Monday, April 27, 2015

On this day in history - reshaping public housing

According to the internet, 17th century German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler calculated that the universe was created on this day in the year 4977 BC. It turns out Kepler was a little off the mark, with later theories putting its origins at closer to 14 billion BC. Of course, we have no scientists here at the Institute of Tenancy Cultural Studies, so we'll leave that particular discussion to others.

Johannes Kepler of Stuttgart.
His grandfather was a landlord.

But this day bears significance for us, too, and we can't let it pass without a note.

Ten years ago on this day, as many of us were marvelling at the invention of YouTube, contemplating the maiden flight of the impossibly large Airbus A380, or waiting with bated breath for the next instalment of the Star Wars movies (The Revenge of the Sith) and Harry Potter books (The Half Blood Prince), the Carr Government's then Minister for Housing, Joe Tripodi, announced the Reshaping Public Housing reforms.

These reforms sought to do a number of things with the intention of making the public housing system fairer. In particular, they sought to "end the policy of public housing for life" by offering fixed-term tenancies with a review of eligibility at the end of the term; and "allocate all public housing on the principle of strongest housing need" by focusing eligibility rules to assist tenants and households whose need go beyond mere questions of affordability. In addition, the reforms changed the way public housing rents are calculated, ensuring that tenants on 'moderate incomes' would pay 30% of income in rent, instead of the 25% paid by tenants on lower incomes.

But like Johannes Kepler's apparent attempts to date the origins of the universe, these reforms have fallen well wide of the mark. The combined effect of fixed-term tenancies with reviews of eligibility, and reduced disposable incomes for tenants on slightly higher incomes, has been to ensure tenants' make tough choices about how and when to take on work. Extra earnings could result in less money in the short-term, and a loss of housing in the medium-term. In the result, there are fewer people leaving public housing of their own accord, and this puts immense pressure on the portfolio.

The principle of housing on the grounds of strongest need has lead to an increase of residualised disadvantage within public housing. Combined with reduced options for sensitive allocations across the portfolio, because of the decrease in the number of housing 'exits', the pursuit of this principle is perhaps responsible for the rise of 'anti-social behaviour' and complex neighbourhood disputes within public housing communities - which is now seen as one of the key policy challenges by some in the social housing sector.

It also combines with the State's over-stretched health and support services to the extent that while a person's housing needs are being met, other significant needs may not be. This often exacerbates the problems that have lead a household into public housing in the first place - placing tenancies at risk from the outset, and making issues caused by this residualisation all the more acute.

The impact of these reforms, and their failure to achieve the stated aims, has been well documented. We've drawn attention to them in our research, and pointed them out on our blog. More recently they've started to turn up in important discussions such as the Auditor-General's report into making the best use of public housing, and even, as we understand it, a number of responses to the Department of Family and Community Services' Social Housing in NSW discussion paper.

This is positive news, because ten years of these terrible policies is ten years too long... It's well and truly time to reshape the reforms.

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