Looking back to look forward



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.

Public housing in Melbourne (Matthew Perkins/Flickr)

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 immediately scalable projects — sometimes referred to as ‘shovel ready’.

In Victoria, a good example of this is seen in the recent $500 million announcement by Housing Minister, Richard Wynne. Refurbishing 23,000 social housing units in Victoria will make a huge difference, and it’s the genesis of renewed policy enthusiasm that can and should be built upon.

Yet, to be clear, we do not need to re-invent the wheel.

Governments have always had the capacity to influence housing policy and the housing market. In 1943, the Prime Minister John Curtin turned to Ben Chifley, then Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, to design a program of economic stimulus that would reconfigure the Australian economy. 

What did he recommend? Among other things, a massive program of housing construction. He considered that ‘a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen’. However, he was also acutely aware that building houses was a sure fire way to create jobs, boost economic activity and address inequality. The buck was not passed to private enterprise. There was no disguised cost shifting.

The succeeding two decades are considered the golden era in Australian housing. Between 1945 and 1956, public housing accounted for one in seven dwellings built nationally — facilitated through the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement set up by Chifley. More astonishing is that from 1947 to 1961, almost 25 percent of all houses built in Australia were done so through direct government intervention.

Unfortunately, in the decades since, housing policy has suffered from a lack of vision and application. Politicians have tended to frame the problem of homelessness in broad ethical terms. Conservatives conceptualising homelessness as a ‘moral failing’ of the individual. Progressives vaguely as a ‘social-ill’ requiring individual support in equal measure from both the community sector and government.

From these approaches, the outcomes show little long-term difference. Indeed, the greatest winner has been haphazard policy making at the expense of the most vulnerable. We may never be presented with a better time to move past this debate, and to turn as Chifley did, towards a rapidly scalable housing-first policy.

Finland can do it. Singapore can do it. Scotland can do it.

We have a strong local construction workforce and the means to raise the capital required to realise such a vision. What we cannot afford is a regression to ineffective ideas that fixate on off balance sheet funding. Industry super-funds will not fix the problem of homelessness. Neither can not-for-profits.

The team from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) have demonstrated that direct government investment in public housing is the most efficient and effective way to overcome homelessness.

This is not to dismiss other necessary policy levers. Of course, we need strong inclusionary zoning measures and greater commonwealth rent assistance. Yes, we need policies to address vacant properties and unused land. Yes, we need additional crisis and short-term accommodation. Moreover, we need a tailored response towards reducing the disproportionately high levels of Indigenous homelessness.

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.



Dustin Halse headshotDr Dustin Halse is the State Labor Member for Ringwood. He has held positions in academia and the union movement prior to his election to office. Dustin has a strong interest in industrial, environmental and social welfare policy.

Main image credit: Matthew Perkins/Flickr

Topic tags: Dustin Halse, homelessness, public housing



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Existing comments

Interesting read, but what has been the impact of religion on housing policy and funding? One means the aggressive neo-liberal or radical right libertarian socio-economic ideology that has been mainstreamed in Australia, and joined at the hip with a form of eugenics or social pecking order. This leads to the refrain from individual (voters) encouraged by mainstream media, of why should I pay taxes to support lower classes, unemployed, widowed etc. for reasonable public housing that may impact the property market? Sad indictment of Australian society and culture.....
Andrew Smith | 01 August 2020

Perhaps the COVID pandemic will have raised consciousness that insecure and inadequate housing is a problem with broader implications than just those directly affected. Expanding and improving social housing would reduce the risk of infection for all.
Peter Albion | 02 August 2020

Yes public housing is the answer...Moreover, one year ago, July 2019 : 'One of the worst': how Newstart (now Jobseeker) compared to unemployment payments in rest of the world: https://twitter.com/lukehgomes/status/1153251372113858563/photo/1 Does Australia want a strong economy? Then the government must invest in the mental and physical health of the small children and teenagers of unemployed parents. And for parents; most importantly, to not transmit gloom, doom, and depression to their small children and teenagers, (due also to possible huge threatened Jobseeker income deductions possibly again creating future impossible low living standers) as if the uncertainty of the movements of the Pandemic wasn't enough stress for them! Unemployed parents, Young unemployed people and unemployed Single people from age 30 to 67. Must not be left behind. There Must Not Be Any Cuts to Jobseeker come late September, 2020. In the race between the Hare & the Tortoise, it was the Tortoise who won. The Australian government needs to learn from that Tortoise, as there is nothing to learn from the Hare, except irrational, impulsive action and poor strategy thinking. The unemployed are the 'weakest link in the chain' of healthy and prosperous Australia. Were that link to 'snap' the whole chain will weaken and 'snap'. How?: In low-income countries, the main problems you have is infectious diseases. Bill Gates
ao | 09 August 2020

NOW is the time to let Scott Morrison, very, very, respectfully know, not late September 2020, how bad Australia looked on the above chart last year and in reality. The possible cut of $300 a fortnight come late September, 2020, would certainly have devastating consequences ...When will those on Jobseeker find a job? When there are none? There are no jobs. There are no jobs. There are no jobs. Let the unemployed keep $1100 a fortnight. They can eat 3 meals a day, get healthy, combat the mental depression fruit of Covid 19, go to the dentist, boost their moral, perhaps by buying a video game or other entertaining stuff, spend more money on taking care of themselves, pay the rent, buy some new clothes, shoes, fix a broken car, pay electricity and gas bills. Families with children, pay for their children's books, clothes, shoes and laptops for their home education... the list of expenses goes on and on... Give them back hope and confidence to be that 'lucky one' to land that 1 job, 1500 and more, apply for.
ao | 09 August 2020


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