Housing Blitz Arrives at an Urgent Time for Social Housing in Victoria

Flemington Public Housing Towers, Photography by Tom Gilfillan

The Victorian government’s welcome announcement of a five-billion-dollar investment in social housing last year was recently bolstered by the extension of an additional 2500 homes to be created by the project. The Big Housing Build will be delivered over four years and will provide an estimated 14,500 homes. It represents the most significant project in Victorian history to address major shortages in social housing.

With an estimated 100,000 people on waiting lists for housing in Victoria, the failings of a neglectful public housing system are beginning to be addressed.

“It’s a profound investment in a stronger, fairer Victoria – a Victoria that recognises everyone deserves a place to call home,” said Premier Daniel Andrews in November, of the Big Housing Build.

Victoria has the lowest portion of social housing in Australia, with the amount of social housing in the state declining in the past two decades alongside an economic downturn and a national housing crisis. Despite progressive policy agendas in other areas, successive Victorian governments have failed to invest in social housing, with public and community housing representing only 3.2 percent of Victorian housing stock.

Flemington Public Housing Towers, photography by Tom Gilfillan

“It’s a phenomenal start, but more is definitely needed,” said a spokesperson from Community Housing Industry Association Victoria.

A report by CHIAV last year found that to simply maintain the current level of social housing at 3.2 percent, 3,500 new public and community housing units would need to be built every year over the next 10 years. The Big Housing Build does not meet these requirements.

The coronavirus pandemic forced state governments to launch emergency housing programs at a record scale. Responding to the extreme vulnerability of rough sleepers to coronavirus exposure, the emergency programs launched by Australian states and territories housed more than 40,000 rough sleepers in the first six months.

Yet, these exceptional measures were in response to exceptional circumstances, and numbers of rough sleepers are now once again on the rise. A recent report from The University of New South Wales argues that the rough sleepers given housing during the coronavirus pandemic are once again mostly homeless.

The significant weaknesses in Victoria’s public housing system were further exposed in July of last year when the hard lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne shed light on the conditions within these environments that rendered residents particularly ‘vulnerable’ to a COVID outbreak. As more than 3000 residents were confined to their flats for five days, some without culturally appropriate food supplies, community outcry in response to the heavily policed lockdown resulted in the state ombudsman declaring that the lockdown violated human rights laws.

Flemington Residents Protest the Hard Lockdown, Photography by Tom Gilfillan

Social housing is an umbrella term which refers to both public and community housing. Community housing dwellings are managed by non-profit housing organisations in which tenants pay more rent, and tenure is less secure than in government owned public housing.

Dr David Kelly, organiser at the Save Public Housing Collective, a grassroots collective of public housing and community groups, argues that the Big Housing Build fails to robustly address the housing crisis in Victoria.

“Of the $5.3 billion, not one dollar will be spent on public housing. The government state that the money will provide over 12,000 social housing dwellings, this is a lie. Using their own numbers, the most ambitious outcome is that 8,000 community housing dwellings will be built, and 4,000 private dwellings. Zero will be public. They will also demolish 446 public housing dwellings through the renewal of five estates,” Dr Kelly said.

“There is also a huge problem with community housing providers. They are under-regulated, non-transparent, more expensive to run, require large amounts of government subsidy, cost more to the tenant to rent and eviction rates are much higher. Public housing can house 100% of those in need, if there was enough.”

Police Tape Surrounds the Flemington Public Housing Towers, Photography by Tom Gilfillan

The announcement this week that the Federal government will increase the Job Seeker welfare payment by $3.57 a day is a brutal reminder that Australians dependent on government assistance will be kept resolutely in poverty under existing welfare and housing policies. Safe and affordable housing plays an essential role in the health and wellbeing of marginalised persons in our community.

With the end of the coronavirus eviction moratorium looming, the waitlist for housing in Victoria is expected to significantly increase. Providing major investments in social housing like the Big Housing Build is an essential part of what must be a major commitment to addressing inequality in this state.

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