“Love begins at home.” Mother Teresa

Throughout the federal election campaign most political commentators (‘journalists’ is too kind) banged on continuously about personalities and politics, not policies. All surface, no substance.

But there were lots of polices, many of which we discussed in ToT here and here. Now that Labor is in power, we should further examine their policies, including indigenous rights, women’s wages and DV support, social and affordable housing, innovation and manufacturing.

‘Homes’: One Policy to Rule Them All

All those issues, so rooted in inequality, could be addressed through one policy: let’s call it a ‘Homes Policy’ (in contradistinction to a ‘housing policy’). The basis is that everyone deserves a safe home, particularly those most often forgotten: the working poor, socially supported, indigenous, the millennials and the aged, women in danger, and of course the homeless. That’s a third of us.

Homes’ puts the emphasis on the occupants, rather than ‘housing’ which speaks to a broad corporate policy. ‘Homes’ is a policy that respects the diversity of us, with no uniform solution, which we can see in its many different working parts which are outlined below.

But there is one common thread that needs to be overcome. Housing in Australia is ‘property’, a giant market-based ‘Ponzi’ scheme that continually benefits owners over renters. The solution most often proffered for the ‘forgotten third’ is government spending. But as ToT 119 and 122 pointed out, our ‘Tax to GDP’ ratio is so low that we can’t afford the social housing solutions of Europe or Scandinavia.

So, not only do we have to address our growing inequalities in housing, in a diverse multicultural nation, we must make all this housing pay for itself, without government grants or subsidies. A ‘Homes’ policy can’t require constant government expenditure like health, education or defence, it must be revenue neutral. And that is one of the key things that makes ‘Homes’ nothing like a ‘housing’ policy.

Affordable ownership

In ToT 112 I set out the reasons it is essential for Australia to lift home ownership from the current 65% to 80%. That’s an additional 1.5 million homeowners. Labor’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, a government equity scheme discussed here, is admirable, but the aim needs to be 100,000, not 10,000. And the value of a dwelling (not discriminating between houses or apartments) needs to be capped in such a way that it

encourages developers at the lower end of the spectrum, helping put downward pressure on prices.

Superannuation, one of the jewels of our finances, has been under attack recently, with encouragement for the young to plunder it during Covid. By contrast ‘boomers’ enjoy the triple whammy of super, pension and untaxed house wealth. Raising home ownership to 80% or beyond has the long-term effect of levelling up this inequality for the young as they get older.

Social housing

Labor policy is to build 7,500 new social dwellings a year (over four years). The Greens policy is 50,000 social dwellings a year (for twenty years). Whilst the Greens have got the numbers right, they can’t pay for it (through raised taxes) and Labor’s approach is restricted by being tied to a sovereign investment fund. A new regime that doesn’t rely on increased taxes, or direct government investment, is needed. The ‘Homes’ policy seeks a different approach.

The new rules for social housing

In previous ToT columns I have posited three rules for social housing: it should be disaggregated, dispersed and not different. That is, the dwellings should be in very small numbers, or within larger projects; they should be widely dispersed through the cities, suburbs and regional areas; and they need to be indistinguishable from owner occupied housing (experimental design that stigmatises social housing is so yesterday). So, we need a new ‘massive micro’ approach: let a thousand small projects prosper.

Social housing becomes community housing

Since governments are hamstrung in investing in social housing, let’s look at how housing developers work, and adapt that model to turn the market back on itself. Developers often use the ‘one third rule’: spend one third of the eventual sale price on land, one third on construction costs, and pocket one third as profit. What if the government provided the land, made loans for construction and deleted the profit?

That would be a model for ‘community housing’ to replace ‘social housing. All levels of government have excess land, often in small parcels, that could be leased or sold to community organisations, who then then to act as developers of affordable build-to-rent projects, using government or market loans. Repayment of the construction loan only requires occupants to pay about one third the price that renters pay in the ‘private market’. It’s affordable.

Community homes for women

Inequality in housing is more acute for women: less purchasing power through lower wages and less superannuation; needing refuge from domestic violence (DV); older single women (from divorce or bereavement); all have higher demands we don’t currently meet. The first community housing projects, funded as above, should be targeted to women; providing privacy, security, and an availability of supply for occupation at short notice (by victims of DV). Crucially it should indistinguishable, resisting the urge to make it architecturally prominent.

Homeless homes

Setting aside the oxymoronic heading, housing the homeless requires special care. It not as simple as getting people living on the street, or in the car, into regular housing. Some homeless can't afford a home, but many suffer from mental illness, making home life unbearable. We need community housing that can act as a specialised steppingstone to help the transition to permanent housing.

We already have community organisations that address these issues, often churches that are pivoting from ‘worship to mission’, but building is often beyond them. Governments could provide land for development, or better still, allow churches to redevelop their own land for homeless homes, and then the welfare money already being spent by governments could be targeted through counseling and wraparound services in these homes.

Indigenous homes

For far too long governments have sought, and failed, to build ‘aboriginal housing’ when what indigenous mobs really want is ‘homes for aborigines’, as I had clarified in a project I worked on last year. The Labor party is keen to put an end to the patronising approach to indigenous affairs typified by the Indue card. Self-help in building is a small step towards self-determination.

Under a ‘Homes’ policy governments would invest in indigenous run construction companies, using indigenous labour, to build homes for indigenous owners (not renters). Self-help construction has the benefit of pride in work, and knowing how the house was built helps maintain it. Maybe prefabricated systems (see below) could be developed for remote communities.

NDIS Homes

New homes for people with a disability has become a complete mess: the NDIS, an initiative of the Gillard Labor government, saw funding in 3 area (Core, Capacity and Capital). Some ‘smart’ developers saw an opportunity to build “NDIS” housing under the Capital / Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) program. But NDIS needs are extremely diverse, and no one design, or even a range of designs, can meet their needs.

NDIS recipients may vary greatly from severe physical incapacity to mental and intellectual issues.

Again, the answer is to go local and go individual. NDIS providers are now working with architects in local areas to develop new, or more often adapt existing homes to meet the needs of their residents.

Innovation and manufacturing

Sadly, we still build our houses the same way as we did 300 years ago. It is time that we moved to have a more sophisticated factory-based industrialised home construction system. One Labor policy is to promote innovation and manufacturing, and a key possibility would be in promoting factory made and prefab homes where the disincentive has always been the startup cost.

Private initiatives to develop prefab in Australia often failed as a result of up-front spending for a factory before you can make savings in building construction. The government could lead by making grants or loans for innovation in the development of prefab manufacturing, to meet the requirements for home ownership and community housing (bearing in mind in our ‘Homes’ policy that the latter should indistinguishable from the traditional built housing).

Women in construction

Women do not feature in the construction workforce, and yet many construction systems, such as prefab, now are based on brains, not brawn. Women could perform equally well, for equal pay of course, in the construction industry; it merely takes a policy change from the federal government to encourage women into TAFE positions, where they can learn skills that will build out the ‘Homes’ policy.

All the rest of the homes

Theoretically we do not have a housing supply problem in Australia, as we have more houses than households. It is the distribution that matters. Two-thirds of Australian households own or are paying a mortgage on their own home, but a significant proportion of them have two or more homes. In the short term, it would be valuable to free up some of those houses that are used only occasionally or for short term rental, to house those in need of a home.

This would require a change to the tax policy on housing, but before this goes into the too-hard basket, consider the possibility of swapping ‘negative gearing’ from the second or third home to the first. That is, we adopt a tax rebate that is common in many other countries: expenditure one’s own occupied home is tax deductible. This raises equality: every home occupant, owner or renter, could reduce their tax burden, while the wealthy may reconsider their investments if the tax burden of the fifth house becomes too much.

Climate Change

And lastly, but crucially for the big issue from this election: what if the tax deductibility for work on one’s own home was skewed towards improvements that helped reduce energy use and carbon gasses, thereby encouraging climate resilience? Upgrades such as extra insulation, better windows, better shading, more PVs are 100% tax deductible (perhaps they would be the only deductions allowed on investment homes). ‘Homes’ is indeed one policy to rule them all.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]