New research from the Unison Housing Research Lab suggests social housing may be one of the most overlooked, yet effective, solutions to reducing homelessness in Australia.
Around 60 percent of people entering social housing in 2015/16 were homeless at the time of allocation and an additional 35 per cent were at risk of homelessness. At the same time, Specialist Homelessness Services, which have a key role in assisting in the preparation of housing applications, also support tens of thousands of social housing tenants each year to sustain their housing. And if a social housing tenancy does break down, we know that some tenants eventually become homeless again resulting in what some describe as the ‘revolving door’.
When social housing emerged following World War II, it was a safety net for low-income households. It wasn’t just for the most disadvantaged population. It provided people who were not in a position to own their own home with an affordable and long-term housing option.
Chronic under investment in social housing over subsequent decades has left little option but to tighten eligibility criteria until we reach the point that the main pathway into social housing is out of homelessness. Consequently, we are left with a policy muddle in which governments are pursuing apparently contradictory or competing aims.
One example of this is the recent interest in tenant mobility.
On the one hand, governments are considering how to ensure that people who can move out of social housing do so, thus making way for those in highest need. This includes strategies such as Fixed Term Tenancies, which have been implemented in several Australian states.
On the other hand, they want to prevent tenancies from breaking down as they incur social and economic costs to individuals, housing providers and the community.
A second example is evident in the notion of ‘mixed tenure’; that is, social housing that includes tenants on low incomes with subsidised rent alongside private renters and owner occupiers.
Leaving aside commentary on the merits of mixed tenure communities, it remains to be seen how feasible mixed tenure communities are when overwhelming need for social housing means it is largely available only to those in the lowest income quintiles and with the most complex needs.
However, underlying debates about how best to deal with homelessness and housing issues is a narrative that problematises people not policy.
Rather than pointing to the urgent need to invest in affordable housing for all Australians, we have been sidelined with arguments about how to deal with ‘unsightly’ housing estates, ‘anti-social’ tenants and rough sleepers in our cities.
The result in the popular media has been that homelessness and housing issues are portrayed as something that happens to someone else, and typically someone who has made poor choices.
This homelessness week we all need to be reminded that this kind of thinking is a mistake. Precarious housing is an issue that currently affects hundreds of thousands of Australian households.
This is not an issue of problematic people; this is an issue of problematic policy and it is on all of our shoulders to challenge this myopia.