that, transwhatever, i have no chance of getting help...

    I also find it amazing how tennants go in and complain (horribly without manners) about the most basic of issues when there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who would be grateful just to get a roof over their heads.

    The solution to placement is providing subsidies for rentals. Ive found many locations and housing opportunities which are perfectly suitable, but theyre about 20% above the maximum Im allowed to pay (while on the list). If I paid whatever I could in rent above the one third threshold, and HousingNSW paid the difference, half the housing problem would be resolved...

    As for the comments about foxtel and living the high life in eastern suburbs, Ive seen some nice social housing estates, but nothing like you describe.. I didnt choose to become ill and I didnt choose to be on a housing list for a decade all the while living room to room hoping to find an environment i can live an dwork in and actually feel comfortable enough to have a visitor... I didnt choose to not have something to call home... Considering the tax Ive paid long before I got to this position, one would assume that would be taken into account, so you can at least get back on your feet faster... but no... the more dysfunctional you are, the more help you get, even when you dont know what to do with it, let alone be grateful for it...
    Above all this however, is the fact I am glad and grateful that we at LEAST have a system in place to protect and help those who need it.. it might be slow and dysfunctional, but at least its there..

    And thats the problem with this society.. noone is grateful for what little we get.. we could be in the US or other countries and get nothing...


Please keep your comments PC - that is, polite and civilised. Comments may be removed at the discretion of the blog administrator; no correspondence will be entered into. Comments that are abusive of individual persons, or are sexist, racist or otherwise offensive will be removed, so don’t bother leaving them.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.