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Public Housing Residents Are Not 'Living The High Life'

24/02/2016 11:58 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Public housing flats

News headlines often need a little unpacking, including one this week from Channel 7: "Housing commission residents living with million-dollar views -- some public housing tenants are living the high life for little more than $100 a week, thanks to taxpayers".

The story unfolds with some sharp-suited developers rubbing their hands in glee at how much money they could make if they had the opportunity to develop prime, inner-city land that houses many thousands of people on low incomes.

I wonder if, on viewing the video, many in the audience would really wish to turf great-grandmother Pat onto the street to let the speculators and investors have their free-for-all. Perhaps only the most fervent could be so venal.

And yet, this story invites us to consider a question that is at the heart of much of the current debate on negative gearing, and which has long dogged the conversation on government policy relating to housing affordability.

Is housing a critical platform for peoples lives? Is it as fundamental -- or more so -- to our wellbeing as education and health; or is housing simply a platform for wealth creation; for speculators to gamble on its future value, and for those seeking to minimise their tax liabilities to have a means to keep more in their pocket and put less in the common pool?

In considering this question it's worthwhile to consider what might be the alternatives for Pat, were she not to have the opportunity of her apartment in the high-rise estate. Like many other women who have raised their families and joined the ranks of the aged poor, she could live in private rental, where she would inevitably pay more than 50 percent of her income in rent.

She would live at the whim of a landlord, who could evict her, for no stated reason, if she complained about repairs not done, or rent hikes. She would risk homelessness if rents increased beyond what she could afford, or she could risk her health by not eating properly or not filling her prescriptions so she could make those payments.

She might choose to move further out, to somewhere slightly cheaper, albeit still costing more than 30 percent of her income, and suffer isolation as she loses her connection to local family and friends, familiar shops and services.

This -- or a bed in a rooming house, couch surfing or life on the street -- is the reality for real people if we fail to treat housing as a fundamental need and develop a coherent plan to address the affordability crisis.

However, housing markets weren't always so tight. In times gone past, Pat would have afforded a modest rental in the very location she now lives in public housing.

Inner-city and port-side areas like Fitzroy and Williamstown were not always home to Melbourne's high flyers, but rather Melbourne's slums following the Great Depression.

The Fitzroy estates we see today were developed on slum reclamation land, purchased cheaply to swiftly house low-paid workers who were unable to secure a safe home for themselves and their families.

The Williamstown estates tell a similar story. After the Second World War, family homelessness skyrocketed, and dangerous makeshift shanties and tents popped up everywhere. The Housing Commission of Victoria developed the Champion Road and West Newport estates in response.

These estates represented a new approach to housing provision and addressed criticism of the poor quality of earlier estates. They signalled change.

Now, gentrification has re-ignited interest in these areas. Decades of speculative investment fuelled by generous tax breaks have created suburbs in which the 'Pats' can't compete.

It is time again for the government to be visionary about housing policy. To create affordable housing options for the 120,000 Victorian households living in rental stress; and the over 22,000 who are homeless on any given night.

And it's time for the speculators to leave Pat, and others, safely housed by the visionaries of the past.

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