Recently, The Age’s front page carried a story titled “Crisis in Public Housing” detailing unacceptably long waits for people in need of public housing in Victoria. At the same time, the online version provoked a completely different reaction - Attacks on people living in public housing.
The Age story was informed by access to internal Office of Housing data obtained via freedom of information. It found a maximum wait of nearly 20 years for general applicants with an average wait of 4 years; and over 10 years for highly vulnerable ‘priority’ applicants with an average wait of 1 year. For those of us who work with Victorians in housing crisis, these are not surprising figures. With only 65,000 public housing properties in Victoria, a low annual turnover in tenancies and over 41,000 households already waiting, it is no wonder waits are so long.
When the article appeared online, public comments were opened for the standard 24 hour period. By 9am the flavour of the public responses was already clear. Public housing tenants were guilty of various offences including being both lazy and wealthy; having new cars and secret jobs; rejecting housing because it was in the wrong area; destroying their properties; running drug labs; and generally abusing a system that discriminated against hard working Australians who ‘do the right thing’.
Asylum seekers and refugees were singled out for particular criticism and one correspondent suggested people in need of housing should travel to Darwin and ‘get a boat’ as a quick way into public housing.
These comments revealed disturbing misperceptions about the public housing system and public housing tenants. A number of more balanced comments were submitted later in the day, many as a result of efforts by homelessness organisations to add some balance to the one-sided online debate. Nevertheless, when comments closed, there were still two hostile comments for every balanced or supportive one.
Here are a few examples:
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