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Looking back to look forward

  • 30 July 2020
The recent lockdown of the nine towers in Melbourne’s inner city, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, presented Victorians with a range of confronting images. Our thoughts immediately turned to the thousands of individuals who reside in those towers. Communities confined to these 30-storey, high density, 1960s era public housing towers.

Yet this highlights another crisis that has been building for decades: the crisis of homelessness and housing accessibility.

We recite the figures often: tonight, around 25,000 Victorians will experience homelessness. They will be couch-surfing, in crisis or motel accommodation, in boarding houses and cramped dwellings, or sleeping rough. They are so often victims of violence, trauma, unemployment, insecure work and ill health.

That there are so many who are experiencing homelessness, and that a further 82,000 Victorians are on the social housing waiting list, is in many respects as perplexing as it is disturbing.

Because in Australia, we have long boasted of our unparalleled prosperity and strong economic growth. We have championed home ownership and the quarter acre block — after all our home is meant to be our castle. But for too many, the basic human right of having a place to call home remains out of reach.

The challenge of housing policy is especially is pertinent to Labor governments — including the one to which I belong — which seek to address inequalities that limit opportunity.

'Nevertheless, as we begin to envision a new post COVID-19 world, we should look back to the old ideas that once worked to both reduce homelessness and stimulate the economy. Now is the time for governments to build more public houses.'

Indeed, housing vulnerable citizens should be a key marker against which governments are assessed. I suggest that the COVID-19 crisis presents a generational opportunity for governments of all persuasions to make a dent in this prevailing issue by supporting a housing first framework and an expansion of public housing construction.

To get to this point we need to move beyond the current economic orthodoxy that has failed to meet this challenge.

Right now, policy-makers are apt to cite ‘state-building’ stimulus measures. In vogue are large-scale infrastructure projects: think fast trains, tunnels, roads, airports, ships and ports. Big and bold, and with a good dose of political ‘pop’.

While these projects are essential to our long-term economic prosperity, they are often inherently complex and require a long and engineered run up. An alternative ‘state building’ agenda is to facilitate smaller and