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Public anxiety about housing affordability is at an all-time high. Can the federal budget help those on low incomes, refugees and recent arrivals who are on public housing waiting lists?
Wolfgang Mueller

18 May 2017 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 2 Jun 2017 - 2:35 PM

Poll after poll reveals that the cost of housing is one of the most pressing challenges confronting the Australian community.

Hundreds of thousands of households are in a housing stress - when they pay more than thirty per cent of their gross income on their housing cost, whether they’re renting or owning.

CEO of NSW Council of Social Service Tracy Howe says we’re looking at a crisis.

“From those people who are really vulnerable, disadvantaged, on the margins, living with disability, mental health, and right through to your low and middle income earners. This housing pressure is impacting such a huge proportion of our community at this point. So it takes a significant effort to create a real change, so it’s almost like we need a shock approach.”

Dr Louise Crabtree is a senior fellow researcher at the Institute of Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. She is looking at how we can diversify the housing options that we currently have.

“There is obviously a need for affordability across both tenures to be addressed. And we know the waiting list for public and community housing are sitting in the ten plus years, so we obviously have a substantial gap of what the housing system is currently delivering.”

Rachel Eason lives in Canberra with her children aged 11 and 14. She says not much of her income is left over after rent on their three-bedroom house.

"Our rent is probably 45 per cent of my income. This year, we're all going to be wearing onesies at home so we don't have to put the heater on. That's how close we are."

45 per cent of income for rent is much more than what housing experts deem to be affordable.

However, Executive Manager SSI Housing, Patrick Yeung says it is the experience of many people right across Australia.

“Not many people that can afford affordable housing. That means they need more than 30 per cent of their household income to pay for their rents or mortgage. So actually they experience a crisis of affordable housing.”

The severity of the problem is outlined in the eighth Anglicare rental-affordability snapshot, based on a study of more than 67,000 properties in the first weekend of April. The charity's chief executive, Kasey Chambers, expresses deep concern.

"What we found was dire. If you're on a low income, if you're on a government benefit, if you're on minimum wage in Australia, you will find it very hard to find an affordable dwelling in the private rental market."

State and federal governments are promising action to make housing more affordable but Treasurer Scott Morrison warns that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to improve affordability in the short term.

In his budget he acknowledges that a key factor in easing housing affordability now, and into the future, is building more homes. Morrison announced that the government will boost the supply of housing by working with state and territory governments to set housing supply targets and facilitate planning and zoning reform.

This will be achieved by a new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, with funding to help people who are homeless and those in need of crisis accommodation. For Tracy Howe, CEO of NSW Council of Social Service this is good news in the long run but she says there is no immediate relief for people at the margins of our society.

“This is the sort of long game stuff. If we are looking at what is going on tomorrow there is nothing very exciting for anyone”.

She says the government proposal won’t have a significant impact on the housing market.

“It needs to be a huge investment from the government, and we’re talking billions of dollars needs to be invested in the housing market in order to free up the housing for everyone, so everyone has a choice.”             

The government plans to establish a $1 billion National Housing Infrastructure Facility to develop new homes and apartments on selected sites.

Ned Cutcher who works for the Tenants’ Union says that’s good for developers and landlords but not for those who require affordable accommodation now. 

“There are certainly some things for landlords in the budget, particularly for social housing landlords and that’s going to have a bit of a flow-on effect for tenants but overall the budget is pretty most of Australia’s renting population.”

And in a further move, surplus Commonwealth land will be made available for housing constructiontogether with opportunities for Australia’s small community housing sector to access funds at cheaper rates.

Dr Louise Crabtree from Western Sydney University says it’s time the government recognised the contribution the sector can make towards solving Australia’s housing crisis.

“What the sector delivers is affordable rental housing for very low and low moderate income households and what this sector is now also starting to realise is that they need to be providing affordable ownership options as well.”

Despite Dr Crabtree’s cautious praise for some of the measures in the budget to increase the supply of housing, she says some major distortions of the housing market were left untouched.

The elephant in the room is the fact that nothing was said about negative gearing in the Federal Budget.

“Nothing was said about capital gains tax exemptions and those are the key drivers of a lot of the problems that we are seeing. Understandably there is a lot of commentary saying that this is window-dressing, sort of band-aid solutions.”

Meanwhile, the Government says it is addressing widespread concerns related to tax-breaks for property investors. From 1 July 2017, deductions for travel expenses related to owning a residential investment property will be disallowed. This, says the Government, is an integrity measure to address concerns that such deductions are being abused and will contribute to slowing down the seemingly unstoppable rise in housing prices.

Settlement Guide: How to make housing more affordable in Australia
Are you suffering housing stress? Here are some ways Australia could ease the crisis.