Social housing is the topic ‘de jour’, with five ToT columns devoted to it recently. The comments received contained two questions that need to be answered: how big is the problem? and are there any successful examples? (in this the last column on the topic for a while).

By way of background, and before answering, here are the key issues for social housing:

A definition and a short history of social housing in Australia can be found here.

The economics of social housing and reducing costs and profits can be found here.

Some best examples of typologies for social housing can be found here.

An examination of affordability for social housing can be found here

And last week, the column focussed on some pitfalls.

Question One: how big is the problem of social housing?

Australia currently has about 10 million households (if you include the homeless who would like to be counted as a household). Only 4 percent of those households, or 400,000 dwellings, are public or social housing. It was once as high as 20 percent in the 1950s, but it has been falling ever since.

That falls well short of the 20 percent of households that need social housing. These households are in the lowest quintile whose income (social wage, working poor or homeless), cannot provide an affordable rental dwelling. More precisely, the desirable measure of one third of their income is well below what commercial markets require for accommodation.

(Not to be confused with the 20 percent in the fourth quintile that struggle to afford rental dwellings in an over-priced market. The solution for them is preferably ‘build-to-rent’. The remaining 60 percent are owner-occupiers.)

If social housing is to become 20 percent of our stock, a gold standard, as it is in advanced social democracies like Denmark, then we need to build a huge increase, very rapidly. Just how furiously can be seen in simple arithmetic.

Let's take a 15-year horizon: in that time, it is estimated that the number of households will rise by 2.3 million, to 12.3 million. 20 percent of that total, as social housing, would be 2.5 million households. Allowing for the 0.4 million we have now (assuming we stop selling them) means 2.1 million need to be built - almost every dwelling to be constructed in 15 years! Clearly, this is not going to happen.

What if we were to lower our expectation by half, to say 10 percent or 1.23 million social housing dwellings? That's an increase of 800,000 in 15 years, or over 50,000 per annum, or one third of all dwellings built. This would be realistic only if there was a dedicated program for social housing, which we don't have, so it remains beyond the realms of belief.

The need for this huge program is why social housing is the most important architectural and town planning, not to say moral, issue before us. For that reason alone, Josh Frydenberg’s recent budget that ignores social housing is a complete ethical failure, condemning Australia to many more years of social inequity. It would make a brown dog weep.

Question Two: are there any successful social housing developments?

Social housing in the future could come from two areas: large-scale public housing by State Housing Authorities (SHA) and small-scale initiatives by ‘not-for-profits’, such as Churches and Community Housing Providers (CHP).

There is only one recent example of wide-spread implementation of diverse public social housing: the Rudd government’s Social Housing Initiative (SHI) in the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan (NBSEP) in 2009-11. This plan included the Building Education Revolution (the BER aka Halls and COLAs) and Energy Efficiency Homes (aka Pink Batts) initiatives discussed last week.

The SHI had three aims: to increase the supply of social housing via new builds and repair and maintenance; to provide increased opportunities for people who are homeless or at risk to gain secure long-term accommodation; and to stimulate the building and construction industry. $5.238 billion was spent for some 17,460 dwellings built, at an average cost of $300,000 per dwelling.

Although touted as “the SHI is the largest commitment by any government in Australia to social housing” it is dwarfed by the Chifley Labor initiatives after WW2 that grew public housing to 20 percent, much of which we rely on for today’s 4 percent. And the amount spent pales in comparison to the $16.2 billion spent in the BER.

Nevertheless, it achieved its aims without controversy, and it did show what was possible if the federal government set its policy directions to social progression. Will we ever see the like of that again? We can only wonder what we could have had if Labor was in power now to run that program again. If only Clive Palmer and Bob Brown hadn’t routed Labor‘s chances in Queensland in the last election.

The second way forward, with small-scale initiatives from the CHPs and churches, can be found here. And that’s the last word on social housing for a while.

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]