Opinion: Public housing in NSW – a tragic game of musical chairs

Image: 'The Street Life' by Gemma Lee

 By Dr Louis Schetzer, Senior Policy Officer in PIAC’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Service

As a kid I intensely disliked the game musical chairs. There was something in the underlying premise of the game that offended my childhood sensibilities – a dozen or so excited children contesting a deliberately inadequate supply of chairs, with a backing soundtrack of ABC Play School tunes randomly interrupted to ignite a frenzy of desperation to grab one of the highly coveted seats.


The whole exercise was bound to end in tears.

However, there seems to be some unfortunate parallels with this childhood contest over scarce desired objects and the current state of social housing in NSW.

Currently in NSW, 60,000 households are on the social housing waiting list with a further 140,000 people eligible for social housing, but not registered. Most recent statistics indicate that in NSW alone, there is a shortfall of 100,000 affordable homes for low income households. Over 20 per cent of the 247 areas and towns where social housing is available in NSW have a waiting list of more than ten years (according to the NSW Audit Office).

The natural consequence of this is that thousands of individuals and families are ending up homeless or at severe risk of homelessness. According to the 2016 ABS Population Census 37,715 people were homeless in NSW on Census night – an increase of 37% since 2011.

The grossly inadequate supply of affordable and social housing in NSW is a product of years of policy failure and neglect on the part of State and Federal governments.

When the NSW Housing Commission was established by the NSW State Government in the 1940s its prime function was to embark on a program of building much-needed social housing. By the 1970s the Commission had built its 100,000th home, and by the 1980s a further 150,000 homes had been built.

However, since the Housing Commission was replaced by the NSW Department of Housing in 1986 the supply of new public housing has plummeted. As the State Government shifted its focus to the rehabilitation of existing stock, the new supply of public and social housing is now at its lowest level in almost 40 years.

The State Government has essentially vacated its role of providing new supply of social housing. Instead, the Government agency currently responsible for social housing in NSW, the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, is increasingly resorting to punitive and draconian strategies to alleviate demand for social housing, by excluding various groups of disadvantaged people from desperately needed social housing, or implementing policies designed to terminate existing tenancies for people who have limited other options for accommodation.

There are many examples where social housing tenants are subject to more onerous conditions or requirements than tenants in the private rental market. For example, public housing tenants are subject to particular regulations surrounding ‘anti-social behaviour’, which includes swearing and playing loud music. According to FaCS policy, if a tenant receives three warnings or ‘strikes’ in a 12-month period for such minor or moderate anti-social behaviour, then they may face eviction.

Applicants for social housing who have an outstanding debt for rent arrears relating to a previous social housing tenancy face a significant risk that they will be regarded as an unsatisfactory former tenant and that they will not be considered eligible for social housing until their debt has been repaid. This serves only to further entrench a person in a poverty trap.

The most recent example in which public housing applicants are subjected to requirements that seek to enforce counter-productive law and order policies is the newly developed Local Housing Allocation Strategy for the inner Sydney suburbs of Redfern, Surry Hills, Waterloo and Glebe. According to the Strategy, applicants for social housing in these areas must consent to a criminal records check. Anyone with a criminal conviction for the manufacture or supply of an illegal drug in the previous five years will be denied access to public housing accommodation in those areas.

While the residents of these localities have the right to live in communities that are safe and healthy, it is highly unlikely that this policy will achieve this. Rather, it will target some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in the inner city – the very people public housing was meant to assist. Many of them are in need of the health and rehabilitation services that are most commonly located near these areas. These are people who may be seeking to rebuild their lives after they have served their sentence. We should be supporting them on this journey.

Our social housing system has become one in which government agencies manage excessive demand for social housing by seeking to exclude certain groups of people in desperate need of stable accommodation, or endeavouring to create a maze of rules, regulations and policies that serve to make existing vulnerable to losing their accommodation. And when the music stops, many families – women, children and men – are left without a roof over their heads.



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