April 11, 2019

Good policy ensures that everyone has a place to call home

This article originally appeared in The West Australian on 11 April 2019.

What ought to be the purpose of housing policy in Australia and its citizens? What outcome exactly is it trying to achieve?

Let’s start with the basics. Australia’s housing system is essentially a private market place of buyers and sellers. On the supply side there are landowners, developers and landlords and on the demand side, at any given time, thousands of individual and families looking to rent or buy a home. State and Federal Governments are actors in this market place, but mainly as a rule setter rather than a supplier or buyer of housing. For the majority of Australian consumers this is a system that works reasonably (if not perfectly) well: people exercise the choice to rent or buy according to their needs, preferences and financial ability. It also means that Government, freed from the responsibility and cost of providing this essential good, can play a greater role in the provision of other essential goods and service like healthcare and education.

But there is a catch. The market works for some better than others and, for some, not at all. There is a cohort of people for whom the market will not provide or, at least, not provide housing that is secure and affordable. They are people on low incomes now who have likely never had a high income in the past, or ever will in the future. They are people with disabilities and mental illness. They are people who have hit hard times because of bereavement, relationship breakdown or ill health and who have limited opportunities to increase their wealth. In sum, they are people that cannot have their needs met in the housing marketplace.

Decades of investment by government and community groups in the provision of social housing is recognition of this. It is also true that the social housing system is part of the broader social protection framework, a social contract that Australia and all developed countries to some degree possess so their citizens do not fall into abject poverty and destitution as a result of what ultimately amounts to misfortune.

At present, the Australian social housing system is struggling to cope with demand. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) estimate that the number of social housing dwellings in WA will have to double by 2036 to meet projected demand. There is no plan in place to meet this target. It is, therefore an opportune time to clarify why devising such a plan ought to be a priority for government.

Housing policy and social housing policy are essentially subsets of economic policy. But what is the primary purpose of economic policy? According to economist Gene Sterling, the answer is to provide economic dignity to citizens – three essential, interlocking pillars that define economic dignity that should be the singular end goal for economic policy and basis for policy prioritisation.

Those pillars are the capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys; pursuit of potential and purpose, and economic participation without domination and humiliation.

If we accept Mr Sterling’s thesis, the centrality of good housing policy becomes clear.  If it is to ensure that as many people as possible enjoy ‘economic dignity’, then policies that allow as many people as possible to live in secure, affordable housing is fundamental. No one can experience the good of the ‘interlocking pillars’ without a home. Without decent housing, the capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys is non-existent.

Decent housing is also the basis for any attempt to reach one’s potential and purpose: how can a person work or study or pursue activities that help them grow and develop without a place to call home? Equally, how does a person cope with the challenges of life without being able to retreat into a private, safe space?

Good economic policy and good housing policy are one and the same. And that starts with ensuring that those most disadvantaged and marginalised in the housing market place are not forgotten.

By Barry Doyle, Policy Officer, Foundation Housing.