Thursday, March 26, 2015

NSW Coalition on housing and tenancy

Continuing our look at the housing policies of parties in the NSW State election, let's look now at the Coalition. The Coalition is, of course, two parties, but the National Party is not really putting forward a separate housing policy; it's the Liberals who are making commitments on housing for the Coalition.

These commitments include a fund for 'up to $1 billion' in new social housing and affordable housing, which the Coalition has made contingent on its proposed privatisation of State electricity assets. This fund is the subject of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government, the NSW Council of Social Service, and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia.

We very briefly discussed this proposed fund when it was announced, and we welcomed its implicit acknowledgement that social housing and affordable housing needs more than the starvation ration it currently gets. (We also noted that there are ways other than asset sales to finance State Government programs). Since then, NCOSS has provided us with a copy of the MoU, and the Australian Services Union has distributed it widely too, so we can consider some more of the details.

The MoU refers specifically to 'a new dedicated fund to facilitate up to $1 billion in new social and affordable housing stock'. It also says that 'private finance will be involved to increase the scale and impact of the fund.'

We understand from NCOSS that the intention is to make possible some innovation in the development of social and affordable housing, so the sort of assistance to be provided by the fund is left a bit open in the MoU. For example, XYZ Housing Ltd might approach the fund with a development proposal that puts together land owned by XYZ and some finance from ABC Bank, and that needs a further loan from the fund to make it all happen. And another housing provider might pitch a proposal that needs money in the form of a grant, and another might have a projected that just needs a guarantee to get it going.

Being open to innovation and different ways of assisting is worthwhile, but there remains a question as to the size of the government's commitment. As a number of commenters have pointed out, it does say 'up to', implying the possibility of less.... Moreover, there's also the question of whether the 'up to $1 billion' refers to what the government will contribute, or the total of what all the parties to proposals will contribute (eg XYZ's land plus ABC's loan plus the loan from the fund). NCOSS says the government's own contribution should be 'up to $1 billion', such that the total value of housing produced would be rather more.

The MoU does get more specific in some respects: the fund is specifically for the provision of new stock, not the refurbishment of existing stock; and it is for 'social and affordable housing outcomes... not to improve commercial advantage.'

Separately, the Coalition has also promised $20 million for 'social housing community improvement', which will make grants of up to $50 000 for local projects. A bit of money can make great things happen on estates, so we like this commitment.

The Coalition is also proposing a public housing crime 'crackdown', through legislative and policy changes for 'one strike' evictions where serious offences have taken place, 'three strikes' for other breaches, the giving of confidential evidence in Tribunal proceedings, and probationary periods for long-term public housing tenancy agreements.

These proposals are a real worry. As we've discussed previously, the 'one strike' evictions would be achieved by removing the Tribunal's discretion in these proceedings, which is to remove an important safeguard against injustice. 'Three strikes' will only encourage neighbours and housing officers to frame interpersonal disputes as tenancy disputes, and rack the three strikes necessary for termination proceedings, with persons with mental illness and disability, and Aboriginal persons, the most vulnerable to badly motivated complaints. And the idea of 'confidential' evidence is anathema to the basic principle of justice that a person gets to know and test the case against them.

There's nothing to recommend the Coalition's 'crackdown' proposals. On the other hand, its proposal for social housing community improvement grants is welcome, and so is its acknowledgement of the need for substantial additional funds for new social and affordable housing stock.

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