The NSW Department of Housing's greatest asset is people not buildings.
And I don't just mean staff.
A housing affordability crisis in Sydney is creating shortages
in certain unskilled or low-income occupations - particularly in
the northern, inner-western and eastern suburbs that define "Global
Yet the Department is landlord to tens of thousands of tenants
who live in the areas most affected. With appropriate training and
support, many of these people could be provided with pathways out
of the poverty traps that currently act as disincentives to finding
Helping the Department to rediscover its original mission as a
provider of housing assistance to people on low incomes might be
a useful beginning. The development of populations of meaningfully
employed, low-to-medium income individuals and families in inner-city
estates would return public housing to a role obscured by the Department's
transformation into a housing provider of last resort.
Individuals and families experiencing significant disadvantage
and with complex needs have swamped a system designed to meet the
simple housing needs of working people on low incomes. That transformation
in its role - and the consequences - has never been adequately addressed
in terms of either policy or resources.
One result of this historic shift is that unemployed tenants wanting
to re-enter the workforce risk jeopardising their entitlements without
a sufficient jump in income to compensate. The Department recognises
this and has implemented measures to assist tenants returning to
However much more is possible and appropriate. On the supply side,
there is scope for partnerships between the Department and other
agencies of government and the third sector to proactively seek
out and case manage prospective tenants through the range of skill-development,
job-readiness and tenancy-related issues they are likely to confront.
There are steps the DoH can take by itself. These might include
creating new categories of tenancy that encourage tenant employment
by retaining elements of entitlement or by refraining from attempts
to recoup a full market rent. Rent might be foregone by the Department
in return for the individual making capital investments in equipment
or a work vehicle. This involves accepting a trade-off in terms
of improving the social and income mix within the estate as the
ratio of employed to unemployed rises.
On the demand side, the government's shift from provider to purchaser
of services offers another way forward. As a purchaser of services
that include a range of maintenance functions like gardening, cleaning
etc. it is in a position to make a strategic and large-scale investment
in start-up businesses offering training, employment and ultimately
even self-employment opportunities to people on low incomes. This
might initially cost more than the outcome of a competitive tendering
process. But it has the potential to yield dividends in many areas
of social and economic policy which appear both on and off the bottom
The upsides are many. For the government, the proposal allows it
to leverage an under-performing asset - public housing - to intervene
in a labour market where few other tools are available. For the
DoH, it would assist in achieving its stated objective of improving
the social and income mix on targeted estates.
For tenants, there are skills and personal development bonuses
without the fear that an increase in income would lead to either
the kind of increase in rent that would remove all incentive to
employment or to pressure to vacate. Seeing the advantages and improved
standard of living enjoyed by their neighbours in this situation
may act as incentive to other under-employed estate residents to
seek pathways of this sort for themselves.
The downsides can be anticipated. What happens to estates and tenants
who don't enjoy the advantages of a sexy, inner-city location? What
happens to people with a real and urgent claim for public assistance
who are either temporarily or permanently unemployable? How can
the danger of creating new categories of "haves" and "have
nots" within the larger public housing estate be anticipated
and avoided? How can the "pathway" concept be framed to
facilitate the eventual departure from public housing of tenants
whose economic opportunities are enhanced by this kind of assistance?
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