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An holistic approach to tackling housing affordability

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Thursday, 23 August 2007

Federal Labor’s proposal announced recently to help address the crisis in housing affordability is as strong an indication as any that the housing issue is finally having a political impact.

We have suffered through years of worsening statistics and pleas for political action from the groups who work daily with those under extreme housing stress, and yet we have received a denial of responsibility and political buck-passing in response.

Labor’s move over the last weeks is in direct contrast to our Coalition government which has, for over a decade, given tax breaks to the well off and refused to act in order to arrest growing distortions in housing markets. These factors have played a major part in our current housing affordability crisis.


The proposal put forward by Labor is aimed at increasing the supply of lower cost private rental housing. Any initiative put forward to address the paucity of affordable housing must be designed to clearly benefit people on middle and lower incomes, something that isn't always apparent in some of the other “solutions” to the affordability crisis that are being floated of late.

There are already far too many incentives at play that assist those who are more well off or those interested in bolstering their investment portfolios, even though it is self-evident that this is clearly not where the problem with housing affordability lies.

Measures genuinely seeking to bridge the gap between the “haves and have nots” are welcome but they cannot work in isolation. If there is to be a permanent solution to the housing affordability crisis there must be a far more comprehensive package of measures put together at a federal level as part of a coherent national housing strategy.

Quick fix, one off solutions are usually designed more to deal with a political problem than a policy one.

The very important role of public and community housing in alleviating demand and price pressures must also be considered in any national approach to the issue.

Affordability of housing must be the central component of any national housing strategy, not a by-product of other policy decisions. This approach must be accompanied by other wide ranging measures including a review of tax measures, grants, subsidies and assistance for investors, developers, housing providers, homebuyers and private renters.


This is consistent with the long-ignored recommendations from the Productive Commission’s 2004 Inquiry on First Home Ownership. Left unchecked these measures stimulate the cost of housing to the detriment of lower income earners. Any such review must include a through assessment of the current negative gearing, capital gains tax discounts and exemptions and stamp duty regimes.

Three years ago the Democrats released a revenue neutral affordable housing package and we believe that the measures contained in this document would be appropriate as part of a comprehensive national approach to affordable housing. Among the initiatives outlined in our package we argued for the means testing of the First Home Owners Scheme to prevent it from applying to properties worth over $750,000 or where the combined household income is over $100,000 a year; reducing stamp duty for energy-efficient properties; and increasing funding for the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program and crisis assistance for homeless persons.

As part of an holistic approach to tackle the housing affordability crisis, urgent action must be taken to try to stem the major rise in private rental costs across many parts of Australia. There must be support for carefully targeted assistance to private investors to provide low cost private rental accommodation for the public.

A greater focus on the benefits provided to the community of public and community housing must also be examined. For many years the role that this sector plays in the provision of low cost accommodation for lower income earners has been greatly undervalued.

A properly supported and resourced public system greatly reduces the pressure on the private rental market. With the reduction in public housing stock we have seen an influx into the private sector, with many people forced further and further away from essential services in order to find affordable properties or being unable to meet rental payments. A dynamic public system would reduce these pressures and would undoubtedly benefit our communities.

As I have said many times over the course of the debate on housing affordability, it is way past time for our society, politicians and media to think of housing first and foremost as a basic human need for every person, rather than an investment opportunity for those able to afford it. Until that basic shift is made, we will always fall short of giving housing issues the sort of focus and priority it needs.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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