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Our Treasurer Must Face Up To Some Urgent Home Truths

Every night in Australia there are enough homeless children to fill Sydney’s Allianz Stadium.

03/11/2016 5:34 AM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2016 5:34 AM AEDT
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"Mr Morrison is wrong to devolve responsibility to the states to fix housing affordability through planning changes alone."

Call me a cynic but I don't think it's a coincidence that Treasurer Scott Morrison made his recent speech on the housing affordability crisis just a week before the Housing Ministers meet in Sydney. Especially when Mr Morrison's key line was to say the housing affordability crisis was a supply and state planning issue. It feels remarkably well timed to pre-empt tomorrow's meeting, where funding, and what the Federal Government will contribute, will be the topic of the day.

As it stands, thousands of people across the country are homeless or living precariously hand to mouth, simply because they can't afford the rent. And hundreds of homelessness services, which help those people find and keep a tenancy, are at risk of having their funding cut.

Those homelessness services await the outcomes of this housing ministers' meeting to find out whether the Federal Government will continue to match the states' funding of these services. We remain in limbo, with vital services threatened with closure and clients at risk of being turned away.

Aside from this, Mr Morrison is wrong to devolve responsibility to the states to fix housing affordability through planning changes alone.

It is not enough to call for easing planning approvals and more supply of houses without requiring a fair proportion of them to be available to people on low and moderate incomes. A belief that the market will take care of itself will not trickle down to create enough decent housing for police officers, childcare workers, nurses, apprentices, cleaners and people unable to be employed.

Creating sufficient affordable housing will need investment from governments and private sources, and substantive change to policy settings. And it's actually politically popular -- a recent poll showed that 78 percent of people believe the government should step in to make housing more affordable.

Without a shadow of doubt, solving the crisis will require strong leadership from the Federal Government, as the housing market macro policy settings and funding levers rest largely with them. It will also require changes at the State and Territory and local council level, such as inclusionary zoning, and input from the community housing sector, not-for-profits, developers and institutional investors. We all have skin in this game.

In January, we welcomed the announcement by the government of a working group to "investigate innovative ways to improve the availability of affordable housing". We and many others provided input to the working group. We were optimistic that the Commonwealth was taking a lead on this crucial issue.

But almost a year later, we are yet to see any outcomes.

I know Mr Morrison has a task at hand to balance the budget. But doing nothing to tackle this crisis is actually more expensive in the long run, as well as unconscionable. Affordable housing is a central piece of our national economic infrastructure. A poorly operating housing market is a drag on productivity and social cohesion.

We see the human impact of that drag every day. The ever-growing chasm of inequality as more families are pushed into or languish in sub-standard housing. Paying extreme percentages of their income towards their rent. Or, they are forced into homelessness when they can no longer make ends meet.

It's a damning fact but every night in Australia there are enough homeless children to fill Sydney's Allianz Stadium. So you'll forgive me for wanting to see more than warm words, speeches and working parties with little output.

I want the Federal Government to make housing affordability for all Australians a central part of its policy agenda. Without a targeted focus, we will see further social dislocation, and more families falling into poverty and homelessness -- at a greater cost to all taxpayers.

I really hope that when all the housing ministers get in a room together this week, they commit to new agreements on affordable housing and homelessness funding that provide a real prospect for change over the long-term.

Because I, for one, believe that in this great country of ours, we should all have access to that basic human right; a safe place to call home.

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