I have written more about social housing (or SH for short) than any other issue because it is the design issue of our time, conjoining inequality, sustainability and funding futility.
As I have so often observed, the state of social housing Australia is deplorable; for something different I’ll try for some good news.
But first, for those who came in late, let me address some FAQ’s.
What is social housing? A definition and potted history in Australia are here.
How big is the problem? Huge, more that 500,000 homes are needed, as discussed here.
What does SH look like? Some examples of typologies can be found here.
What are the economics of SH? A guide to costs and operations can be found here, and an examination of affordability of SH can be found here. And the pitfalls? Myriad, as discussed here.
What about solutions?
My most radical idea was in a proposal to the Federal Government Inquiry into Housing Affordability and Supply, chaired by led by arch-conservative and social-housing-hater Jason Falinski. The proposition was to remove the need for social housing altogether by enabling every household to be able to own their own home. No rentals. Ever. Again.
Home ownership for all should appeal to the LNP, with its love of freedom, independence and small government, BUT ironically it would require massive market intervention to achieve; no political party has that much gumption. I’m not being summoned to Canberra any time soon.
Another solution would be to get the Federal Government to take a lead on SH. Last week’s review of policies shows that even the wannabe social democrats are still a long way from appreciating the breadth and depth of the problem.
So, where is there hope? In two places; with the not-for-profit sector, particularly on church land, and with some state governments, which are under today’s microscope.
A review of existing state and territory SH policies and plans for next 10 years reveals a curious formula of inversion: the smaller the jurisdiction, the better the existing SH provision, and the more progressive the policies (even if comparisons are very complicated as the figures seem all over the shop).
Northern Territory and the ACT
Both territories already have the largest amount of social housing by percentage (NT 13.75% and ACT 7.4%), and proportionately high future budgets. The NT is intending to spend $1.1b (with a B) in the next 10 years on remote housing, and the ACT $100m (with an M) on 400 houses to add to its existing 12,076.
Recently the Premier of the smallest state announced a $100m program to construct an additional 1000+ new dwellings over 3 years, to add to the 5.5% of SH dwellings (building construction must be cheap on the apple isle). Previous to the announcement the government completed 400 new social dwellings, plus 250 under construction. And here is an example of the quality of that intended building.
At 6.09% SA already has the highest percentage of social housing of any state, some of it completed as community housing in ten years under the former Labor government, intending to build ‘1000 homes in 1000 days’. Again, the current LNP Premier is to the fore with a glossy brochure to spruik $500m, which should build at least another 1500 SH. And here is another example.
WA has about the same number of SH dwellings as SA (about 45,000) but with one million more residents. Nevertheless, the proportion of social housing (4%) is larger than three big eastern states. And with an economy in surplus (one of only four in the world) and an overwhelming majority for Labor and Premier McGowan they were able to promise $875 million towards building 3300 dwellings ($230m short term, $530m longer term). See the A&D review here. And another image of a great scheme.
With only about 3.57% SH, much more is needed, and the Labor government has a program to spend $1.9b to increase social and affordable housing stock (targeted 10,000 new dwellings, with 7400 of those over the next 4 years), and $1b “to boost housing supply and increase housing and homelessness support across Queensland”. But like many of the rubbery financial figures from Queensland $1.9b goes nowhere near building 10,000 new homes. But they do have tropical design.
The lowest percentage of social housing in Australia, at 3.19%, in part a result of sales by Jeff Kennet’s LNP government, and some of the most contentious in the ‘Housing Commission’ towers in Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and South Melbourne. But Dan Andrews Labor party in Victoria has by far the biggest SH program, with $5.3b intended to build 12,000 more homes (to lift the percentage by 0.5 percent). And our best architects for SH.
Thanks to Labor governments for 20 years after WW2, NSW has one of the highest levels of existing SH at just over 5%, 156,360 dwellings in tower blocks, and suburbs like Daceyville. But for how much longer? The current LNP government seems determined to sell as much of the existing SH off as possible, including the Sirius building, Sydney’s best purpose-built SH apartments, without building a single new SH dwelling.
The current praise for Gladys Berejiklian as the empather-in chief obscures her lack of any social policies, particularly for SH. She pushed ahead with demolition of the Sydney Football Stadium because it didn’t have enough corporate boxes, continued the diminution of the Powerhouse Museum, and demonstrated her lack of social support for anybody on the ‘wrong side of the Bridge’ in the divisive treatment of south-west workers in the pandemic.
It gets no better under the new NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, who relished rubbishing the Sirius building as a ‘car park’. An equal opportunity insult to architecture and occupants. With his deeply dry devotion to privatisation and market forces there will be little to no SH built soon, with a paltry $812m earmarked for construction of 1200 new dwellings, upgrading 8000 existing dwellings, and $212m for new housing for indigenous. Total $1b, less than the NT will spend or a third of Queensland, let alone 20% of Victoria’s spend.
I know I said this would be positive but my home, NSW, is now a State SH-free zone; an economy, not a society, with no future hope for housing the largest number of people in housing crisis and homelessness. The Labor opposition offers no alternative; the former leader Jodi Mckay was avowedly against social housing innovation, leaving Chris Minns to pick up an amateurish and dysfunctional party, likely to be out of government for at least another term.
Architects in NSW will now have to pursue sensible policies for social housing through the not-for-profits like the Community Housing Providers and Churches Housing; and look wistfully at the SH progression in other states and territories.
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].