This chapter begins with a discussion of definitions of homelessness used in the Australian context. The chapter then considers the prevalence of homelessness in Australia and evidence on possible improvements to data collection, reporting, and evaluation.
The chapter also outlines the roles and responsibilities of the three levels of government and considers evidence received on the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement and other relevant policies and programs.
Definitions of homelessness
As noted in Chapter 1, definitions of homelessness generally seek to take account of both physical housing—put simply, having a roof over one’s head—and broader cultural considerations such as the concept of a ‘home’. For example, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) explained:
Homelessness is typically conceptualised as a situation in which people are not accessing adequate housing that enables them to make a home. This has necessarily required an understanding of the concept of home, which is often culturally determined. It embraces ideas not only of housing (both its adequacy and security of tenure) but also whether it facilitates good relationships (both with household members and those outside it).
This section outlines the two main definitions used to estimate the homeless population in Australia, and considers evidence received on the adequacy of these definitions, particularly with regard to persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings and boarding houses.
Definitions used in the Australian context
AHURI explained that, in Australia, two definitions of homelessness have dominated—the ‘cultural definition’ and a more recent definition adopted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), hereafter referred to as the ‘statistical definition’. These two definitions are discussed below in turn.
In addition, AHURI noted that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) defines a person at risk of homelessness as:
… a person who is at risk of losing their accommodation or are experiencing one or more factors or triggers that can contribute to homelessness. Risk factors include financial or housing affordability stress, inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions, previous accommodation ended, child abuse, family, sexual and domestic violence, and relationship or family breakdown (AIHW, 2020).
AHURI explained that risk factors can be considered to raise the probability of homelessness occurring, but may not be necessary or sufficient for it to occur, and that other factors can ‘protect or buffer’ people from risks:
Some people are better able to avoid homelessness or exit earlier because of access to financial resources, psychological resources and physical and mental health, as well as relational support (Martin, 2014).
Evidence on risk factors for homelessness is discussed in Chapter 3.
AHURI explained that, prior to the adoption of the statistical definition for the 2011 Census, the ABS used the cultural definition of homelessness, which was based on what were considered to be common cultural expectations of housing needs in Australia:
This meant having, at a minimum, one room to sleep in, one room to live in, one’s own bathroom and kitchen and security of tenure (Chamberlain and MacKenzie 2008).
AHURI explained that three categories of homelessness were defined based on the cultural definition:
primary homeless (people without conventional accommodation, such as rough sleepers or those in improvised dwellings);
secondary homeless (people who frequently move from one temporary shelter to another, such as those in crisis accommodation, youth refuges and couch surfers); and
tertiary homeless (people staying in accommodation that falls below minimum community standards such as boarding housing and caravan parks).
Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation (TCAC) submitted that the fundamental contention underpinning the cultural definition is that homelessness is ‘a relative concept that acquires meaning in relation to the housing conventions of a particular culture’.
St Vincent’s Health Australia suggested that the categories of primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness are ‘fluid’ and that ‘people often cycle between them’.
For the purpose of the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC), the AIHW has adopted a definition of homelessness that aligns closely with primary and secondary homelessness, but which does not include tertiary homelessness. The SHSC is discussed in further detail later in this chapter.
In its submission, the Australian Government outlined the statistical definition of homelessness currently used by the ABS:
According to the ABS, a person is considered homeless if their current living arrangement is in an inadequate dwelling, has no tenure or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable or does not allow the tenant to have control of and access to space for social relations.
An information paper issued by the ABS in 2012 provided further guidance on the three elements of the statistical definition:
the adequacy of the dwelling refers to whether the structure of the dwelling renders it fit for human habitation, and whether the dwelling has access to basic facilities;
the security of tenure in the dwelling refers to a person’s legal right to occupy a dwelling, with stability and security of tenure such as owning or renting with a formal lease or similar right that could be enforced by the tenant (this also includes arrangements such as children living with their parents); and
control of, and access to space for social relations refers to whether a person or household has living space; space to pursue social relations and maintain privacy; and exclusive access to kitchen facilities and a bathroom.
In applying the statistical definition, the ABS identifies the following six categories of homeless persons:
persons living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out (‘sleeping rough’);
persons in supported accommodation for the homeless;
persons staying temporarily with other households (‘couch surfers’);
persons living in boarding houses;
persons in other temporary lodgings; and
persons living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings.
The Australian Government explained that the category of persons ‘sleeping rough’ includes any person in an improvised home, such as a dwelling made of tarp or cardboard, tent or sleeping out on the street, and who reported they were at home or had no usual address.
Similarly, the Government explained that the category of persons in ‘supported accommodation for the homeless’ refers to people living in transitional housing support that is time limited and not long term, such as crisis accommodation.
The categories of persons living in severely crowded dwellings and persons living in boarding houses are discussed in further detail later in this section.
Further background on the statistical definition was provided in the ABS information paper:
Definitions of homelessness are culturally and historically contingent. They range from limited objective measures which conflate homelessness with rooflessness to more equivocal subjective definitions founded on culturally and historically determined ideas of 'home'. The ABS definition of homelessness is informed by an understanding of homelessness as 'home'lessness, not rooflessness. It emphasises the core elements of 'home' in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home… These elements include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent 'home'.
Mr Stephen Collett from the ABS explained to the Committee that the statistical definition was developed in consultation with the Homelessness Statistics Reference Group, which includes ‘members from those agencies that are providing services to the homeless; and state governments, academics and a whole variety of people who work in the area’.
As noted above, the ABS has used the statistical definition since the 2011 Census. Mr Collett said that having a consistent definition assisted the ABS to estimate how the prevalence of homelessness varies over time.
Evidence on definitions
AHURI’s submission to the inquiry outlined a number of critiques of both the cultural and statistical definitions, including that: they potentially understate the full extent of those at risk; they may not reflect people’s lived experience of homelessness; and they are narrowly focused on housing rather than home and ‘have not properly grappled with multi-dimensional experiences of homelessness’.
Several of these points were raised by other submitters. For example, Kids Under Cover submitted:
A broader definition of homelessness is understood as not just a lack of an abode or a roof over one’s head, but rather, it is multidimensional and involves physiological, emotional, territorial, ontological and spiritual deprivations…
Addressing the distinction between shelter and secure housing, the St Vincent de Paul Society argued that this was ‘often conflated, not made or not prioritised’:
Housing is supposed to be secure and it is this that separates it from shelter. Though less secure, shelter has a lower barrier to entry which makes it a more viable option for some. While housing should be the ultimate target, ‘shelter’ is a lower order physiological need and thus a higher priority as it provides protection from the most significant risks associated with homelessness. Achieving broad provision of shelter should be the first step on the path to higher goals, such as universal housing and housing as a human right.
A further critique outlined in AHURI’s submission was that the cultural and statistical definitions of homelessness are both culturally biased. That is:
… because these definitions reference dominant cultural ideas of home, this can make them more problematic for some cultural groups.
As an example, AHURI referred to Indigenous understandings of homelessness, which it said:
… may not necessarily relate to a lack of accommodation and can include ‘spiritual homelessness’ (the state of being disconnected from one’s homeland, separation from family or kinship networks or not being familiar with one’s heritage) and ‘public place dwelling’ or ‘itinerancy’ (usually used to refer to Indigenous people from remote communities who are ‘sleeping rough’ in proximity to a major centre) (Memmott et al. 2003). Indigenous understandings of homelessness can also refer to an inability to access appropriate housing that caters to an individual’s particular social and cultural needs (Birdsall-Jones et al. 2011).
TCAC submitted that while contemporary definitions of homelessness are valuable, these ‘may not adequately explain how the interface between different systems contributes to housing vulnerability and homelessness in Central Australia’.
While acknowledging some more recent efforts to include broader concepts of homelessness, AHURI said that ‘new measures will need to be developed if more multi-dimensional aspects of homelessness are to give a fuller picture of homelessness’.
The City Futures Research Centre (CFRC) at the University of New South Wales explained that, while homeless is often conceptualised as being restricted to rough sleeping:
… it is internationally widely accepted that homelessness cannot be sensibly equated with rough sleeping alone, and that – as a manifestation of extreme housing need – it must be more broadly defined to include – at the very least – those living in shelters, hostels and other temporary housing situations (e.g. sofa surfing).
Further evidence focussed on the inclusion in definitions of homelessness of persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings and boarding houses, as outlined below.
A key difference between the cultural and statistical definitions of homelessness is that only the latter includes persons in severely overcrowded dwellings.
Overcrowding (also referred to as ‘crowding’) occurs when a dwelling is not of an adequate size to meet the needs of the household. AHURI explained that overcrowding can be measured ‘using density, occupancy standards and stress measures’, noting that:
Official measures of overcrowding using occupancy standards utilise a set of normative or cultural standards around a household’s use of a dwelling.
In its submission, the Australian Government explained that in the statistical definition, severe overcrowding is based on the Canadian National Occupancy Standard (CNOS). The CNOS is outlined in Box 2.1.
Box 2.1: Canadian National Occupancy Standard
The CNOS is sensitive to both household size and composition in determining housing requirements. The standard assesses the bedroom requirements of a household by specifying that:
there should be no more than two persons per bedroom;
a household of one unattached individual may reasonably occupy a bed‑sit (i.e. have no bedroom);
couples and parents should have a separate bedroom;
children less than five years of age, of different sexes, may reasonably share a room;
children five years of age or over, of different sexes, should not share a bedroom;
children less than 18 years of age and of the same sex may reasonably share a bedroom; and
single household members aged 18 years or over should have a separate bedroom.
In Australia, the CNOS is used by government agencies such as the ABS, the AIHW, and the Productivity Commission to measure housing utilisation—that is, whether a dwelling is of an adequate size to meet the needs of the household, or is overcrowded or underutilised.
A dwelling that requires one, two or three additional bedrooms to meet the requirements of the CNOS is considered overcrowded, whereas a dwelling that requires four or more additional bedrooms is considered to be severely overcrowded. In the statistical definition, persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings are considered to be homeless.
Mr Collett outlined the ABS’s rationale for including persons in severely overcrowded dwellings in the statistical definition:
In consultation with the [Homelessness Statistics Reference Group], we feel that, if four or more bedrooms are required, then those health and safety requirements are not there—for example, the bathroom facilities aren't going to be adequate for the number of people that are living in the dwelling—and there's also no access to privacy.
Mr Collett acknowledged that some members of the Homelessness Statistics Reference Group did not agree with the decision to include severe overcrowding, but said the decision was made ‘on balance’ after listening to the views of the sector. Mr Collett also advised that in 2011 when the statistical definition was developed the CNOS was an ‘internationally regarded measure of occupancy rates’. He added that ‘we try and keep our definitions as consistent as possible’ in order to make data consistent and comparable over time.
However, the Committee heard that data about persons in severely overcrowded dwellings are not included in the SHSC, which is managed by the AIHW.
The Committee also heard that Australia was an exception among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in including severely overcrowded dwellings in its definition of homelessness. The Australian Government advised:
Most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries include rough sleepers, people living in accommodation for the homeless and in emergency temporary accommodation when defining homelessness. However, Australia is the only country that includes severe crowding and boarding houses in estimating homelessness.
However, the ABS advised that New Zealand includes some instances of overcrowding in its estimates of the homeless population:
These are people who are staying in a severely overcrowded permanent private dwelling (ie. with a deficit of two or more bedrooms) who are not part of the ‘host household’ (ie. the owners or listed tenants).
In its submission, AHURI argued that it was important to consider overcrowding:
Overcrowding matters because it can create conflict in a household, undermine tenant safety, lead to property damage, and contribute to poor social, health and education outcomes.
… Overcrowding has a number of other problematic outcomes, such as overburdening kitchens and toilets, and property damage. This can have adverse impacts on health and tenure security (Habibis et al. 2016). Such health risks associated with overcrowding are heightened in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic…
Similarly, Mission Australia submitted:
It is important to recognise that poor housing conditions and severe overcrowding can contribute to escalating violence and increasing the vulnerability of women and children to abuse and violence from a range of potential perpetrators. Overcrowding can also present as an environmental stressor for people living in such households, including from issues such as a lack of privacy, which can have an impact on mental health, education achievement and communicable diseases.
A striking example of the health impact of overcrowding was given by Ms Christine Fitzgerald, appearing on behalf of the Northern Territory Government. Ms Fitzgerald explained that in the town of Maningrida, east of Darwin, the overcrowding rate is 77 per cent. Ms Fitzgerald went on to discuss the high incidence of rheumatic heart disease in the town, which is known to be linked to environmental factors including crowding:
Just this week a study has been published by Josh Francis, a well-known paediatrician here at the Menzies School of Health Research, and other medical experts. They undertook a survey in 2018 in Maningrida of all five- to 20-year-olds in the population. …In that screening they found 32 young people with rheumatic heart disease; 20 of those 32 had not previously been known. Five of those were incredibly severe cases and three of them had cardiac surgery immediately. That study found another 17 young people who were borderline [rheumatic heart disease], so they were developing it.
Ms Fitzgerald concluded:
That is the highest reported incidence in the world of rheumatic heart disease of any population that has been recorded. That's a shocking statistic for us to have in Australia, and it's a consequence of overcrowding.
In its submission, the Northern Territory Government provided further evidence on the ‘strong and significant impact’ of overcrowding on socio-economic outcomes, including developmental outcomes for children and the incidence of family, domestic and sexual violence.
The Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA) and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) among others also noted detrimental impacts associated with overcrowding.
Submitters drew attention to differing views about the ABS’s inclusion of severe overcrowding in the statistical definition of homelessness. The CFRC explained that this ‘had been a focus for debate’:
Residents enduring such conditions will be, in anyone’s book, experiencing quality of life extremely degraded by absence of adequate housing. Nevertheless, there are legitimate questions about the logic of including overcrowding (even at these levels) as a manifestation of ‘homelessness’.
While in no way downplaying the seriousness of severe crowding as a form of extreme deprivation, Prof Chris Chamberlain, one of Australia’s top homelessness experts (and a foremost advocate for homeless people), argues that this is questionable. The case here is that, for those in the census-identified ‘severely crowded’ cohort, the accommodation concerned is generally considered ‘permanent housing’, not a temporary bedspace – which could be reasonably classed as part of the homelessness [cohort].
… According to the above argument, the ABS inclusion of severely crowded households within the ‘homeless’ population might undermine the credibility of the overall official homelessness total, of which it is part.
The CFRC argued that resolving whether persons living in severely crowded dwellings should be counted as ‘homeless’ is difficult because of the limited information about the circumstances of those persons:
In the absence of such information, it is hard to know how people in these conditions experience serious overcrowding, and the extent to which they see themselves as adequately or permanently housed.
In a submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into homelessness, Professors Chris Chamberlain and Guy Johnson from RMIT University outlined their concerns about the ABS’s treatment of overcrowding:
According to the ABS, there were 24,825 homeless people in Victoria on Census night 2016, and people in severely overcrowded dwellings were the largest group in the population.
… All of those in overcrowded dwellings were at an address where they had lived, or intended to live, for 6 months or longer. They had permanent accommodation. … Having worked in the homeless area for many years, we know that homeless people often move frequently from one form of temporary accommodation to another, others go to emergency accommodation or boarding houses, and some people sleep rough. Homeless people do NOT live permanently in houses and flats.
Professors Chamberlain and Johnson concluded:
… the problem identified by the ABS is NOT homelessness. The problem identified by the ABS is overcrowding.
They also said that the ABS’s decision to define people in households requiring four or more additional bedrooms—but not those requiring three bedrooms—as being homeless was arbitrary and without convincing rationale.
Other evidence addressed the extent to which cultural factors contribute to overcrowding, and how this may be better accounted for in the definition of homelessness. For example, AHURI argued that ‘some caution should be exercised’ when using the CNOS, as:
… CNOS measures presume a western cultural framework for understanding how a household uses a home which are at odds with other cultural perspectives including those from Indigenous and migrant communities. This is a matter of concern since it is precisely these communities that also have high measured rates of overcrowding.
Ms Fitzgerald from the Northern Territory Government told the Committee that the definition of homelessness and the issue of overcrowding should be looked at with a ‘cultural lens’ from the perspective of Indigenous and other culturally and linguistically diverse communities. In relation to overcrowding, Ms Fitzgerald said:
Aboriginal people would probably not see overcrowding in the same context that I would, as a non-Aboriginal person. I might be strict at a far earlier point than an Aboriginal family, who will accommodate more people in their house because that's family land. So the Canadian National Occupancy Standard is a slightly blunt measure, because it's age and relationship that determines it.
AHURI said that the current ‘density measure’ of overcrowding could be adapted or supplemented with ‘subjective stress measures’ that:
… take into account the values and rules of householders that if broken ‘can generate stress and loss of control’ (Memmott et al. 2012). Such measures of overcrowding might reveal that even those experiencing moderate levels of overcrowding are nevertheless under strain. Some forms of overcrowding (including that due to temporary mobility for cultural reasons) may not necessarily be perceived as problematic (Habibis et al. 2011).
AHURI referred to work underway through the Housing and Homelessness Data Working group to consider ways to better measure overcrowding, in which AHURI was taking a leading role.
Mr Adrian Pisarski from National Shelter argued that it was ‘dangerous to confuse cultural practice with overcrowding definitions’:
You might have a desire to live together but you still can live in a severely overcrowded space. I think the thing we want to achieve is housing that is appropriate for people—and that will often mean more bedrooms are required for those people to live in in the way that they want. That's what overcrowding gets to; it's really the shortage of bedrooms.
In a supplementary submission, National Shelter highlighted the issue of severe overcrowding in the Canterbury-Bankstown area of Sydney, and said that the local council in that area had not noted cultural preferences as an explanation, but rather a lack of affordable housing.
National Shelter argued that the ‘definitional bar’ for severe overcrowding set by the ABS was already high, and noted that the ABS’s operationalisation of the definition is intended to:
… rule out many traditional extended family households who may in fact, for cultural, economic or family support reasons elect to live in a dwelling a little small for its needs.
Several submitters further examined the issue of overcrowding with reference to Indigenous communities. For example, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) submitted:
Care should be taken when investigating overcrowding as this concept is based on western assumptions of safe housing and family structures, omitting Aboriginal cultural kinship protocols in relation to raising children communally or caring for extended family members in the same household.
Particular attention should be paid to cases where ‘overcrowding’ is deemed an issue without focusing on alleviating other contributing structural factors and policy failures that contribute to the lack of safe and secure housing… such as affordability, unsafe and unmaintained public housing stock and inadequate facilities, as well as a lack of housing which accommodate families larger than western normative understandings of a nuclear family… Each of these structural problems has been shown to have a greater association with poor wellbeing outcomes for children than overcrowding.
Further evidence on homelessness in Indigenous and other culturally and linguistically diverse communities is discussed in Chapter 3.
CHIA submitted that research on overcrowding in Australia should be undertaken before any change is made to the official homelessness definition, but also stated that:
Irrespective of its inclusion within the official definition of homelessness, severe overcrowding should be a priority for governments to address.
The inclusion of persons living in boarding houses in the statistical definition of homelessness was also discussed in evidence.
The Australian Government explained that:
Boarding house residents are considered homeless if they do not have control of or access to space or privacy, or lack security of tenure. This includes vulnerable residents living in non-private dwellings that do not have exclusive living areas such as a private bathroom.
Halls of residence for students, dwellings for members of religious orders and institutions such as hospitals are not considered boarding houses for homeless purposes because:
they may have chosen to live in these circumstances and have accommodation alternatives or
they are required by law to live in these circumstances or
they are in temporary living arrangements (such as student halls of residence) or
it is essential for their broader health and wellbeing to be living in these situations.
The ABS advised that the Census does not collect sufficient information about individual boarding house residents to determine whether they are homeless:
Instead, the ABS determines whether people are homeless or not for each boarding house as a whole. Factors taken into account in making this determination are variables such as labour force status, student status, income, tenure type, need for assistance with core activities, religion and volunteering. This ensures that occupants of dwellings such as religious convents, student halls of residence or supported living arrangements for people with a disability are not incorrectly classified as homeless.
As with the inclusion of severe overcrowding, Mr Collett from the ABS said the inclusion of persons living in boarding houses in the statistical definition was an ‘on-balance’ decision made in consultation with stakeholders.
Boarding houses as a form of accommodation are also included in the SHSC maintained by the AIHW.
As noted in the previous section, the Australian Government told the Committee that ‘Australia is the only country that includes severe crowding and boarding houses in estimating homelessness’. However, the ABS advised that New Zealand, Canada, the United States of America, Korea and several European Union countries include boarding houses in their definition of homelessness.
The Committee received a range of evidence on the experiences of people living in boarding houses, which gave some insight into the extent to which these people should be considered to be homeless. A common theme in the evidence was that the quality of accommodation provided by boarding houses varies greatly. For example, Ms Marion Bennett from Mission Australia told the Committee:
I think we need to be careful when looking at the term 'boarding houses' in particular. There are good boarding houses and there are bad boarding houses. We work with people who are living in boarding houses who may not be experiencing good outcomes at all. Some of them are substandard and they don't provide the supportive environment that many people need. … But in other cases they can be a really good housing option.
Ms Kate Incerti from the Inner South Rooming House Network expressed concern about the growth in privately operated rooming houses, which she said were increasingly common in outer suburban areas:
Some of them are registered … But they also sometimes have unknown, unregistered places, so services can unwittingly refer ethically and fund people with state funds into the registered places, but then later on we find those owners shuffle people and stand over them and say, 'You have to move into these other places,' which are more hidden. So it's a really disreputable space at times…
The City of Melbourne said that many international students were living in ‘unregistered rooming house-type accommodation that is exploitative and overcrowded’:
People living in illegal rooming houses have limited and insecure tenure, limited access to social space, shared bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms and often experience discriminatory tenancy practices and high rents.
The Committee had the benefit of hearing from Ms Maurya Bourandanis about her lived experience as a resident in seven rooming houses over a period of three years. She explained that in five of the rooming houses she had lived in she was the only female:
At … two rooming houses I was told to stay in my room as much as possible, to only use the shared bathroom and if I wanted to use the kitchen to do so quickly and otherwise please stay in my room as some of these men don't like women. On many occasions I felt safer sleeping in the park than going back there.
Ms Bourandanis said her experience was characterised by a lack of control:
… I never felt like I had control. Every time I was in a rooming house, it was on a fortnightly basis, I felt like. I had no stability there. They could tell me to leave if they wanted to for some reason. I didn't have any security at all. It just felt like it was fortnight, fortnight, fortnight.
Ms Bourandanis told the Committee that her situation began to improve when she entered a rooming house which facilitated her access to support services.
Ms Incerti explained how the lack of control experienced by Ms Bourandanis related to the ABS’s definition of homelessness:
… when Maurya described being told to stay in her room and not go to the communal areas and she had no control over who she was living with, no control over whether or not the bathroom had a lock on it or was properly maintained, and no control over whether someone locked the house doors and locked everybody in, these are the sorts of things that make that definition fit that space because, even if you do have a form of tenure and even though your initial tenure may be extendable, it is in a dwelling that's inadequate; it doesn't allow you to have control over the shared spaces; and it barely lets you have control over accessing your own room.
This section considers the prevalence of homelessness in Australia and highlights trends in the data on homelessness discussed in evidence to the inquiry. It concludes with a discussion on suggested improvements to data collection and reporting.
Numbers, rates and trends
According to the ABS, there were 116,427 people classified as being homeless on the night of the 2016 Census, which was up from 102,439 people in 2011. This overall figure included:
51,088 people living in severely overcrowded dwellings;
21,235 people living in supported accommodation for the homeless;
17,725 people staying temporarily with other households;
17,503 people staying in boarding houses;
8,200 people sleeping rough; and
678 people staying in other temporary lodging.
The Committee notes that these figures will be re-examined at the next Census due in 2021.
The Unison Housing Research Lab at RMIT University stressed that increases in the homeless population should be understood in the context of changes in the population (emphasis in original):
From a policy perspective the critical measure is not the number of homeless people per se, or the percentage increase, but rather the rate of homelessness, because rates take into account population growth.
The Australian Government stated in its submission that while the number of homeless people increased over the 2001 to 2016 period, the rate of homelessness per 10,000 people decreased. It explained that this reduction was more pronounced ‘if Australia’s definition of homelessness is more closely aligned with other countries’ (that is, if persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings and boarding houses are excluded):
From 2001 to 2016, including severe crowding and boarding houses, the estimated rate of homelessness per 10,000 people dropped slightly by 2.0 per cent, from 50.8 people to 49.8 people.
… Over this same period, excluding severe crowding and boarding houses, Australia’s estimated rate of homelessness per 10,000 drops by 5.1 per cent, from 21.6 people to 20.5 people.
The Australian Government noted that while the overall rate of homelessness has remained relatively stable, growth in the rate of homelessness varies across Australia, ‘reflecting the different social and economic circumstances’ of the states and territories. Table 2.1 provides data on the numbers and rate of homelessness by state and territory.
Table 2.1: Number of homeless persons and rate of homeless persons per 10,000 of the population, by state and territory of usual residence
Source: Department of Social Services (multi-agency submission), Submission 57, p. 13.
While the data in Table 2.1 show that the rate of homelessness in the Northern Territory has decreased more than in other states and territories, it remains disproportionately high. This is mostly due to the high level of severe overcrowding—the rate of severe overcrowding is 20 times higher in the Northern Territory than in New South Wales, the state with the second highest rate.
Trends highlighted in the Australian Government’s submission included that homelessness is increasing in major cities, both in absolute numbers and on a per capita basis, and that severe overcrowding has driven the growth in homelessness:
Since 2001, the rate of people living in severe crowding increased by 22.5 per cent from 17.8 per 10,000 of the population to 21.8 per 10,000 in 2016.
Nationally, the majority (60.4 per cent) of persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings live in greater capital city areas, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. However, in the Northern Territory the overwhelming majority live outside the capital city area.
The ABS also provided information on previous experience of homelessness based on the results of the General Social Survey (GSS) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS):
The 2014 GSS found that 2.5 million people aged 15 years and over had experienced homelessness at some time in their lives. About 1.4 million of these people had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the last 10 years, of which 351,000 had experienced homelessness in the last 12 months.
… The NATSISS found that 29% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over had experienced homelessness during their lifetime. People in non-remote areas were significantly more likely than those in remote areas to have experienced homelessness (32% compared with 18%).
Further insight into the prevalence of homelessness was provided by the AIHW based on the SHSC. The SHSC comprises data about people who were supported by specialist homelessness service (SHS) agencies because they were experiencing homelessness or were at risk of homelessness.
In 2018–19, around 290,300 clients sought assistance from SHS agencies, equating to 116.2 clients per 10,000 population. Around 112,000 clients were homeless when their support began:
Of these, around 53,000 were male, and just under 59,000 were female. Around 43,000 were couch surfing (staying in a house, townhouse or flat without tenure), a similar amount in short-term accommodation and around 24,000 rough sleeping.
However, most SHS clients who received support during 2018-19 were at risk of homelessness, rather than homeless, when their support began, and the majority of these were assisted to maintain housing.
SHS agencies provided around 7 million nights of accommodation in 2018‑19, with a median of 29 nights per client. Other services and assistance provided by SHS agencies included advice and information, advocacy and liaison services, and material aid and brokerage.
Many other submitters gave evidence on the prevalence of homelessness in Australia and trends in the available data.
AHURI submitted that both the number of homeless persons and the rate of homelessness increased significantly from 2006 to 2016, following the Global Financial Crisis. It said there has been ‘strong growth’ in the numbers of persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings, temporary lodgings, supported accommodation, and boarding houses, and persons rough sleeping.
AHURI explained that for most people who experience homelessness it is a ‘fleeting experience … managed through the assistance of family and friends’. However, for others—particularly those with less family support in childhood, shorter work histories and lower education—periods of homelessness can endure for months or years. It added:
There is evidence of path dependence, with those who are housed more likely to remain housed, while those who are homeless are more likely to remain homeless. The likelihood of exit from homelessness declines over time; the longer a person remains in homelessness the less likely they are to escape. Rough sleepers are especially at risk of repeat homelessness…
AHURI also argued that the number at risk of homelessness is rising. It said the level of homelessness ‘understates the degree to which many housed Australians might also face stresses that can put them at risk of homelessness’.
CHIA linked the increase in homelessness to what it said was a ‘much wider housing market problem’:
Unless this is tackled, then while we may devise better ways of assisting affected individuals, the fundamental causes of rising homelessness will remain unaddressed. Not only will the flow of newly homeless households continue to grow, but many of those assisted will once again find themselves in need of help.
Similarly, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre submitted:
Australia has the second highest rate of homelessness in the OECD, following only New Zealand, despite our record of uninterrupted strong economic growth over nearly three decades. This is partially explained by the broad definition of homelessness used in Australia compared to some OECD countries, but is also the consequence of a systemic policy failure.
In particular, our poor record on homelessness can be explained by two factors… first, a housing system that does not function for people on lower incomes, and second, an inadequate social security safety net.
Anglicare Australia drew the Committee’s attention to its Rental Affordability Snapshot, which it said ‘shows how close many renters on low incomes are to homelessness’.
Further evidence on the drivers of homelessness is discussed in Chapter 3.
As noted above, evidence to the inquiry highlighted the fact that severe overcrowding has driven the growth in homelessness. National Shelter submitted that severe overcrowding is ‘one of the most common forms of insecure housing in Australia’.
AHURI explained in further detail:
There has been a 62 per cent increase in the number of persons in severely overcrowded dwellings as part of the ABS measurements of homelessness between 2006 and 2016. Related to this is the high number of marginally housed persons—these people are in less severely crowded dwellings or marginal housing types like improvised dwellings or caravan parks—many people who occupy these often insecure tenures are at risk of homelessness. Persons living in other crowded dwellings has increased by 88 per cent from 2006 to 2016 (ABS, 2016).
National Shelter pointed out that the category of persons living in severely crowded dwellings was the largest homeless group in each of the last four Censuses.
Based on ABS data, AHURI explained that severe overcrowding mainly occurs in detached and rental dwellings and in families and multiple family households, and that people in overcrowded dwellings are mainly Indigenous, young, tertiary students and migrants.
Evidence to the inquiry also discussed the overrepresentation of particular groups in the broader homeless population.
AHURI explained that homeless persons are disproportionately male, Indigenous, young (15 to 24 years old), and unemployed or not in the labour force.
The significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people was a particular focus in evidence to the inquiry. For example, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress submitted:
On Census night in 2016, 1 in 28 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were homeless (an estimated total of 23,437 across Australia), about ten times the rate for non-Indigenous people.
Similarly, in a joint submission, CatholicCare NT and the University of South Australia said:
While Indigenous Australians are 3.3% of the Australian population, they are represented disproportionately across a breadth of social indicators. At the national level 20% of people experiencing homelessness are Aboriginal. In the Northern Territory that figure is 88%.
NT Shelter described the situation in the Northern Territory as ‘particularly dire, with 12 times the national rate of homelessness and a front line homelessness service response that is severely overstretched’:
The effect of this is a disproportionate burden on Aboriginal persons which impedes progress on closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
NT Shelter said that ‘[d]ecades of neglect of Aboriginal communities has resulted in too few houses being constructed to support a growing and ageing population’.
AHURI added that Indigenous people are disproportionately exposed to risk factors such as family and domestic violence, mental illness, drug and alcohol issues, discharge into homelessness from institutions, unemployment, overcrowding, trauma and poverty.
Another trend highlighted in evidence was the growth in homelessness among older women. For example, the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group explained that between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses, there was a 31 per cent increase in homelessness among older women. However, it also said the number of older women experiencing homelessness is likely to be under-reported:
…due to the hidden nature of their homelessness; that is, staying with friends or family, house-sitting, living in their car or remaining in at-risk situations.
AHURI advised that older women are particularly at risk of homelessness due to their lower levels of savings and disadvantaged position in the labour market.
The national alliance of women’s organisations, economic Security4Women, warned that the number of older women being homeless was likely to continue to increase:
For older women this is the first time that they are experiencing this and it was never a consideration for them—that this might be them. Contributing factors include not being financially independent, having a small amount of or no savings, the ending of a relationship due to death, divorce, escaping finally [sic] violence. Given the growing ageing population, the shortage of affordable housing and women’s financial disadvantage, the number of older women is likely to increase further.
While acknowledging the significant percentage increase in homelessness among older Australians, the Unison Housing Research Lab, advised, drawing on figures in Victoria, that the rate of homelessness has increased the most among people aged 19 to 24 years and that young people are over-represented in the homeless population, while older people are not.
Family and domestic violence was raised in evidence as a risk factor mainly affecting women, along with children and young people. The AIHW identified people experiencing family and domestic violence as ‘one of the largest cohorts’ of SHS clients:
In 2018–19, around 40% of all SHS clients (116,000 people) had experienced family and domestic violence, up from around 92,000 in 2014–15. The majority of these clients in 2018–19 were women (66,000 aged 18 years and over) and children (42,700 clients aged under 18 years) and most (63%) were at risk of homelessness rather than homeless (37%).
Domestic Violence Victoria told the Committee:
Family violence is the most common reason that women and children become homeless.
This was corroborated by the Salvation Army, among other submitters, who advised that family and domestic violence remains the primary factor in women and their children seeking its homelessness services.
Further evidence on risk factors and the experiences of vulnerable groups is discussed in Chapter 3.
Other submitters discussed geographic trends in the homeless population. For example, the Salvation Army explained that almost half of all rough sleepers are concentrated in capital cities—particularly Sydney and Melbourne.
Link Housing, one of the largest community housing providers in metropolitan Sydney, submitted:
Capital cities account for just under two-thirds of all homelessness nationally and it is rising most in those areas with a shortage of affordable private rental housing and higher median rents. This is most acute in Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne. There is a high correlation between overcrowding in capital cities with weak labour markets and poorer areas that have a higher than average concentration of males and areas that are more culturally and linguistically diverse.
The City of Whittlesea (in outer Melbourne) said that a ‘large portion’ of the homeless population in the city is ‘invisible’, residing in ‘inadequate housing such as overcrowded environments or in temporary arrangements with others’.
AHURI noted that while most people who are homeless live in cities, the rates of homelessness are highest in remote areas. However, it also said that both numbers and rates of homelessness in major cities are increasing, which is linked to overcrowding in those areas. Overall, it said homelessness was becoming more geographically spread out:
This is mainly because the population is moving away from regional and remote areas (where rates are high) towards cities, and homeless people in cities are increasingly less likely to be in inner city areas and more likely to be in outer suburbs where cheaper accommodation might be found (Parkinson et al. 2019, Wood et al. 2015).
A number of submitters also discussed the increase in demand on SHS agencies. For example, Homelessness NSW explained:
SHSs have experienced an unprecedented increase in demand due to the increase in homelessness in NSW and inadequate funding to meet these needs.
… NSW has now reached the point where more people who need crisis accommodation do not receive it (21,552) than those who do (18,000). And even if supported by a homelessness service, two in three clients will still be without long term accommodation or housing.
AHURI also explained that service usage has increased, which it said reflected the growth in homelessness and the risk of homelessness:
There has been an increase in service usage from 255,700 clients during 2014‑15 to 290,300 clients in 2018-19. Over this period, the rate of usage has increased from 108.9 clients per 10,000 population to 116.2 clients per 10,000 population.
The Salvation Army, one of Australia’s largest SHS providers, advised that demand for its services increased 4.2 per cent in 2018-19 from the year before.
Impact of COVID-19
Evidence on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on homelessness was discussed in the Committee’s interim report, Shelter in the storm – COVID-19 and homelessness, which was presented to the Parliament in October 2020.
Since that time, other reports have considered the implications of the pandemic for housing and homelessness in Australia.
In a report published in February 2021, the CFRC wrote:
The onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic followed on from a period of rising homelessness and housing stress in Australia, especially in the pressured markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. However, despite the almost instant loss of over 800,000 jobs due to the March 2020 national lockdown, no measurable rise in new homelessness at once resulted. In Q3 2020 the number of people being provided with homelessness services across Australia remained slightly below that for Q1 2020, immediately prior (in large part) to the pandemic.
The CFRC found that emergency accommodation programs to provide housing for rough sleepers and people in shelters had reduced street homelessness to ‘residual levels’ in some Australian cities. However, these programs had had only modest success in transitioning people into longer-term tenancies.
In addition, the CFRC noted that with temporary income and eviction-protection measures due to be phased out, it was ‘highly likely’ that homelessness would rise during 2021.
Data collection and reporting
The main sources of data about homelessness in Australia include the Census conducted by the ABS and the SHSC managed by the AIHW, along with other surveys such as the GSS and the NATSISS. Other sources include counts of rough sleepers conducted by city councils and longitudinal studies of persons who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA), the Australian Government and state and territory governments are jointly responsible for ‘collecting and sharing data, including a commitment to provide data for the development of a nationally consistent data set and a commitment to the continuous improvement of data’.
The NHHA establishes a Housing and Homelessness Data Working Group, an advisory body of government officials and expert advisors, to pursue improvements in data collection and reporting through a Housing and Homelessness Data Improvement Plan.
While noting that it had not been formalised, Dr Gabrielle Phillips from the AIHW outlined the possible scope of the Data Improvement Plan:
Some of the work that we're intending to do under that with the states and territories includes… continuing to work on consistent definitions between the various collections. We're looking at improving the social housing data, particularly in the growing community housing sector. …We're really interested in working on methodologies to understand how people interact with services over time. We're also very interested in looking at how we work through what the long-term outcomes are for people, particularly for those people that seem to cycle in and out of homelessness and being at risk, and understanding better the pathways of clients between the social support options that are there.
In addition, as noted above in the discussion of severe overcrowding, AHURI advised that the Housing and Homelessness Data Working Group is considering ways to improve the measurement of overcrowding.
The Committee received a range of evidence on limitations of current approaches to data collection and reporting, along with some suggestions for improvements, as outlined below.
Census of Population and Housing
The Census is a point-in-time survey conducted every five years, from which estimates of homelessness are derived. The last Census was in August 2016 and the next Census will be in August 2021. Detailed information about the Census and how it is used to calculate estimates of persons who are homeless or marginally housed is available on the ABS website.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Government outlined some limitations of using the Census approach:
One of the key challenges is the ability to fully operationalise, with a limited number of Census questions, the full range of conceptual aspects that define homelessness. Individual responses are essentially proxy measures of the adequacy of current living arrangements. Census is also likely to underestimate key populations of interest such as youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons, or those displaced due to domestic and family violence.
It also said that ‘emergent living arrangements’ may be difficult for the Census approach to detect, giving the example of residences which appear to be separate dwellings but are in fact boarding houses with shared facilities.
Numerous other submissions to the inquiry raised concerns about the undercounting of particular categories of homeless persons in the Census.
AHURI suggested that the Census may undercount the extent of overcrowding by excluding visitors. Further, it said:
There is a need for better collection and management of data on the direction, volume and duration of Indigenous population movement, and of the motives and demographic composition of the individuals involved. In addition, there is a need to better capture temporary movement in homelessness measures in the Census.
The CFRC, citing Professor Chris Chamberlain from RMIT University, said:
… the ABS did not collect sufficient information in the 2016 census to enumerate people living in physically inadequate dwellings, nor to identify renters lacking security of tenure, nor those experiencing domestic violence.
In a submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into homelessness, Professor Chamberlain and Professor Guy Johnson, also from RMIT, argued that the Census undercounts three categories: persons staying with other households; rough sleepers; and persons living in boarding houses. They estimated that in Victoria the undercount was at least 8,400 people.
In relation to rough sleepers, Professors Chamberlain and Johnson raised concerns with the ABS’s reliance on service providers to identify ‘hot spots’ and the use of street counts. They said it was ‘obvious’ that the Census leads to an underestimate, and suggested that in Victoria the number of rough sleepers could ‘easily have been double the figure identified’.
The CFRC suggested it was a ‘practical reality that a street count methodology can never fully enumerate’ rough sleepers. Further, it said:
… it is a critically important fact that the cohort sleeping rough on any given night is not a fixed group of people. Rather, it is a shifting population that usually includes a proportion of long-term chronic rough sleepers, alongside others lacking settled housing and therefore liable to cycle in and out of actual rooflessness. Point-in-time enumeration therefore understates the numbers experiencing this form of extreme deprivation over any time period.
Dr Simon Quilty, a specialist physician with experience working in remote areas of the Northern Territory, said there are ‘clear holes’ in the ABS’s collection of data in towns such as Katherine:
… for instance in the last census, a critical staff member was ill and did not collect data on homeless people living rough in Katherine.
Yfoundations, the NSW peak body representing young people at risk of and experiencing homelessness, said that while obtaining accurate data is crucial, currently there are ‘many limitations to the accuracy of homelessness data’. It expressed concern about the enumeration of couch surfers:
Unfortunately they may not be counted as homeless due to the confusion over the ‘usual address’ question in the Census. One way around this would be to add an option, which asks, “What is the relationship of this person to Person 1?” Adding the responses “Person staying temporarily due to housing crisis/instability”. This would allow for a clearer picture of those potentially couch surfing.
Yfoundations also made a suggestion to improve the measurement of overcrowding:
Currently, only 6 people per household can complete the paper version of the Census form, and up to 10 people can complete the online form. To capture overcrowding data there should be no limit on the online form, so to better capture overcrowded accommodation.
The Youth Affairs Council of South Australia argued that the number of young people experiencing homelessness was higher than as reported in the Census, highlighting the ‘vast numbers of “invisible homelessness” not counted in the official statistics’.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Authority submitted that many Indigenous people do not participate in the Census and are therefore not counted:
Whilst the participation rate has increased during recent Census periods due to additional resources provided by government for the process, the ‘gaps’ and levels of disadvantage would still be much greater than reported. There are several reasons for this including the fear and mistrust of government agencies and historical government policies that have impacted on their health and well-being and sustainability of culture, family and kinships.
Similarly, Dr Quilty said that Indigenous people will ‘run and hide’ from government officials, and suggested that the extremely high incidence of homelessness in the Katherine region was ‘almost certainly’ an underestimate.
TCAC gave evidence that its own population study had resulted in a significantly higher estimate of the population in the Alice Springs town camps than the ABS’s estimate. It suggested that the ‘use of local Aboriginal people to conduct this research meant that residents were prepared to share information’:
It is recognised by TCAC that the model of remote public housing and rent collection influences the preparedness for people to report additional household members to government agencies.
TCAC said it and the ABS were ‘planning to collaborate on strategies for the improvement of data collection’. In a supplementary submission, it recommended that the Australian and the Northern Territory Governments work to strengthen population estimates in collaboration with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and consider the impact of mobility on populations.
Compass Housing Services, a community housing provider, argued that, in contrast to the Census which is household-based, ‘[t]he nature of homelessness is to be partly invisible and is not usually household based’. It went on:
In reality, the true figure of homelessness cannot be attained, and all methods will result in a degree of under-estimation.
The Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union raised concerns about undercounting of women who are escaping family and domestic violence, Indigenous people living in overcrowded households, rough sleepers, and youth homeless. It recommended a review of how the Census can best capture homelessness.
In its submission to the inquiry, the ABS listed ‘key enhancements’ planned for the next Census:
To increase the use of administrative data from state and territory governments to better identify people in supported accommodation, boarding houses, and those brokered to stay in hotels and motels.
To differentiate the tenure of supported accommodation, i.e., whether short-term (crisis) or medium/longer term.
To improve the Census forms by adding more instructions to guide homeless couch surfers and those in overcrowded dwellings on how to participate and how to answer the 'usual address' question.
To consider the inclusion of "Australian Defence Force service status" and "Usual address one year ago" questions on the shorter Census form used for counting rough sleepers (dependent on the outcome of interviewer testing). Family homelessness will also be new information collected from the shorter Census form.
To engage earlier with the homelessness sector to promote early Census awareness and support, especially for recruitment of sector staff to assist with the homelessness enumeration.
Specialist Homelessness Services Collection
The SHSC is a collection of data about people who were supported by SHS agencies because they were experiencing homelessness or were at risk of homelessness. The AIHW collects data directly from SHS agencies and produces ‘a range of nationally consistent data products’ which are shared with SHS agencies and governments providing funding and support to these agencies. An overview of the SHSC is included in the AIHW’s submission to this inquiry.
The AIHW explained that the ‘person-centred natured’ of the SHSC means that it facilitates longitudinal analysis of SHS clients:
Clients of SHS may receive multiple support periods in a single financial year, or may receive more than one support period over a number of years. Analysing SHS client data over a longer time period provides much richer insights into patterns of service use among SHS clients.
As an example, the AIHW noted its Older clients of specialist homelessness services report, which analysed data about 86,000 clients aged 55 or older who received SHS services in the period from 2013-14 to 2017-18.
The AIHW advised that it is ‘planning for more regular reporting of the longitudinal data to improve the information available for policy development and service delivery design’.
Compass Housing Services described SHS client data as providing a ‘relatively robust method of updating census material’.
The Unison Housing Research Lab said that while SHS data is often used as a proxy measure of the prevalence of homelessness and its characteristics, ‘there are several compelling reasons to treat claims relying on SHS data with some caution’ (emphasis in original):
First, most of the people who access homelessness services are housed when they first present – indeed in Victoria nearly two thirds (62%) are. Second, SHS data captures only those that use homelessness services and many homeless people, possibly nearly half, do not (ABS, 2014). Third, homelessness agencies collect information on the main reasons people seek assistance and this information has been erroneously used to explain the causes of homelessness (FaHCSIA 2008). Cause cannot be inferred from SHS data because presenting reasons often mask underlying problems. Finally, while the number of people accessing homelessness services has consistently increased over the last 10 years, the increase is very strongly correlated with funding increases.
Similarly, the CFRC cautioned in the use of administrative data to ‘measure the scale and changing quantum of housing need’:
For example, an awareness that the capacity of advice and assistance services is increasingly stretched will likely discourage people with housing problems from seeking such help.
It cited an estimate that administrative data may omit around 60 per cent of homeless people who do not seek help. Nevertheless, it said that this data could provide information about the circumstances that prompted requests for assistance, which could in turn inform policy responses.
In its submission the AIHW noted some limitations of the SHSC, including that it ‘does not include the needs of the estimated 253 requests for support per day throughout 2018–19 who could not be offered assistance for a range of reasons’. In addition, the AIHW said:
… there is limited data on the capacity of the SHS sector, for example, the number of short-term accommodation places or the staff capacity delivering support services. There is no regular national SHS workforce data collection nor information about availability measures. SHSC data are also limited to those people who receive support as an SHS funded client – there are [a] range of additional support services provided by the non-government sector that are provided beyond the SHS funded services.
The Northern Territory Government submitted that ‘the unassisted persons portion of the [SHSC] has the potential to provide key outcome data on the level of unmet need, including what types of required services cannot be provided’. However, it said it had received feedback from SHS providers that there was complexity and a lack of clarity in the reporting process.
The ACT Government also suggested that understanding the extent of unmet need was one of the challenges for the SHSC. It said that the evidence base for understanding demand for assistance had improved with the introduction of intake and referral services:
… it is these intake and referral services that offer the best hope for understanding service need and unmet need. A national evaluation of their contribution to … improved evidence regarding homelessness and to outcomes for people who seek homelessness assistance would be highly valuable to inform future policy setting[s] for this sector.
The ACT Government also highlighted the issue of casual clients, who do not establish an ongoing support relationship with the homelessness agency and generally receive assistance for less than one hour on a given day. It said that while the collection of data about these clients ceased with the introduction of the SHSC in 2011:
… in responding to COVID19, casual client contacts have become an important source of information on emerging need for assistance.
It noted that a national casual client data collection for homelessness is not included under the NHHA, which reflects ‘the concerns of a pre-COVID19 environment’.
Pride Foundation Australia submitted that the SHSC does not contain fields to record information about a client’s LGBTQI status:
This lack of appropriate data collection on LGBTIQ people accessing homelessness services has been repeatedly identified as a challenge in effectively addressing this issue, understanding prevalence and trends (especially among highly vulnerable subgroups and intersectional experiences), and providing inclusive services that are sufficiently targeted to identify and meet specific needs (McNair, Andrews et al. 2017, Andrews and McNair 2020).
It said that data collection that includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex variations should be mandatory and linked with service funding agreements.
Bolton Clarke Homeless Persons Program highlighted the importance of holistic assessments of needs and the recognition of underlying disabilities and chronic health issues. It noted that acquired brain injury is not recognised in the SHSC.
The Salvation Army identified a number of areas for improvement with respect to the SHSC, including:
easier access for SHS agencies to obtain client data (individual and aggregate) at the centre, state and national levels;
standardised use of reporting variables in reports and publications to avoid confusion;
changes to ensure that data collection is cohesive and more concise, and also more consistent over time; and
presentation of data or client counts to be based on one adult/head person in the household to better understand representation of certain demographic groups.
The Mornington Peninsula Shire Council said that while data collection and publication is improving, there is ‘room for substantial improvement to further assist local government planning’ for housing and homelessness services. It called on the AIHW to publish more data, including SHSC data, at the local government level.
The CFRC stressed the importance of the SHSC for informing efforts to prevent homelessness from occurring:
Given its fundamental role as a simple enumeration device, the census cannot help us here. Since the key challenge is to stem the flow of newly homeless people, the cohort on which to concentrate is not so much those homeless at a point in time, but those who are newly experiencing the problem. Therefore, the most important data source here is not the census, but the AIHW system that records requests for assistance logged by homelessness service providers.
In this context, it suggested three improvements:
enhancing the classification of clients’ reasons for seeking assistance—particularly in relation to the ‘apparently somewhat rubbery category of “housing crisis”’;
unique identification of clients to reduce double counting; and
addition of a geographic indicator enabling spatial analysis of demand for services.
A coalition of organisations including Upstream Australia made a number of recommendations to improve data collected for SHS clients to ‘more explicitly inform outcomes and outcomes improvement’.
Other homelessness and housing-related data
The Committee received other suggestions for improvements to the collection and reporting of homelessness data, as well as broader housing-related data.
Compass Housing Services suggested there may be a need for a review of current arrangements with respect to homelessness data, and proposed the establishment of an independent body with responsibility for developing and administering effective data protocols.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children highlighted a lack of data linking homelessness with health and morbidity, and also called for research on the energy efficiency and climate suitability of affordable rental stock.
To support the development of a gendered homeless and housing policy, economic Security4Women recommended that collection of mainstream homelessness and housing data be disaggregated by sex.
VACCA highlighted a lack of Indigenous sovereignty over data in the housing and homelessness sector. It said:
Self-determination underpins data sovereignty where Aboriginal people have a fundamental right to the collection, intellectual property and application of data regarding them.
Mission Australia suggested that some state and territory collected information is not consistent across the country. It also noted limited availability of information about people on waiting lists for social housing and people exiting from public housing.
Specifically in relation to housing data, the ABS and AIHW advised that they collate a range of information about housing utilisation, housing affordability, social housing, and home purchase and rent assistance programs.
The AIHW identified ‘a number of long standing issues’ affecting the quality of community housing and Indigenous community housing data collections, which it said ‘make it difficult to understand the profile and comparative performance of the community housing sector’. The AIHW suggested improvements to:
the alignment of terminology, concepts, definitions and counting rules across community housing reporting requirements;
the efficiency of collection, collation and reporting of community housing data; and
data sharing arrangements and coordination across reporting systems.
CHIA argued there is ‘considerable scope’ for improvements in housing data. It said there is an absence of data on housing needs across Australia and suggested that Australia should work towards a publication similar to the annual UK Housing Review. It also said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the limited availability of data on tenant evictions.
The CFRC also highlighted the need for better data on tenant evictions:
The basis for such statistics would be the case records held by the tenancy tribunals that govern tenancy repossession cases across Australia.
It said that state and territory governments should ensure these statistics are published routinely and, ideally, in accordance with a common framework administered by the AIHW.
A number of submissions addressed the issue of data linkage. The AIHW explained that data linkage can be ‘used to explore service use patterns and pathways, both targeted and broader outcomes for priority populations, and broader social impact and investment prioritisation’, and provided some examples of linked data in its submission.
While noting the establishment of enduring national data sets in other sectors, the AIHW advised that there is currently no linked longitudinal data set in the housing and homelessness sector:
Given the intersections between housing and health, the asset could include the data domains including income support payments, health and homelessness services use and social housing. Such an asset would provide valuable insights into the intersection between health and homelessness, and the pathways through housing-related support services.
The Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne also identified an opportunity to link national administrative health and homelessness data. That such data has not been linked and analysed, it said, hindered ‘system-wide capacity to develop evidenced-based approaches to prevent homelessness and its profound effects’.
To support a response to youth homelessness, including investment in early intervention and rapid rehousing, Upstream Australia recommended among other measures a research and development project that would link:
… school data, data on risk of homelessness, SHS homelessness data, social housing data and data on the private rental market to map the geographical patterns that would inform a place-based reorientation of youth policy and programs, especially youth homelessness.
The City of Hobart submitted:
Better access to and sharing of information, data and statistics would be beneficial at the local government level, to allow greater intervention and informed policy to help alleviate housing stress in local communities.
Prevention and early intervention are discussed in further detail in Chapter 4.
Governance and funding
This section gives an overview of the roles and responsibilities of the three levels of government in relation to homelessness, as well as the role of social housing and the specialist homelessness services sector. The section then reviews evidence on the NHHA and other funding and governance arrangements, and concludes with a consideration of other relevant Australian Government initiatives.
Overview of government responsibilities
State and territory governments have primary responsibility for the provision of housing and homelessness services. This includes providing public housing and increasing levels of community housing in their jurisdictions.
However, a strong theme in evidence to the inquiry was that responsibility for policies that impact upon housing (and therefore homelessness) is in reality spread across all three levels of government. This was explained in a submission from the Northern Territory Government:
In a broad sense, the Australian Government has leverage over the demand side and how affordable the housing market is as they control policy levers related to programs, subsidies and incentives for investors, renters and prospective home owners… These levers also include determining the extent to which welfare payments are adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living (including housing affordability) … States, territories and local governments have levers related to the supply of housing, including land release, planning policy and social and affordable housing provision.
An overview of the housing policy levers controlled by the different levels of government, based on a brief published on AHURI’s website, is provided in Table 2.2.
Table 2.2: Housing policy responsibilities of the three levels of government
Housing demand (including tax incentives and migration policy).
Social housing investment.
Major infrastructure funding.
Funding public housing and transferring housing to community housing providers.
Major infrastructure funding.
Taxes and duties.
Source: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute
National Housing and Homelessness Agreement
Recognising its shared responsibility in the area of housing and homelessness, the Australian Government supports states and territories to improve housing and homelessness outcomes, primarily through the NHHA, an inter-governmental agreement which commenced on 1 July 2018.
Other roles for the Australian Government include encouraging investment in social housing provided by community housing providers through the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), the provision of Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA), and support for Indigenous housing. These are discussed later in this chapter.
The NHHA acknowledges that the Australian Government and state and territory governments:
… have a mutual interest in improving housing outcomes across the housing spectrum, including outcomes for Australians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and need to work together to achieve those outcomes.
The NHHA also acknowledges broader factors outside the scope of the Agreement that impact on the housing market:
… including Commonwealth and State tax settings, financial sector regulation, immigration, income support and rental subsidies.
Roles and responsibilities of the Australian Government and state and territory governments as set out in the NHHA are listed in Table 2.3.
Table 2.3: Roles and responsibilities set out in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement
NHHA provides funding to states and monitors performance.
Income support and Commonwealth Rent Assistance for low-income people.
Providing Government own-purpose housing and homelessness related programs and services.
Publishing and implementing a homelessness strategy to address priority cohorts.
Funding homelessness services to support local needs.
Collecting data from homelessness service providers.
Providing an annual expenditure breakdown, disaggregated by priority homelessness cohorts.
Social housing and homelessness services, administration and delivery to support local needs.
Housing, homelessness and housing affordability policy.
Identifying and sharing best practices and policy for housing, homelessness and housing affordability.
Collecting and sharing data.
Setting joint priorities for evaluation and research.
Source: Department of Social Services (multi-agency submission), Submission 57, p. 7.
Under the NHHA, the Australian Government provides an ongoing contribution of approximately $1.6 billion per year to state and territory governments, including around $125 million to be set aside for homelessness services, which is required to be matched by states and territories. The balance of the Australian Government contribution (referred to in the Agreement as ‘general funding’) can be allocated to either housing or homelessness services. Evidence on funding arrangements is discussed later in this chapter.
The Australian Government submitted that the NHHA improves transparency and accountability, as state and territory governments are required to have publicly available housing strategies, have homelessness strategies that address priority cohorts, and (as noted earlier in this chapter) contribute to improved data collection and reporting to improve comparability.
The national priority homelessness cohorts identified under the NHHA (which the Australian Government noted are not mutually exclusive) are:
women and children affected by family and domestic violence;
children and young people;
people experiencing repeat homelessness;
people exiting institutions and care into homelessness; and
The NHHA also provides that state and territory governments may identify other priority homelessness cohorts.
Evidence about vulnerable groups, including those groups identified under the NHHA, is discussed in detail in Chapter 3.
The NHHA also sets out three homelessness priority policy reform areas, which ‘should be incorporated into [state and territory] homelessness strategies’ where appropriate to each state and territory’s needs:
Achieving better outcomes for people, setting out how the desired outcomes for individuals will be measured (may include a focus on priority groups, economic and social participation);
Early intervention and prevention, including through mainstream services, setting out actions being taken through homelessness services and mainstream services (may include a focus on particular client groups or services); and
Commitment to service program and design, that is evidence and research-based, that shows what evidence and research was used to design responses to homelessness and how responses/strategies will be evaluated.
The Committee received submissions from most state and territory governments outlining those governments’ initiatives in relation to housing and homelessness.
Monitoring and evaluation
The NHHA requires that state and territory governments provide assurances each year to the Australian Government that they have met requirements under the Agreement in relation to outputs and matched funding.
States and territories are also required to report on the reforms and initiatives agreed with the Australian Government under the NHHA, and the Australian Government is required to provide an independent public report on the outcomes that the Agreement contributes to.
While the Committee received some evidence on the evaluation of individual homelessness programs, limited evidence was received on more general or systematic approaches to monitoring and evaluation.
In relation to governments’ collection of data on specialist homelessness services, the City of Sydney argued that SHS data ‘does not adequately measure outcomes’:
Given many specialist homelessness services are funded based on how many people they service, data tends to focus on instances of interactions with specialist homelessness services, rather than the long term outcomes for individuals.
Similarly, Upstream Australia submitted that SHS client data is ‘fragmented, about contract accountability, more outputs than outcomes focused, and not about practice and improved outcomes’.
In the context of calling for longer-term funding cycles, Compass Housing Services said these needed to be accompanied by ‘effective monitoring and evaluation, preferably designed to fully measure outcomes rather than outputs’.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children proposed a national monitoring commission to promote instances of best practice and provide resources and training. It also called for a better system for reviewing and reporting on the services available in each jurisdiction.
VACCA emphasised the importance of Indigenous-led evaluation and monitoring of any indicators or targets relating to Indigenous Australians.
While not confined specifically to housing and homelessness, in its submission to the 2020-21 Federal Budget which was provided to the Committee, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) recommended the establishment of an independent body to oversee the evaluation and monitoring of policies, programs and initiatives.
Role of local government
While not party to the Agreement, local governments’ role is recognised in the NHHA—in particular, in relation to building approval processes, local planning and development approval processes, and rates and charges that influence housing affordability.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) explained that councils undertake a diverse range of activities to support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including identifying excess land suitable for social housing; developing partnerships with community housing providers; and advocating for and co-ordinating with local community service providers.
The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) submitted that local government is ‘increasingly turning its attention to the issue of homelessness’:
A growing number of councils have invested significant resourcing into addressing homelessness in direct and indirect ways. Service responses range from direct funding to local homelessness providers, providing land on which to develop housing, data collection to understand the scale of the issue and strategic advocacy campaigns all the way through to enforcement and compliance-based interventions.
The Committee received submissions from city councils across Australia further highlighting the role of local government in responding to homelessness, in areas including coordination, data collection and reporting, and assisting rough sleepers.
For example, the City of Sydney submitted that while housing and homelessness ‘have not been a traditional domain of local government’, in responding to community expectations it was ‘taking direct action in areas under our own control’:
… such as responding to the effects of homelessness on public spaces, working with a wide range of partners to demonstrate innovative solutions and advocating for action from other levels of government.
However, ALGA lamented that there is ‘no longer a national dialogue between the three levels of government on housing’. It said that the NHHA and associated bilateral agreements were determined by the Australian Government and state and territory governments ‘without direct engagement of local government’.
Similarly, MAV argued that the ‘patchwork of interventions’ being delivered by local government ‘comes at a significant, often unbudgeted cost’. It called for ‘a more timely and coordinated approach across all levels of government’.
Social housing and specialist homelessness services
The main services to assist people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are:
social housing, comprising public housing and community housing; and
specialist homelessness services.
As noted above, the provision of social housing and specialist homelessness services is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments. Other relevant services include private rental assistance programs and private rental brokerage services, which are also generally provided by state and territory governments.
‘Social housing’ is an umbrella term used to refer to long-term rental accommodation where rents are subsidised (and sometimes set to be a proportion of household income). The two main forms of social housing are:
public housing: housing provided and managed by state and territory governments, which can include dwellings owned by government or leased from the private sector, and generally accessed by people on low incomes and/or those with special needs; and
community housing: housing managed by community-based organisations (known as community housing providers, or CHPs), which may include dwellings leased from government, and generally provided to low-to-moderate income and/or special needs households.
Social housing also includes state owned and managed Indigenous housing and Indigenous community housing.
CHPs’ rent setting and allocation policies are determined with regard to the policies of state and territory housing authorities.
CHPs typically receive some form of government assistance, such as direct funding for the provision of land and property, but may be entirely self-funded. CHPs can also access a range of tax concessions and benefits which may lower their operating, construction and development costs.
One additional difference between public and community housing is that tenants in community housing are eligible to apply for Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which in most jurisdictions can be included in calculations of tenants’ rents, thereby increasing the rental revenue of CHPs.
The Victorian Public Tenants’ Association explained that there are significant differences between public and community housing for tenants:
… which directly impact on the day to day lives of residents, including the amount of rent that can be charged in each form of tenure, how complaints are dealt with, who is housed and the level of rights and protections for residents.
AHURI explained that social housing is ‘a key source of affordable and secure housing that can benefit people who are homeless or at risk’. However, while the total number of social housing dwellings has grown over the last decade, there has been a significant shift from public housing to community housing, and the overall number of dwellings has not kept pace with population growth and demand.
On this point, Per Capita submitted:
As both state and federal governments have withdrawn from their responsibility to fund public housing, the sector has shifted away from the post-war ‘safety net model’ wherein the government provided affordable housing to an ‘ambulance service model’ focused on providing emergency housing in response to the homelessness crisis.
Further evidence in relation to social housing is discussed in Chapter 4.
Specialist homelessness services
Specialist homelessness services are non-government organisations that deliver services—funded partly or fully by government—to support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This includes agencies specialising in delivering services to specific target groups (such as young people or people experiencing family and domestic violence).
As noted earlier in this chapter, the AIHW collects detailed data on the diverse range of services provided by SHSs agencies through the SHSC. According to the AIHW, these services include:
… accommodation provision, assistance to sustain housing, domestic/family violence services, mental health services, family/relationship assistance, disability services, drug/alcohol counselling, legal/financial services, immigration/cultural services, other specialist services and general assistance and support.
SHS agencies also have an important role in referring clients to other support services.
Link Housing submitted that SHS agencies ‘play a key role in providing the range of preventative, crisis and post crisis support for those households experiencing and at risk of homelessness’. However, it also noted the significant number of people reported by the AIHW to be turned away from SHS agencies each day:
There are two key issues; these figures suggest that there are insufficient SHS services to meet demand and second is that the intervention does not usually represent a long-term solution for more than half of the people who use the services.
It said that current funding arrangements for SHS agencies ‘contribute to a difficult operating environment’:
This could be addressed by providing a much longer term funding structure for SHS services so they can more effectively plan and deal with peaks in service demand.
The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) also highlighted the issue of funding uncertainty for organisations in the sector:
Managing short-term funding allocations, time-limited project grants and last-minute funding limits their ability to deliver quality services and retain skilled staff.
… No organisation can operate to its full potential with a series of funding cliffs always looming on the horizon.
A number of submitters characterised the housing and homelessness sector as being ‘crisis driven’. For example, the City of Sydney submitted:
Housing and homelessness services in Australia are increasingly crisis driven, with an overreliance on temporary and crisis accommodation because of a lack of suitable social, affordable and supported accommodation models.
Similarly, Bolton Clarke Homeless Persons Program submitted:
Access to the housing service system and funding models are mostly geared to crisis responses. People often cycle in and out of the crisis system due to a lack of viable and sustainable options.
Homelessness NSW said the 2019-20 bushfire seasons and the COVID-19 pandemic had ‘exposed a housing and homelessness system that is severely hampered in its ability to respond to crisis when it is itself constantly in crisis’.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre suggested that services for people experiencing homelessness (including both housing and homelessness services and the social security system) are not sufficiently responsive to individual needs and circumstances. Further, it said:
… clients tend to be blamed for not using the system properly, even though such issues often arise as a result of system-side issues that create barriers to access. As a result, some people are deterred from accessing the system at all, and fall into primary homelessness and severe financial hardship. Support costs are then shifted to other systems, including justice and health systems.
Homelessness Australia said that despite the challenges facing the SHS sector, these services ‘do prevent and end homelessness for many people and provide critical support to individuals and households in need’.
Evidence on governance and funding arrangements
The Committee received a range of evidence on the current governance and funding arrangements with respect to homelessness, including evidence reflecting on the design and implementation of the NHHA.
In addition to the evidence below, a recurring theme was the need for a national strategy, which would address the interconnectedness of policies and programs on homelessness and housing, and the respective roles of the three levels of government. This evidence is discussed in detail in Chapter 4.
Homelessness Australia argued that while the establishment of the NHHA was seen as ‘a first step in increased attention to the matter of homelessness’, after accounting for population growth and inflation, federal funding for housing and homelessness services had in fact decreased.
Similarly, VCOSS said the NHHA provided ‘much-needed federal coordination of homelessness service funding’ but noted that Australian Government funding for these services had fallen in real terms.
ACOSS among others urged the Australian Government to examine the adequacy and security of its funding arrangements for homelessness services:
Constrained resources are already placing undue pressure on services struggling to meet existing demand for services and forced to regularly turn away people in desperate situations.
Some submitters expressed particular concern about the method used to allocate funding under the NHHA and the resulting impact on funding for housing and homelessness services.
The NHHA specifies that ‘general’ funding is allocated to states and territories in accordance with each state and territory’s share of total population, whereas ‘homelessness’ funding is allocated in accordance with each state and territory’s share of total homelessness based on estimates made at the 2006 Census.
The NHHA also specifies that the Australian Government’s contribution to both general and homelessness funding will be indexed annually according to the ABS’ index of wage inflation.
The CFRC explained that homelessness funding under the NHHA ‘underwrites only a small (and diminishing) proportion of state/territory homelessness services expenditure’:
Having risen by 27% in real terms in only four years, such outlays are set to top $1billion in 2019-2035. Notably, the average annual real terms increase in state/territory spending has been running at 7% while the Commonwealth’s pledged NHHA contributions going forward increase by only the predicted rate of inflation – i.e. zero in real terms.
Especially since aspects of homelessness services could be classed as amounting to ‘social security’ (constitutionally, a Commonwealth responsibility), this seems highly problematic.
The ACT Government also noted that expenditure on homelessness services by states and territories has increased significantly more than the indexed amount (in the case of the ACT Government, expenditure increased by 16 per cent from 2015-16 to 2018-19):
Over time the scope of what State and Territories are expected to do has increased, however funding has not increased in order to meet these new expectations.
Similarly, the Victorian Government submitted:
… funding under the NHHA is only sufficient to support maintenance of baseline social housing and homelessness services and is not enough to support meaningful change to the incidence of homelessness, increased social housing supply, wrap-around support to sustain social housing tenancies or an increase in housing affordability.
It argued that the indexation method used ‘does not reflect the real rising cost of providing services or delivering housing’, and also questioned the use of data from the 2006 Census as a basis for distributing funds:
This data is 14 years out of date, and the results of two Censuses have been released since this time. The continued use of this data has resulted in funds not being directed based on current need. It is inappropriate to continue using this data when more recent data is available.
A number of submitters drew particular attention to the relative amount of funding allocated under the NHHA to the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Government argued that the approach to calculating homelessness funding under the NHHA ‘fails to take into account current need and demand for services’:
The NT accounts for 11.79% of national homelessness yet receives only 4.63% of the homelessness funding allocated through NHHA…
… according to both the 2006 and 2016 Censuses, the NT is ranked fourth in the country according to the percentage of the population estimated to be homeless and yet is ranked sixth in terms of the amount of homelessness funding received via the NHHA.
It also said that the allocation of general funding under the NHHA does not account for the higher than average costs required to provide services in the Northern Territory:
The NT’s large land mass, distributed population and large share of populations with high and complex needs requires additional resources.
Ms Karen Walsh from the Northern Territory Government suggested that a ‘much fairer approach’ would be needs based and would consider ‘the entrenched levels [of] homelessness, the levels of poverty and … the geography of the NT, with those criteria being layered into a funding formula for the future’.
NT Shelter also called for a ‘re-set funding allocation model’ for the NHHA based on need instead of population size:
The next iteration of the NHHA must deliver a model where distribution of Commonwealth funding is driven by the relative needs of each state and territory rather than their population size. Discussions with the states on an alternative distribution formula need to begin now.
Until a replacement model is negotiated, the Australian government should provide interim additional funding in the form of a supplementary payment that recognizes the sheer level of demonstrated unmet demand and acute housing and service shortfalls in the Territory.
The City of Darwin’s submission said that the current level of funding allocated to the Northern Territory ‘does not and cannot in the future address what would be seen in other parts of the world as a humanitarian crisis’.
Dr Duncan Rouch argued that the NHHA is an improvement on previous agreements as it ‘targets the entire housing spectrum from crisis accommodation to home ownership’. However, Dr Rouch also noted that national policies which affect housing cost and demand are outside the scope of the NHHA, and therefore limit its scope to address what he characterised as ‘Australia’s housing problem’.
VACCA noted that an intended outcome of the NHHA is improved housing for Indigenous Australians, but questioned whether this would be achieved. It called for the establishment of specific Indigenous targets in the Victorian Government’s bilateral agreement under the NHHA, which it said would allow for a portion of funding to be directed solely to improving Indigenous housing outcomes.
Per Capita recommended that Australian Government funding committed through the NHHA be ‘linked with performance outcomes relating to community engagement and co-design; for example, engaging older people in the design and development of social housing’.
Historical housing related debts
Some submitters referred to the historical housing-related debts owed by state and territory governments to the Australian Government.
The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors (CCCLM) explained that from 1945 to the late 1980s, the Australian Government made fixed-interest loans to states and territories for the construction of new public housing and the provision of low-interest loans to home builders. The loans were to be repaid over a term of 53 years, and were in addition to other housing-related loans made over this period.
Drawing on research by the Parliamentary Library, the CCCLM said that as at 30 June 2018, states and territories owed over $2 billion to the Australian Government for housing-related loans. A breakdown of this total figure is provided in Table 2.4.
Table 2.4: Outstanding state and territory housing-related debts as at 30 June 2018 ($ million)
Source: Council of Capital City Lord Mayors, Submission 83, p. 11.
The same Parliamentary Library research found that over the period of the NHHA, ‘for every dollar the Tasmanian Government receives in NHHA funding it pays back around half in housing-related debt’.
The CCCLM said it had been argued that outstanding housing-related debts are ‘are detracting from jurisdictions … investing in social housing and reducing waiting lists’. It noted that in 2019, the Australian Government waived Tasmania’s outstanding housing-related debt, with the Tasmanian Government required to ‘redirect all of their scheduled repayments to programs that increase access to social housing, reduce homelessness, and improve housing supply across Tasmania’. At the time, Tasmania’s debt stood at around $150 million.
The Parliamentary Library noted that South Australia also had some of its housing-related debt forgiven in 2012-13.
The CCCLM called for a review of state and territory housing-related debts on the basis that savings will be used for social housing. The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, argued that the Australian Government should waive the debts:
In New South Wales, this would free up over $800 million to reinvest in social housing and supported accommodation programs.
The ACT Government said it had sought discussions with the Australian Government regarding redirecting its debt repayments to housing and homelessness services, and that it understood from media reports that other states and territories had done likewise. It submitted:
Servicing these historic debts diverts resources that could otherwise be invested in new or expanded housing or homelessness services.
The Tasmanian Government said the waiving of its housing-related debt had enabled it to enhance its housing and homelessness efforts:
The Tasmanian Government will save $230.2 million in total interest and principal repayments to 2041-42 (end of loan term) and will redirect these funds to programmes that increase access to social housing, reduce homelessness, and improve housing supply across Tasmania. The first of these funds have been allocated towards additional social housing and increased targets for the Rapid Rehousing and Private Rental Incentives programs.
Social, Community and Disability Services Industry Equal Remuneration Order 2012
A number of submitters referred to funding provided by the Australian Government to meet costs incurred as a result of the 2012 decision of the Full Bench of Fair Work Australia to increase wages in the social services sector. The wage increases are set out in the Social, Community and Disability Services (SACS) Industry Equal Remuneration Order 2012 (ERO).
Following the decision, the Australian Government committed to providing supplemental funding to organisations that deliver in-scope Australian Government programs, as well as to organisations that deliver in‑scope programs through Commonwealth-state agreements, to assist them to meet the costs of complying with the ERO. This includes supplemental funding of $145.1 million paid to states and territories under the NHHA.
ERO supplementation payments under the NHHA are scheduled to cease in June 2021. However, payments to some organisations funded directly by the Australian Government were extended for three years.
A consistent message in evidence to the inquiry was that ERO supplementation payments should continue or be incorporated into other, ongoing funding agreements.
ACOSS argued that the cessation of the ERO supplementation requires urgent action:
The Commonwealth Government must move quickly to give certainty to the sector that adequate funds will be available to meet increased demand and that it will fund ERO supplementation ongoing, ideally by consolidating this cost into service funding agreements.
VCOSS said the sector is ‘deeply concerned’ about the impacts of the cessation of the ERO supplementation:
This will affect homelessness, families and children, domestic violence and other community services.
… Community service organisations simply cannot absorb cuts of this magnitude. It will inevitably mean reductions in services to vulnerable people in the community and job losses for workers in the industry.
Mallee Family Care—a not-for-profit agency managing over sixty government-funded programs supporting community members in regional, rural and remote areas in Victoria and South-West New South Wales—outlined the impact of the cessation of the ERO supplementation on its organisation. It said that without the continuation of the payments, or an equivalent rise in program funding, it will lose around $583,000 in the 2021‑22 financial year. It said the organisation will ‘struggle to absorb this cost’ and this ‘will mean hard decisions about the future of our programs’.
The Victorian Government outlined the impact across Victoria more broadly:
An end to Commonwealth SACS ERO funding would result in a funding cut to approximately 260 organisations that deliver critical homelessness, family violence and tenancy support services in Victoria. … For some smaller organisations, a removal of this critical funding may mean they may no longer be able to operate. It is estimated that a Commonwealth withdrawal of funding would result in 6,700 fewer Victorian households being assisted each year to address and prevent homelessness and family violence related housing crisis and would lead to an increase in rough sleeping among women and children escaping family violence.
The Victorian Government, along with a number of other state and territory governments and non-government organisations, advocated for the continuation of the ERO supplementation.
Other Australian Government initiatives
This section considers evidence received on three Australian Government initiatives relevant to homelessness, which are separate from the NHHA:
the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation;
Commonwealth Rent Assistance; and
investment in remote housing.
The Committee notes that other Australian Government programs were outlined in the Government’s submission, including the delivery of youth homelessness prevention services and funding for accommodation for victim-survivors of family and domestic violence.
National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation
In recognition of the need for greater private and institutional investment to expand the community housing sector, in 2018 the Australian Government established NHFIC under the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Act 2018 (NHFIC Act) to ‘improve housing outcomes for Australians’.
NHFIC aims to achieve its purpose by providing loans to registered community housing providers (CHPs), finance for infrastructure projects, and grants for capacity building services to assist CHPs. NHFIC also administers the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme and undertakes research on housing demand, supply and affordability.
NHFIC is subject to the directions of the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing outlined in the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Investment Mandate Direction 2018.
Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator
Most evidence in relation to NHFIC focused on the Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator (AHBA), which was established to provide loans to registered CHPs which can be used to acquire or construct new housing stock, maintain existing stock, meet capital or corporate requirements, or refinance existing debt.
NHFIC funds loans from the AHBA by issuing its own bonds into the wholesale capital market, guaranteed by the Australian Government. It is also provided with a $1 billion line of credit facility by the Australian Government which it can use to advance loans to CHPs prior to issuing bonds.
NHFIC’s investment mandate explains that the AHBA allows:
… money to be raised on a larger scale and on different terms to those that would be possible for the individual providers; the savings will be passed on to the providers in the form of lower interest loans and reduced refinancing risks, enabling them to improve housing outcomes for their clients.
In June 2020, NHFIC announced that it had finalised its third bond issuance of $562 million. These funds were passed to 10 CHPs in the form of 12-year interest-only loans at a fixed rate of 2.06 per cent. This brought the total amount issued over three bond issuances to nearly $1.2 billion.
Mr Nathan Dal Bon, the Chief Executive Officer of NHFIC, explained how those funds had been used by CHPs:
… if you trace through what we've funded in terms of new properties, we've supported the funding of 2,000 new dwellings and we've supported the refinancing of a further 6,300 dwellings. We estimate that this has delivered interest savings to the CHPs that we've financed of around $190 million over the term of those loans.
NHFIC’s investment mandate initially limited its total guaranteed liabilities to $2 billion. However, in the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government announced it would increase this limit to $3 billion.
Evidence from some CHPs and others on the operation of the AHBA is discussed in further detail in Chapter 4.
National Housing Infrastructure Facility
NHFIC also operates the $1 billion National Housing Infrastructure Facility (NHIF), which offers concessional loans, grants and equity funding to support housing-enabling infrastructure, including new or upgraded infrastructure for services such as power, water and transport and site remediation works.
Recent examples of funding agreements under the NHIF include an $18 million agreement with the CHP HousingFirst for infrastructure works to support 316 homes across four projects in Melbourne, and a $100 million agreement with the New South Wales Land and Housing Corporation for infrastructure works to support 781 homes at sites across Sydney.
Mr Dal Bon told the Committee that funding housing infrastructure could ‘help unlock projects that are close to being viable’.
Findings of Auditor-General Report No. 28 2020–21
In January 2021, the Auditor-General presented an audit report to the Parliament on the administration of NHFIC. In the report, the Auditor‑General concluded that:
While NHFIC has established administrative arrangements for five programs which align to the NHFIC Act and the Investment Mandate, its implementation and reporting does not clearly demonstrate that it is achieving its purpose to ‘improve housing outcomes’.
The Auditor-General said that NHFIC’s administration should be improved in relation to:
… management of its Services Agreement (SA) with Export Finance Australia (EFA); risk management and compliance management; and measuring and presenting its achievements in delivering ‘improved housing outcomes’.
In relation to the latter, the Auditor-General said:
NHFIC’s loan, investment and grant assessment guidelines require specific consideration and assessment of the additionality for projects at the transaction level. However, the level of additionality is not consistently measured or presented in submissions for NHFIC Board approval.
The Auditor-General made five recommendations, which were agreed by NHFIC.
In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government announced it would undertake an independent review of NHFIC to establish whether it is meeting its objectives of improving housing outcomes for Australians. A review of the operation of the NHFIC Act is also required under section 57 of the Act.
Commonwealth Rent Assistance
The Australian Government provides CRA to eligible individuals and families renting in the private rental market or living in community housing. The Government estimated that $4.6 billion in CRA would be provided to around 1.3 million individuals and families in 2019-20.
A person is eligible for CRA if they pay rent and also receive certain income support, family assistance and veterans’ payments. However, a person leasing from a state or territory housing authority is not eligible.
CRA is paid at 75 cents for every dollar above a minimum rental threshold, up to a maximum amount which depends on a recipient’s circumstances. The maximum amounts for CRA are indexed according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in March and September each year.
In a 2019 research paper on vulnerable private renters, the Productivity Commission stated that CRA is ‘the clearest path to improving affordability’. It explained that ‘CRA materially improves rental affordability’ for those who receive it:
Government reporting has shown that, in 2018, 68 per cent of households receiving CRA would have been in rental stress without it, but that number drops to 40 per cent when CRA is provided. The drop in rental stress is greater still among eligible households who included an Age Pension or Disability Support Pension recipient.
The Productivity Commission also assessed that CRA is well targeted to households with lower levels of wealth:
Among working-age households, over 92 per cent and 71 per cent of CRA payments were made to low-wealth and low-income households, respectively in 2018…
However, the Productivity Commission found that the maximum payment amount of CRA has not kept up with the rise in rents, which has outpaced CPI:
As a result, the average share of rents covered by CRA has fallen. Further, the share of CRA recipients who received the maximum payment has steadily increased…
The latter point was reiterated in evidence to the inquiry. For example, the Grattan Institute submitted that while CRA ‘materially reduces housing stress among low-income Australians’, it has not kept up with rising housing costs:
The maximum Rent Assistance payment is indexed in line with CPI, but rents have been growing faster than CPI over the long term. Between June 2003 and June 2019, CPI increased by about 46 per cent, while average (quality-adjusted) rents increased by about 65 per cent… The actual rents paid by Australians, including improvements in the quality or quantity of housing, rose even faster.
Mr Brendan Coates from the Grattan Institute told the Committee:
The best way to help low- to moderate-income earners who are not at severe risk of homelessness is through the provision of income support, like rent assistance.
In its submission, the Grattan Institute recommended a 40 per cent increase to the maximum amount of CRA, which it estimated would cost around $1.3 billion per year:
Rent Assistance would then provide the same level of assistance to low-income earners as it did 15 years ago, taking into account the rising cost of their rent. In future, Rent Assistance should be indexed to changes in rents typically paid by people receiving income support, so that its value is maintained…
It argued that such an increase ‘is unlikely to substantially increase rents’.
Similarly, cohealth, a community health service, called for an immediate 30 per cent increase in the rate of CRA, in line with a recommendation from ACOSS. It said that CRA ‘has failed to keep pace with steep increases in rents’.
Ms Jacqueline Phillips from ACOSS said the organisation was advocating for ‘a very significant increase to [CRA] of 50 per cent, to better reflect the average rents that are paid by households on the lowest incomes’.
The City of Sydney said that because CRA is paid at an even rate across the country, recipients in areas with higher rents such as Sydney are further disadvantaged.
The Northern Territory Council of Social Service recommended that CRA be ‘responsive to local housing market conditions’.
AHURI explained that even with CRA, private rental remains expensive, particularly for young people. It said that 57 per cent of young people are still in housing stress despite receiving CRA.
A number of other submitters argued for aspects of CRA to be reviewed.
Indigenous and remote housing
The Australian Government also provides funding to states and territories for housing in remote and Indigenous communities, including:
$550 million over five years to deliver the equivalent of 1,950 new bedrooms in remote Northern Territory communities under the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Housing Northern Territory (NPA) until 2023;
funding contributions to Western Australia ($121 million) and South Australia ($37.5 million), to assist with their transition to full responsibility for housing; and
$105 million for remote Indigenous housing in Queensland.
The Committee received some evidence on the Australian Government’s investments in Indigenous and remote housing, particularly the NPA.
For example, TCAC questioned the target for the number of houses to be constructed under the NPA and called for greater transparency with respect to the proposed expenditure.
TCAC also suggested that the housing stock across the NPA footprint does not perform well against the relevant housing codes and standards, including the National Indigenous Housing Guide (NIHG) and the National Construction Code (NCC). It noted that the NPA makes no commitments to work towards the NCC or to improve the amenity of the broader built environment, and recommended that the Australian and Northern Territory governments determine triggers for the assessment of compliance with the NCC as part of the NPA.
Central Australian Aboriginal Congress explained that investments in remote housing were offset by population growth and policies contributing to a decline in public housing stock, and a reduction in the role of Indigenous Community Housing Organisations. It went on:
High levels of government investment in culturally appropriate, well-maintained remote housing is critical to addressing the very high rates of Aboriginal homelessness in the Northern Territory. Such investment must be increased and sustained over the long term (beyond the 2018-2023 period of the current [NPA]); guided by genuine Aboriginal community input; and must take account of future population increases.
Similarly, the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory alliance argued that investment in remote housing must plan for the projected increase in the Indigenous population in the Northern Territory.
NACCHO recommended an expansion of the funding and timeframe of the NPA to match the former National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH), a ten-year agreement which expired in 2018.
Mr Pisarski from National Shelter suggested that while the funding under the NPA was welcome, it did not meet the level of need. Mr Pisarski agreed that a similar approach was required as under the former NPARIH.
Further evidence on the experiences of remote and Indigenous communities is discussed in Chapter 3.
Definition of homelessness
The Committee accepts that defining homelessness is challenging and will necessarily reflect a cultural understanding of what constitutes a house and a home. The Committee nevertheless agrees that homelessness should not be confined to those who are rough sleeping but should extend more broadly to include those in some insecure arrangements and in circumstances where living conditions are substandard.
Much of the evidence in relation to definitional issues concerned the inclusion in the ABS’s statistical definition of persons in severely overcrowded dwellings and boarding houses.
The Committee acknowledges the evidence received about the seriousness of overcrowding and the impact it can have on the quality of life of people living in such conditions, including on their security and safety, privacy, health, mental health, and educational attainment.
The Committee is particularly concerned by the extreme extent of overcrowding in some Indigenous communities.
Similarly, in relation to boarding houses, while there are some that provide a supportive environment for tenants, the Committee heard compelling evidence about how other boarding houses deprive tenants of security, privacy and control over their lives.
The Committee, however, recognises that there is a legitimate debate about the scope of the ABS’s definition. While the evidence was not entirely clear, it appears that Australia is, if not alone in this regard, one of a very small number of countries that count people living in overcrowded conditions and boarding houses among the homeless population.
The Committee also acknowledges some concern about the objective definition of severe overcrowding with reference to the CNOS, which the Committee considers is too prescriptive and potentially a blunt instrument for determining homelessness. For example, multiple siblings sharing a bedroom, or people voluntarily sharing larger open-plan dwellings, could be classed as severely overcrowded under the CNOS criteria.
The Committee considers that the definition of overcrowding could incorporate more detailed elements to more rigorously assess where overcrowding genuinely amounts to homelessness, and be more inclusive of non-western and Indigenous Australian cultural practices and perspectives.
Similarly, the Committee is concerned that the criteria used to classify boarding houses within the definition of homelessness may be too blunt. The Committee notes that all boarding houses are not the same, nor are the people who live in them, and that the ABS acknowledged its inability to consider the circumstances of individual residents when ruling such dwellings in or out of its count.
People living in boarding houses and overcrowded accommodation make up a significant proportion of the estimated homeless population. Those in severely overcrowded dwellings or boarding houses represented 59 per cent of the people reported as homeless by the ABS in the 2016 Census. Severe overcrowding in particular has driven the growth in homelessness in Australia over recent years.
The Committee considers it vital that the ABS’s definition—and, in particular, how it accounts for overcrowding and boarding houses—is consistent with best practice in Australia and internationally and, as much as possible, reflects the experiences and perspectives of people living in such conditions.
The Committee therefore recommends that the ABS commission a review of the statistical definition of homelessness to ensure a more nuanced approach to the specific circumstances in which people in such conditions should be included in the official definition and the headline figure of Australia’s homeless population.
In making this recommendation, it is not the Committee’s intention that persons living in overcrowded conditions and boarding houses should cease to be reported on in official statistics. Moreover, the Committee stresses that, regardless of the outcome of such a review for definitional purposes, governments will need to continue to address the serious issues of overcrowded and substandard accommodation—just as, for example, victims of family, domestic and sexual violence living in unsafe or insecure conditions must remain a priority for housing and related services, regardless of their inclusion within any definition of homelessness.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Bureau of Statistics commission an independent review of the statistical definition of homelessness and its operation, having particular regard to the circumstances in which persons living in severely crowded dwellings and boarding houses should be categorised as homeless. The review should consider:
national and international best practice;
the need for greater inclusion of non-western and Indigenous Australian cultural practices and perspectives; and
in relation to overcrowding, the need for the use of other measures in addition to or in place of the Canadian National Occupancy Standard.
Data collection and reporting
A clear theme in evidence to the inquiry was the ‘invisible’ nature of many forms of homelessness and how this has resulted in an undercounting of the homeless population in official statistics, particularly the Census.
The Committee notes that evidence given to this inquiry accords with the finding of the Victorian inquiry that:
It is difficult to provide an accurate figure for the number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria and it is likely the figures captured in the Census and other sources are an underestimate.
The extent of undercounting suggested in evidence to the inquiry is concerning to the Committee, particularly given that the Census is one of the primary sources of information about the homeless population. The reliance on the Census is apparent from the many submissions to this inquiry which draw on Census data.
While the broad extent of homelessness in Australia is clear, it is critical that governments and service providers have an accurate understanding of the prevalence of homelessness and the makeup of the homeless population. It is particularly important that those most at need are counted in order to ensure that appropriate policy and service responses are in place.
The Committee acknowledges the work that the ABS has done and continues to do to ensure its estimates of the homeless population are accurate. This includes, importantly, engagement with the homelessness services sector.
The Committee also welcomes the change to the next Census to include Australian Defence Force service status, which should give greater insight into the nature and extent of homelessness affecting veterans. (Homelessness among veterans is discussed further in Chapter 3.)
However, given what appears to the Committee to be broad concern among stakeholders about undercounting, and given that the current approach used by the ABS to enumerate the homeless population has been in place since 2011, the Committee considers it is timely for there to be an independent review of how Census data is collected and used to determine estimates of the homeless population.
The Committee is concerned to see that any such review consider the extent of inaccuracy by overcounting and undercounting of particular categories of homeless persons, including but not limited to rough sleepers, persons staying with other households, persons living in boarding houses, and persons living in severely overcrowded dwellings.
The review should also consider the extent of undercounting of people in particular demographic groups and circumstances, including but not limited to Indigenous people, young people, and people escaping family and domestic violence.
The review should be informed by experts, representatives of the homelessness sector, and organisations representing at-risk population groups. In this regard, the Committee considers in particular that the involvement of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and other Indigenous organisations is critical.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an independent review of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ collection and use of Census of Population and Housing data to estimate the homeless population, having particular regard to the problem of overcounting and undercounting particular categories of homeless persons and demographic groups.
The review should involve stakeholder consultation and should be completed in time to inform the conduct of the 2026 Census.
Beyond the Census, the Committee recognises that administrative data, and particularly the SHSC, has a particularly important role in understanding the prevalence and nature of homelessness and informing policy and service responses.
Evidence to the inquiry has highlighted a number of areas for improvement, relating to data collection, access and reporting and needs assessments. The Committee encourages the Australian Government to consider these suggestions in consultation with the AIHW and SHS agencies.
The Committee is also concerned that the SHSC is currently failing to adequately capture unmet need for homelessness services and that it does not record casual contacts with service providers.
In the Committee’s view, more comprehensive administrative data—particularly about those people who are most at risk—is critical to informing efforts to prevent homelessness from occurring and to better assist those recently made homeless.
In this regard, the Committee also recommends the development of a national longitudinal data set for housing and homelessness, which it expects will assist in better understanding pathways through services and the needs and outcomes of clients, in turn leading to more evidence‑based policy and service responses.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare implement changes to the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection to ensure that data collected:
more comprehensively captures unmet need for services and casual contacts with service providers;
more clearly identifies clients’ reasons for seeking assistance;
provides for spatial analysis of demand for services;
can be disaggregated by age and sex to support the development of targeted policies and responses; and
is more inclusive of diverse groups and needs.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide funding to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to establish a national longitudinal housing and homelessness data set.
The Australian Government should also give consideration to providing funding for research projects to analyse the data set and identify evidence-based policy and service responses.
The Committee also accepts the arguments made in evidence of the need for better data on both the community housing sector and tenancy evictions. Resolving issues with the quality and consistency of community housing data is particularly important given the increasing use of this type of housing, as discussed in Chapter 4.
The Committee considers there is a need for better data on housing stock and overcrowding, particularly as it relates to Indigenous communities.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments, in consultation with community housing providers, improve the availability, quality and consistency of data on community housing and Indigenous community housing.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to ensure the regular publication of statistics on residential tenancy evictions, giving consideration to the need to establish a common framework for such data.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, including through the introduction of mandatory requirements on state and territory governments, improve data collection and reporting on housing stock and overcrowding to assist with monitoring and evaluation, planning and strategic investment at a regional and community level.
The Committee further recommends specific measures to improve data relating to housing outcomes for Indigenous Australians to inform all governments’ efforts to meet the National Agreement on Closing the Gap target on housing.
The Committee notes the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on homelessness in Australia, as documented in the interim report of this inquiry. Given the vital importance of vaccination as a protection against COVID-19, the Committee considers that there is a need for governments to work together to monitor the participation of those experiencing homelessness in Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments, in consultation with homelessness and community services, improve data collection and reporting on the COVID-19 vaccination of Australians experiencing homelessness, particularly rough sleepers.
Governance and funding arrangements
While the provision of social housing and homelessness services is primarily a responsibility of states and territories, it is clear that the Australian Government continues to have a significant role in improving housing outcomes for Australians. This includes working with the states and territories through the NHHA, the provision of CRA, investment in Indigenous and remote housing, and support for community housing through NHFIC.
The Committee also recognises that the Australian Government has implemented measures intended to address the broader issue of housing affordability, particularly for first home buyers. These include:
the HomeBuilder program, which provides grants to assist owner-occupiers including first home buyers to build a new home or substantially renovate an existing home;
the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme, which provides guarantees to first home buyers to assist them to build or purchase a first home with a 5 per cent deposit without paying lenders mortgage insurance; and
the First Home Super Saver Scheme, which enables first home buyers to save for their first home inside their superannuation fund, thereby receiving concessional tax treatment.
The 2021-22 Budget included new measures including the Family Home Guarantee, which will assist single parents with dependants to purchase a house with a deposit of as little as two per cent.
The Committee also acknowledges the Australian Government’s permanent increase of $50 per fortnight from 1 April 2021 to payments including JobSeeker and Youth Allowance.
In relation to the NHHA, the Committee notes concerns raised about the baseline amount of funding for housing and homelessness services, the indexation of the Australian Government’s financial contribution under the Agreement, and the methods and data used to determine funding allocations to the states and territories.
The Committee notes that the 2021-22 Budget included a further $124.7 million over two years to be provided to states and territories under the NHHA to ‘assist them to bolster public housing stocks, or to meet wage requirements under the 2011 Fair Work Australia decision on social and community services wages, where that requirement has not already been met’.
While the Committee welcomes this additional funding, it remains particularly concerned by the evidence that the allocation of funding under the NHHA is not sufficiently based on need, nor does it reflect the actual costs of providing services in different jurisdictions. This impact of these arrangements on the Northern Territory was clear, but other jurisdictions such as Queensland and Western Australia with large rural and remote populations or high-needs groups may also be disadvantaged.
The Committee considers that these issues should be addressed where possible in future funding arrangements under the NHHA or any successor to the Agreement beyond 2023.
Acknowledging that the development of a needs-based funding methodology will be a complex exercise and should involve extensive consultation—not least with the states and territories—the Committee recommends that the Australian Government commence this work as a priority to ensure that it can inform these future funding arrangements.
The Committee is also concerned about a lack of transparency around how state and territory governments use funds received from the Australian Government for social and affordable housing. The Committee considers that there should be an evaluation of Australian Government sponsored housing projects to better understand the work undertaken and the outcomes achieved.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state and territory governments, develop a needs-based funding methodology to be applied to future inter-governmental housing and homelessness funding agreements, to be completed no later than June 2022.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake an evaluation of Australian Government sponsored social and affordable housing projects, including those delivered by state and territory governments, to be completed no later than June 2022.
Further to these recommendations, the Committee notes that a review of the NHHA will be completed by the Productivity Commission no later than June 2022, with terms of reference to be developed by the Australian Government in consultation with the states and territories. The Committee encourages the Australian Government to ensure that the issues raised in this inquiry with respect to the NHHA are given full consideration as part of the Productivity Commission’s review.
The Committee anticipates that the outcomes from each of these processes will enable future iterations of the NHHA or any equivalent agreements to be better targeted at improving outcomes across the housing spectrum, including for those people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
In that respect, the Committee also notes the view expressed in discussions about the NHHA, that its scope should be expanded to include the full range of Australian Government policies that affect housing cost and demand, and therefore homelessness. This is closely related to the view expressed by many contributors to the inquiry that Australia has need of a national housing and homelessness strategy, which is discussed in Chapter 4. The Committee considers that the future role and scope of NHHA should be considered in the development of the national strategy outlined in Recommendation 35 of this report.
In the interim, the Committee also encourages the Australian Government to consider the need for any supplemental funding to be made available to individual states or territories to address urgent or acute needs not currently provided for under the NHHA.
Further comments regarding future inter-governmental agreements—particularly with regard to improving coordination across the three levels of government—are also included in Chapter 4 in the context of calls for a national strategy.
The Committee’s views on NHFIC are also outlined in Chapter 4 in the context of the evidence received on the need for greater investment in social housing.
In relation to the CRA, the Committee notes the findings of the Productivity Commission and others that the payment is well targeted and reduces the incidence of housing stress in Australia. However, the Committee also acknowledges that the payment has not kept pace with rising rental costs.
The Committee notes the significant cost to the Australian Government of providing CRA—$4.6 billion in 2019-20—and the potential for any changes to the payment to lead to broader effects on the housing market.
Given these considerations, while not making any recommendation to change CRA, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government conduct a separate, independent review of the payment, which would include consideration of the rate of the payment, its indexation, and its interaction with other forms of housing and homelessness assistance.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an independent review of Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which should consider the maximum rates and method of indexation of the payment and its interaction with other relevant payments.
Lastly, in relation to the historical housing-related debts owed by states and territories to the Australian Government, the Committee’s view is that these should be waived, as was the case for Tasmania in 2019, or at the very least refinanced at a modern-day equivalent concessional rate. There is little point in the Australian Government providing funds to the states and territories through the NHHA on the one hand, and on the other hand taking a portion of these funds back as a result of historical debts.
The waiving or refinancing of these debts should occur at the earliest opportunity to ensure that any future inter-governmental funding agreements can start from a blank slate.
However, the Committee stresses that this should be conditional on the states and territories taking further measures to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in their jurisdictions, and require transparency from the states and territories regarding how they spend the savings realised in that regard. The Committee also proposes that the states and territories should be required to undertake the necessary planning and zoning reforms to facilitate increased supply of social and affordable housing—evidence on this is discussed in Chapter 4.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government waive or refinance at a concessional rate the historical housing-related debts of state and territory governments, in exchange for:
an amount equal to the savings to each jurisdiction being reinvested into affordable housing, with 50 per cent of new housing stock to be leased to community housing providers; and
agreement on appropriate planning and zoning reforms in each jurisdiction.