The last few days have seen a media preoccupation with relentless attacks on a new federal Labor proposal to eliminate the payment of cash cheques to those who don’t need their dividend imputation credits because they pay no tax. The media has channelled expressions of shock and rage, and accusations of robbery, from Coalition politicians and bodies who represent well-off retirees.
The outrage has been amplified by emotional accounts of “hurting” couples who own a valuable house, have a tax-free income amounting to many multiples of the age pension rate from their super account, own dividend-paying shares, but because they have no tax obligations may lose a cash payment.
Right at the same time, the ABS published its analysis of current levels of homelessness, based on the 2016 census.
This startling report has not attracted anything like the same level of media or political attention. Public expressions of outrage at this new evidence of the growing national disgrace of homelessness were few.
The key findings of the ABS are that 116 427 people were homeless on census night, up from 102,439 in 2011.
The rate of homelessness in nearly all categories that were captured, grew. NSW recorded the highest growth rate, up 27% since 2011, though WA, the NT, and the ACT recorded lower rates.
Who are these many hundreds of fellow citizens who spent census night in homelessness accommodation, boarding houses, improvised or severely overcrowded dwellings, tents or sleeping out?
Notably, young people under 24 made up 32% of those living in severely overcrowded dwellings, with nearly 60% of homeless in 2016 under 35 years. The rate among the over 55s has steadily increased, since the last census by 28%. Migrants who arrived over the last 5 years feature in alarming numbers, as do ATSI people. These figures are very bad and made even worse by the report’s prediction that without change those currently at risk of homelessness will add hugely to the crisis over the next period.
Our fellow citizens become homeless for many reasons including mental health issues and addictions. Overwhelmingly, however, the main cause is that there are not enough secure places for them to live. The shortfall is massive.
Longstanding providers of social housing estimate an immediate need of 100 000 dwellings for the most urgent cases, with over half a million required over the next few years.
Who should act? Coalition politicians insist it is a supply problem and developers can take care of it. The city with the worst picture of homelessness, Sydney, has increased supply through a massive building program. New towers of apartments spring up all over the city and at its edges. New areas convenient to the city, often previously crown land, are ceded to developers. Frequent rezoning approvals add to supply. The well-off quickly buy up these places and investors dominate. Despite minor reductions in the last federal and some state budgets, investors remain turbocharged by tax concessions. Massive increases in supply around Sydney have not resulted in any increase in affordable housing. Those who can’t afford to buy, or rent can and do end up homeless, hence NSW has the worst and fastest growing rate of homelessness.
Properties old and new are popular acquisitions by Self-Managed Superfunds. Such assets add to the concessional retirement savings they build, with or without dividend imputation cheques, but reduce the availability of housing for purchase by the lower paid.
This situation can’t improve without changes in regulation and policy. The market as currently operating has failed.
The consequences for the whole community of increasing numbers of all ages sleeping rough include more social violence, more crime, higher public health and residential aged care costs, and therefore less public spending on hospitals, education, community and public housing and those age pensioners getting by without share income, investment housing or large tax favoured superannuation accounts.
The absence of strong purposeful actions by federal and state governments can only result in more pressures on budgets. Policy makers and politicians must respond. They should be informed and advised by effective community housing providers, like Mission Australia and St Vincent St Paul, or the Women’s Housing Company. High quality and relevant research and policy analysis is available from university and independent research centres. Their work points to strategies for innovation, efficiencies, and sustainable real growth in affordable and social housing. The national alliance that just launched the Everybody’s Home campaign, has the objective of getting rid of homelessness by 2030.
This is achievable if governments make the tax and planning changes that are needed and can be implemented without overall budget damage. Federal Labor maintains its policies of reducing investor concessions around negative gearing and capital gains tax. In NSW State Labor is committed to mandating affordability in new developments up to 25%.
The NSW government has established a fund to expand community housing and intends to reform the planning practices that stop affordable housing being built close to the city. Large employers now acknowledge that they will face shortages in skilled workers if affordable housing remains unavailable in reasonable proximity to their workplaces. The community will lose teachers, childcare, aged care, and emergency workers unless these low and medium paid workers can live closer to their workplaces in and near the city. Projects to improve transport blockages are underway but have not yet delivered
Changes to the conditions that create homelessness can and should happen. The alternative is hundreds and thousands of our fellow Australians living on the streets.
Susan Ryan was a member of the Hawke Cabinet. From 2011 to 2016 she was the Age Discrimination and Disability commissioner at the Australian Human rights commission.