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Social housing for social justice: How social housing can address inequality


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of home to people across the world. Not only has housing offered protection from a contagious virus, but for most it has also become the space in which almost all of our work, time with loved ones, and recreation has taken place.

The retraction of life to the “home zone” during pandemic lockdowns has also highlighted the experiences of those who are struggling – people without a home, households on low income, and people with insecure or crowded living arrangements. In Australia, increased income support and emergency hotel accommodation has helped. But with those initiatives coming to an end, we are using this World Day of Social Justice to highlight the significant role of social housing in supporting our communities and achieving a fair society for all.

Housing and social justice

Ensuring people have access to safe, secure, and quality housing is a necessary step in achieving social justice for our communities.

Housing is a human right in itself – international human rights law recognises the right to an adequate standard of living including adequate housing – but it also supports a whole range of other human rights and social justice outcomes for individuals and communities.

Housing impacts physical and mental health, safety and privacy, employment, connection to community and a social life.

Equal opportunity and access to long-term, adequate housing plays a significant role forging in a fair society.

Social housing to reduce homelessness

For people on the lower end of the income scale, housing affordability is one of the biggest barriers to securing and retaining accommodation. When rents are high, low-income renters are forced to spend a large portion of their income on housing costs and can be left vulnerable to eviction or homelessness in the face of unexpected bills, expenses, or income-loss.

Currently, 55 per cent of people accessing homelessness services nationwide cite financial or housing issues as the main reasons for seeking assistance as people on low income find it difficult or impossible to secure or retain a property on the private rental market.

Now, the situation is due to worsen. As the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many people across Australia finding themselves with less income and financial stability, and are seeking to downsize to more affordable properties. For others, an opportunity to work from home has led to the decision to move to regional and rural areas. With this comes increased competition and less vacancies for affordable properties in the private housing market, and increased demand means that many people on low income are being further priced out of the market.

With such volatility in the private market, social housing can provide low-income renters with secure and safe accommodation, and prevent them from living in precarious housing situations or experiencing homelessness.

A vital safety net

Last year, states across Australia introduced eviction moratoriums to prevent landlords terminating leases. Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised landlords to negotiate rent reductions with tenants who could no longer afford to pay. Yet, it has since been revealed through a report by ACOSS and UNSW City Futures that this only happened in eight to 16 per cent of cases nationwide.

This means that when the eviction moratoriums end, over 75,000 tenants across Australia are vulnerable to eviction and homelessness due to rental debts.

What’s more, the report found that only one third of people living in Australian emergency hotel accommodation during the pandemic were able to be moved into long-term housing, due to a national shortage of social housing accommodation. In most states, people have had to return to the streets or to unstable temporary living situations after a stay in hotel accommodation.

Social housing to stimulate the economy and reduce inequality

Social housing does not only represent a vital safety net for people facing homelessness. It is also an excellent way to boost the economy and address widening inequality in Australia.

Last year, a housing advocates including Homelessness Australia, Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA), National Shelter, and the Everybody’s Home Campaign, urged the Federal Government to invest in a social housing program that would see an investment of $7.7 billion over four years raise output in Australia by at least $15.7 billion.

During the period, 18,000 jobs per year would be generated, GDP would increase by anywhere between $5.8 to $6.7 billion, and 30,000 social housing dwellings could be built for Australian communities.

This wouldn’t only stimulate the economy and create jobs, it would also help to reduce wealth inequality and achieve better social, health, employment, and education outcomes.

The vast majority of Australian economists agree that current federal housing policy, which focuses on private home builders and buyers, exacerbates income and wealth inequality. When surveyed by UNSW City Futures, economists agreed that social and affordable housing is best-placed to stimulate the housing economy and address the widening inequality gap in Australia.

Time for federal action on social housing

Last year, the Victorian Government recognised the importance of social housing for the state’s communities and economy, and committed to a $5.3 billion investment to build more than 12,000 new social and affordable homes.

There is no doubt that this is an historic investment, and a big win for advocacy groups and community members who campaigned for this commitment. It is an important step towards a more equitable Victoria.

But now, it is the turn of the Federal Government to boost this investment with a national social housing program.

In March, the Federal Government plans to cut the Coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker, which will see rates return to pre-pandemic levels and is predicted to trigger a surge in homelessness across the country.

The latest rental affordability snapshot revealed that, after the latest Coronavirus supplement cuts in December, there were no rental listings in Australia that were affordable for a single person on JobSeeker.

If people are unable to afford the private rental market, their right to housing must be realised another way. Federal investment into social housing would mean that people across Australia are able to afford rent and the essentials without fear of homelessness.

Social housing investment would boost the economy, reduce wealth inequality, and create a fairer Australia.

Until Australia achieves housing for all, Australia cannot claim to have achieved social justice for all.

You can take action to fix Australia’s housing system and tell the Federal Government to invest in social housing by signing the Everybody’s Home petition to Housing and Homelessness Minister, Michael Sukkar.

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