Zali Steggall MP speaks about the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023

15 February 2023

Ms STEGGALL (Warringah) (16:43): With rapidly rising interest rates, housing affordability is an issue on everyone's mind—of all generations. People in my electorate of Warringah are feeling the pinch, with huge mortgages and expensive rents. The nine consecutive interest rate rises are biting families in my electorate and in many areas around Australia. This has a huge impact throughout society. The string of natural disasters intensified by the climate crisis over the last few years has exacerbated housing stress, making the need for urgent housing support clear. With recession looming and inflation rising, adding to cost-of-living concerns, the issue of social and affordable housing is becoming increasingly acute.

In Sydney, in the last 12 months, average rents have increased by 10.2 per cent. There are 500 homeless people in Warringah and 1,300 in need of social housing. Nearly 120,000 Australians are without a home every night. Support networks on the Northern Beaches are overwhelmed by the influx of people needing housing assistance. As a result, they're finding it hard to rehouse people on the beaches and are relocating some people to areas where they lose their family and community support systems, which compounds the trauma of becoming unhoused. The median weekly rent in Warringah is just so high that it really has an enormous impact.

So what this bill does—and I welcome the government's initiative with this bill—is going to have some effect. But I worry about its efficacy in providing the level of support that constituents and other Australians need. I commend the efforts of the government in securing the support of the states and territories in implementing this reform and the commitment from the private sector to make contributions to the fund. However, I question whether the direct investment from government will be sufficient to derive the scale of returns expected. A recent independent review conducted by the Australian government found that an investment of around $290 billion would be required over the next two decades to meet the shortfall in housing options. This bill creates a $10 billion fund, the objective of which is to build 20,000 social and 10,000 affordable homes over the next five years. It will also provide $200 million for maintenance and repair of Indigenous housing and $100 million for crisis accommodation and domestic violence housing.

Beyond this, there is a strategy to address broader needs in the housing system and change the government's housing bodies in Australia. There are some concerns, nevertheless. There are integrity concerns with this bill, regarding the independence of the Housing Australia board. There are also concerns about the funding model, which only provides for outright grants, leaving it subject to rorting. We need the governance of the fund to be truly independent and keep the grant money directed to where it's needed most. While there is an obvious need in electorates with lower socioeconomic profiles than, for example, Warringah, I would remind the government of the need to support those providing essential services in electorates with higher-priced property markets, which prohibit service providers such as nurses, teachers and childcare workers from living and working in those areas.

On local advocacy, I'd like to pay tribute to a constituent of mine who has deep personal experience with homelessness and is now a vocal advocate in this space. Sarah's story emphasises the need for investment in this space to drive an increase in productivity across the economy. Sarah was one of the 100 children and other people who appeared before the Burdekin inquiry into youth homelessness in the late 1980s. She was homeless between the ages of 14 and 22. The events that led her to homelessness had a dramatic effect on her life trajectory. She wrote:

I didn't finish high school and haven't had the same career options that my high-school peers had, which limited me to low paying jobs, when I was eventually able to overcome enough of the trauma to even get a job. Being in low paying jobs has left me in housing stress, which has directly impacted on my productivity and participation as an adult, and left me at risk of multiple points of re-entry into homelessness. One of them has been, due to domestic violence my children and I were left at risk of homelessness at the end of 2018.

She frequently compares herself to a classmate at school who is now a minister of the New South Wales government. Sarah believes that, were it not for the trauma and homelessness she suffered in her early years, her trajectory and opportunities would have been vastly different, and it's very hard to dispute that. Sarah's story of overcoming the pain of homelessness underscores the fact that having access to a safe and stable home is a human necessity. Her white paper, which she shared with government in advance of the Jobs and Skills Summit last year, outlines many of the solutions that have been proposed in this legislation. So I'm incredibly proud of her advocacy and her courage in telling her story in a compelling and direct way.

We do have other issues to tackle and other policy solutions. I've met with various groups, including the Constellation Project, where one of my constituents is representing the lived experience of homeless people in a collaborative approach to solving homelessness. The project is being driven by the Australian Red Cross, the Centre for Social Impact, Mission Australia and PwC Australia, seeking innovative approaches to addressing the issue. They are advocating the creation of more homes through a variety of methods, including the development of mandatory inclusion zoning, which mandates that new developments must factor in a proportion of affordable housing to address supply. While the minister may claim that this is a state issue, I would argue that the funding agreements attached to this fund could drive improvements in zoning laws and development approvals. I would also urge the government to consider an emphasis on driving efficiency and the electrification of households through this fund. We know that addressing these issues drives down the cost of living in power bills, and those in social and affordable housing are the least able to make the investment required to lower their cost-of-living costs through electrification.

Another group doing great work in my electorate are Social Ventures Australia. They have argued for a doubling of the rate of Commonwealth rent assistance to provide a higher rate of return to affordable housing developers. This could also be a targeted measure to address groups at greatest risk of homelessness, such as women over 55, who are the fastest-growing group in this category. We really should pause and consider that, because it is shameful on all of us that that generation of carers that have given so much as mothers or as wives or partners and as daughters are left as the fastest-growing group in our society facing homelessness. It's quite outrageous. Adopting the measures and special consideration of housing for women over 55 is incredibly important. Some of these measures will also lift up and provide support to those who are so vulnerable and have difficulty accessing the housing market.

I have been told by a number of service providers one of the barriers to entry to even just a rental market is often being able to access the rental bond. If someone has been homeless, they may find themselves in a position to meet rent obligations but not able to meet a rental bond, so looking outside the box, starting to think about more and additional policies to assist people breaking that cycle of homelessness is incredibly important.

There are so many issues that really need addressing beyond this bill when it comes to housing affordability and access to affordable housing. We have a rental crisis in Australia. There are communities around the country that simply do not have any accessible properties for rent. We also have a situation where the common norm is very short rental periods. We don't have a system like other countries, like in Europe, where you may have long-term rents or you have more rental protections. This is something the government does need to look at as well, to be able to create some housing security for so many vulnerable people in our community.

So I support this bill but I urge the government to guarantee the integrity of the board—it must be independent—and ensure the transparency of funding agreements. Again, after too many programs have been rorted, it is imperative that this be a program that is not rorted. I urge the government to leverage the funding agreements to drive improvements in the quality of housing that we're talking about—housing electrification—and drive mandatory inclusion zoning in developments. There are many more tools to improve access to affordable housing in Australia.