The Greens are right to fight Labor on housing
The Greens are right to fight Labor on housing)

There has been uproar in the media in recent weeks over the Greens’ refusal to back the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF), Labor’s keynote housing policy. The ALP have launched vitriolic attacks on the Greens and their housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mathers, with Senator Penny Wong accusing him of “prioritising media attention” and suggesting that his “ego matters more than housing for women fleeing domestic violence and older women at risk of homelessness”. 

The Greens are right to block the HAFF. There is nothing in the bill that will substantially alleviate the housing crisis currently gripping the country. 

When announcing the policy, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese claimed that the HAFF will deliver $10 billion for 30,000 affordable homes over five years. But there are currently more than 160,000 people on the public housing waitlist, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute calculated that 727,300 additional dwellings would need to be built by 2036 to match demand for social housing. Albanese’s promise of 6,000 homes a year barely scratches the surface. 

It is not unprecedented for the government to build large amounts of public housing. As the Greens point out in their dissenting report on the HAFF, “If the federal government were to match rates of public housing construction in the 1960s, then the government would build 150,000 public homes over the next five years”. Under the 1949–1966 Robert Menzies Liberal government, 15 percent of all new housing stock was state-owned public housing. 

Labor has promised $10 billion for affordable housing, but not as direct funding. Instead, that money will be allocated to the Future Fund, a state-owned investment fund established by the John Howard Liberal government. Money will be allocated for housing grants only when the fund returns dividends on the investment. 

Government funding for housing shouldn’t be contingent on the volatility of the stock market. That $10 billion would be better spent on immediately expanding public housing, rather than gambling public money. In 2022, the Future Fund reported a 3.7 percent net loss on its investments. In its original form, the HAFF bill required no annual minimum spend, so not a cent would have been spent on housing in the case of a loss.

Following pressure from the Greens over the lack of guaranteed funding provisions, Labor amended the HAFF to make its $500 million annual spending cap a minimum spend instead. Still, $500 million a year won’t go very far. Based on this figure, Crikey projects that the HAFF may build 14,000 dwellings over five years. Even worse, the Grattan Institute estimates that each social housing unit costs roughly $300,000; according to this figure, the HAFF would deliver approximately 8,000 homes in five years. In short, Albanese’s promised 30,000 homes over five years aren’t guaranteed. 

The HAFF legislation outlines that grants will be allocated for “acute housing needs, social and affordable housing”. This is not the same as public housing, which is built and managed by the government—social and affordable housing can still be operated by private developers, leaving tenants vulnerable to the market.

In the instance of “affordable housing”, rent is capped at only 20 percent below the market rate. National rents for units have increased by a massive 26 percent in the past year, according to the latest Domain Rent Report, so houses which are today considered “affordable” were the unattainably expensive homes of twelve months ago. 

Instead of expanding their public housing stock, state governments have been demolishing existing units and handing the land to private developers to build social housing. This is set to happen with the demolition of the Waterloo Estate in NSW, the largest public housing complex in the country. Labor’s HAFF is a further attack on the idea that governments should provide secure public housing for those who need it. 

The Greens have rightly blocked this legislation, claiming it will worsen the housing crisis and do nothing for renters. The Greens are demanding a direct investment of $2.5 billion a year in social and affordable housing (reduced from their initial demand of $5 billion), and $1.6 billion to coordinate a national rent freeze. 

Labor recently launched a petition titled “Stop the Greens blocking affordable homes”, which claims that every day their legislation is delayed amounts to $1.3 million less spent on affordable homes. The government has ruled out rent caps by claiming that they will disincentivise housing construction, blaming housing supply as the key issue impacting affordability and posing handouts to developers as the solution. 

The latest Census indicated that in 2021 more than 1 million properties stood vacant across Australia. This means that around one in ten Australian homes sit empty, artificially reducing stock in the rental market. The housing crisis is a problem of a profit-driven market-based model, not a lack of supply. At best, the HAFF delivers barely any funding for housing. At worst, it will hand out even more funding and public land to private developers for privatised housing. 

Labor could easily deliver immediate solutions for genuinely affordable housing, given they’re in power federally and in every state and territory except Tasmania. They could implement policies to reverse and then prevent startling rent increases, further protections for renters and an immediate injection of funds for public housing with rents capped according to income. A 2021 parliamentary committee on housing affordability found that $290 billion would be needed over the next twenty years to address the shortfall in affordable housing. The federal government could make up that funding in just ten years if they abandon the stage three tax cuts, projected to cost $313 billion. 

The Greens’ housing proposals do not paint a complete picture of what needs to happen to fully address the crisis, but they are a start. That they have positioned themselves as an obstacle to the HAFF is a step forward for the public discussion around housing in Australia. They have also managed to draw some minor concessions out of Labor (the $500 million minimum spend and an immediate injection of up to $2 billion in housing funding for the states). If the Greens had waved the policy through, in the way they did with Labor’s 2022 Climate Change Bill, the Albanese government would have been seen to have implemented a “historic investment” in housing, and the topic would have been ticked off their to-do list while millions still struggled with increased costs.

This country needs a major overhaul of the entire housing sector to override the interests of the landlords, banks and property developers, and instead put ordinary people first. The Albanese government has demonstrated that it is utterly unwilling to do that. 

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