In evidence to the inquiry, the Committee heard a range of suggestions for how governments at all levels could more effectively address the issue of homelessness in Australia.
Many submitters told the Committee about what they considered to be national and international best practice, with a common theme being that homelessness could not be addressed in isolation, but that policies, programs and support services should be designed and implemented holistically and in response to wider economic, social and health-related issues.
Drawing on this evidence, this chapter considers four suggested areas for improvement or reform, with a focus on those areas that relate to the Australian Government’s roles and responsibilities or that would involve the Government taking on a stronger coordination role, supporting the efforts of state and territory governments. These are:
increased focus on prevention and early intervention;
adoption of a ‘Housing First’ approach;
enhanced provision of social housing; and
development of a national strategy for housing and/or homelessness.
The Committee notes that, in addition to this evidence, changes in funding arrangements are discussed in Chapter 2 and suggestions relating to particular groups of homeless people are discussed in Chapter 3.
Prevention and early intervention
A range of submissions discussed interventions designed to prevent homelessness before it occurs or to take remedial action at the early stages before problems become critical or chronic. A common theme was that broader social, health and educational problems that can lead to homelessness should be addressed before at-risk groups find themselves without suitable accommodation.
Evidence before the Committee indicated that terminology used by practitioners in the sector is not always precise or consistent. Regarding a definition of early intervention and prevention, and the distinction between the two terms, the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) explained that:
Despite early intervention and prevention being key concepts in homelessness policy and service delivery … policy and program literatures offers no consistent definition. While the terms are frequently used together, or interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Prevention strategies operate at the structural level and occur before a person has become homeless. Whereas early intervention strategies are targeted at individuals who have recently become homeless and aim to ensure that short periods of homelessness do not become chronic.
Haven; Home, Safe (HHS), a community housing provider, explained that prevention strategies aim to:
Address the underlying political, economic and social causes that place people at risk of homelessness (e.g. increasing the supply of affordable housing, improving labour markets)
Identify people who are most at risk of homelessness and build up their protective factors and decrease their risk factors
Focus on people who are at risk but not actually homeless (e.g. sustain tenancies)
Use broad population wide strategies that target the general population and at-risk groups; these interventions are not solely in the domain of Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS), but include mainstream services, such as housing, health, education, employment and family welfare services.
HHS outlined a broad range of prevention measures. These included increases in affordable housing; reforms to tax and welfare settings; support for at-risk groups; and measures to address disadvantage in areas such as literacy, education, employment skills and financial capacity.
On the other hand, in relation to early intervention, HHS submitted that these efforts should:
… aim to ensure that short periods of homelessness do not become chronic; to stop someone from becoming so entrenched in homelessness that it becomes almost impossible for them to leave and [be] targeted at those in the early stages of homelessness. This includes working across sectors and mainstream institutions to stem the flow of individuals from mental health care, disability, state institutions, child protection and corrections into homelessness.
HHS gave examples of intervention strategies at the early stages of homelessness, including support for entry-point services to make rapid assessments of clients, rental advice and assistance, emergency housing, case management, and support for rough sleepers.
NMHC argued for prevention and early intervention strategies as a way to move beyond crisis responses:
Prevention and early intervention strategies aim to re-orientate the service system away from crisis management and include offering post-crisis support where necessary. … The national and international evidence base has firmly established that the longer someone is homeless, the more difficult it is to assist them to stabilise their life. The responses and resources required are therefore substantively different for someone who is homeless compared to someone at risk of homelessness.
Several submitters made the point that long term preventative measures are not only more effective than crisis responses in dealing with the problem of homelessness, they also use public resources more efficiently.
The Salvation Army highlighted the social and financial costs of not dealing with homelessness before it becomes entrenched:
The cost of homelessness… is enormous and only increases the longer the individual remains homeless. Studies have consistently indicated that programs that effectively reduce homelessness can achieve … savings from reduced public health and criminal justice costs that far outweigh their expense.
The Salvation Army also stressed the effectiveness and efficiency of tackling health and education problems that may lead to homelessness:
Whether it is maintaining the tenancy of someone in existing housing, providing rapid rehousing to people as they become homeless, preventing someone from falling into chronic homelessness, or investing early in protective factors such as health and education for young people, early intervention initiatives represent the most effective and cost-efficient approach to addressing homelessness.
The Victorian Public Tenants’ Association argued that people receive assistance only when they ‘hit crisis point’ and can sometimes fall into gaps between support services, thus generating more complicated future problems. It added:
By failing to ensure a continuum of housing assistance measures are available to address the full continuum of need, we are merely deferring the problem to a time when it is more urgent, more expensive to address and more complicated.
Recognising the strong link between family and domestic violence and homelessness (as discussed in Chapter 3), some submitters argued for more early intervention and support measures to assist victim-survivors, including children who witness violence.
Other submissions focused on young people and the importance of measures to stop them from falling into homelessness, while also making wider points about the role of prevention and early intervention in homelessness generally, and the importance of integrated and non-siloed responses from different areas and levels of government.
Social Futures, a provider of housing support services based in Northern New South Wales, explained:
Studies show that for people experiencing ongoing housing instability, the first episode of homelessness occurred when they were young. That is why early intervention services are so important.
Bolton Clarke Homeless Persons Program, a service provider specialising in health care for the homeless, said that attention must be paid to dealing with long-term factors that can lead to homelessness, starting in early childhood:
Prevention of homelessness for individuals begins in early childhood and needs to address the extreme social exclusion that results in homelessness. Risk factors such as substance use, low income, a lack of suitable housing and poor health overlap in socially excluded populations. Addressing the multiple and complex needs of socially excluded population[s] is needed rather than focusing on single risk factors.
Upstream Australia, part of a coalition of organisations working on youth homelessness, argued that:
Youth homelessness, and homelessness more generally, is a life experience not a characteristic of individuals … Adolescents tend to become homeless due to family issues; young people leaving care are particularly vulnerable; young adults (mainly women with children) tend to become homeless due to domestic violence. In general, young people do not become homeless due to a housing problem, but if their homelessness cannot be averted, they definitely do have a housing problem.
In calling for more investment in early intervention, SYC, a not-for-profit organisation that assists people with housing, education and employment, highlighted what it saw as the disjointed and disconnected nature of services systems. It said that:
The homelessness system has for far too long been used as the safety net for the thousands of people who fall through the gaps caused by disjointed servicing, restrictive eligibility criteria and a deep disconnection between bureaucratic systems. A transformation of the perception and usage of the homelessness system by those that refer into it - hospitals, corrections, youth justice, disability, child protection - is a mandatory precursor to reducing and ultimately ending homelessness, in all its forms.
The Committee received some evidence on examples of prevention and early intervention programs and services operating in Australia. For example, the Australian Government explained it was investing up to $118 million over five years through the Reconnect program to support young people who are homeless or at risk:
Reconnect is a community–based program that aims to prevent homelessness through early intervention, working to improve their relationship with their family and their school attendance and increase their participation within their local community.
In 2018–19, Reconnect services supported around 7,900 young people nationally with 81 per cent of clients reporting an overall positive improvement in their circumstances.
A number of organisations involved in delivering the Reconnect program, along with others, made a range of observations on the program.
Mission Australia said an evaluation across its seven Reconnect sites found improvements ‘in clients’ wellbeing, sense of control and support, housing permanency, family cohesion and financial condition of the family’. It also found that:
Reconnect services fill a significant gap in existing regional service systems, including a central role in supporting schools to connect young people to other services in the community.
Community Connections stressed the importance of homelessness practitioners in the Reconnect program continuing to work with people in other sectors (such as the education sector) to build their capacity to identify and respond to people at risk of homelessness.
However, Southern Youth and Family Services, a community organisation based in New South Wales, said there had been a ‘systematic running down’ of the Reconnect program due to inadequate indexation and the application of an efficiency dividend. It said this had led to cuts to service provision, which had, in turn, affected the quality and quantity of the interventions provided under the program.
Melbourne City Mission said that while early intervention programs such as Reconnect were a positive step, their effectiveness was limited by the absence of ‘a strategic and coherent framework’:
The Commonwealth Government should consider building on the investment in Reconnect, to provide a joined-up approach to youth homelessness prevention and early intervention that clearly lays out a vision, targets, responsibilities across different ministerial portfolios, departments and levels of government, as well as system wide measurement against targets.
Similarly, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) submitted that while there are good examples of early intervention programs—including Reconnect—these could be improved. In particular, it said that programs ‘do not presently effectively encourage the local cooperation with community structures like schools or other services necessary to reduce the numbers entering homelessness’.
AHURI said that ‘place based’ approaches involving networked community-level service systems had been identified as the most effective means of addressing homelessness for young people:
… early intervention approaches that are based around an eco-system of networked coordinated and cooperating services in a community (interacting with other institutions like schools) are most effective in reducing youth homelessness. However most of [the] present early intervention programs are run at a state or federal level and ‘siloed’, with many of the organisations competing for funding, undermining willingness to cooperate…
The coalition of organisations working with Upstream Australia outlined a proposal for ‘a more integrated system’ based on the ‘community of schools and services’ (COSS) model of early intervention, which was initially piloted in Geelong and subsequently trialled at other sites in Australia and overseas. The organisations explained:
The architecture of the COSS Model includes close working collaborations between the secondary schools in a community with the community agencies, such as the lead agency(ies) that provides the youth and family work. It requires a staged development and intensive backbone support in the initial years. Data plays a crucial role in monitoring outcomes in near real-time (or reaching that point is a key objective to be achieved).
The organisations went on to describe the promising outcomes from the implementation of the model in Geelong:
Over three years, the implementation of the model has reduced adolescent homelessness in the City of Greater Geelong by 40 per cent and early school leaving by 20 per cent in the three most disadvantaged schools in Geelong…
Upstream Australia explained how the COSS model was an example of the ‘collective impact’ approach, where ‘a community’s support resources work collaboratively to a common vision and practice framework using the same data measurement tools’. It suggested that while the Australian Government would not necessarily provide direct funding for support services under the COSS model, there was a broader policy question about how the Government ‘could act to lead, drive, or facilitate’ a shift to a collective impact approach to service delivery.
Upstream Australia also questioned the appropriateness of the Australian Government funding programs such as Reconnect on an ongoing basis, and recommended that the program be transferred to the states and territories ‘on the basis of a commitment to expand place-based early intervention as part of the state/territory’s homelessness strategy or plan’.
Other submitters recommended increased funding for early intervention programs, including Reconnect or programs based on the COSS model.
As discussed in Chapter 2, submitters also emphasised the importance of using and linking data to inform approaches to prevention and early intervention. Emerging Minds, a non-profit organisation focused on the mental health of children and young people, encouraged data collection ‘that enables the experiences and needs of children and their families to be identified, so that it can inform policy planning and service delivery’ for prevention and early intervention.
Adopting a ‘Housing First’ approach
A wide range of submitters put the view that international best practice in overcoming homelessness was increasingly moving in the direction of a ‘Housing First’ approach.
The principle of Housing First is that housing should be made available to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as an immediate priority, rather than requiring people to overcome challenges such as mental illness or substance abuse, as a precondition for the provision of housing. At the same time ‘wrap around’ services should be made available to deal with associated issues that may interact with and compound problems of homelessness.
This section discusses the conceptual basis of Housing First, features of the approach, examples of its operation in Australia and factors that may have constrained its broader adoption and implementation.
According to Ruah Community Services & St Bart’s (Ruah and St Bart’s), the Housing First approach emerged out of an increasing awareness of the limitations of existing methods to provide for the broader needs of particular groups of homeless people:
Housing First was developed as a model for supporting people experiencing chronic homelessness who had complex needs, particularly around mental health. Before Housing First, people were expected to build their capacity and housing readiness through a pathway of crisis and transitional housing. People with mental health and substance-use issues were excluded from crisis and transitional homelessness and housing services and expected to work toward being ‘housing ready’ while living on the streets.
This approach fails to recognise that for people who are homeless the primary concern in their life will be housing, thus setting people up to fail. Once people are in stable homes, with wrap-around supports, there is capacity to address underlying mental health and/or substance-use issues.
Ruah and St Bart’s explained that the approach ‘begins with immediate access to long-term housing without the need to meet housing readiness criteria’.
Many submitters contrasted Housing First with what they described as the ‘stepped’, ‘ladder’ or ‘staircase’ approach, under which homeless people dealing with issues such as mental illness or substance abuse were expected to go through the steps of dealing with those problems before they could be eligible for assistance with housing.
In the view of Compass Housing Services, Housing First turns the conventional approach ‘on its head’:
Conventionally, homelessness services worked from the premise that an individual’s problems should be resolved prior to allocation of accommodation. This effectively means ‘treatment in place’ maintaining someone in a homeless situation while addressing mental health or addiction issues. The assumption was that a tenancy would not be sustained while a person had behaviours that were not socially acceptable. Housing First turns that assumption on its head and asserts that the first support required to resolve chronic homelessness is to provide stable accommodation.
However, Ms Louise Gilding from the ACT Government told the Committee that while the Housing First approach seeks to remove barriers to homeless people receiving assistance, it does not mean no evictions from social housing:
The elephant in the room is that Housing First doesn't mean no evictions. … We still need people to be good neighbours, we need people to pay the rent and we need people to look after their properties. That's what we're aiming for, and we aim to give the support to people for that. Sometimes there are complex case needs; sometimes there are recalcitrant behaviours and there is defiance. It's challenging work. Yes, you're right—there are expectations, and there need to be expectations, around those living skills, but it's about not putting those barriers in place in the first instance, so that the support then can flow.
AHURI set out its view of the principles that underpin the Housing First approach, which included:
Rapid rehousing into permanent housing
Consumer choice and control
Separation of housing and support services
Recognition that recovery is ongoing
Community re-integration into housing that is not differentiated from other housing…
The Mercy Foundation said the principles of Housing First are:
Housing is provided as quickly as possible for people experiencing chronic homelessness
People do not have to be assessed as ‘housing ready’. There are no pre-requisites for people to access housing.
Housing First provides people with permanent housing and access to services needed to help them sustain their tenancy. Most people will just need permanent housing to end their homelessness; some may need a period of transitional support as they move back in housing, and a small number of people have high or complex needs and may require permanent support. An individual’s engagement with these services is not required for them to maintain their housing.
The Committee heard that, from its beginnings as a response to the intersection of homelessness and mental illness and substance abuse, Housing First has now been applied to the wider problems of homelessness as they intersect with other issues affecting vulnerable groups.
For example, Flat Out, an organisation supporting women who have had contact with the criminal justice or prison systems, submitted:
For criminalised women, and other people facing complex challenges and who are targeted by the criminal justice system, the ‘Housing First’ approach is the gold standard. … It has demonstrated repeatedly that once housed, people are better able to move on with their lives (such as finding safety from violent relationships, beating drug and alcohol addiction, being re-united with children who had been placed in out-of-home care, and finding employment).
The development of Housing First into a comprehensive approach was described by AHURI, which submitted that:
… the term Housing First has come to denote a philosophy or paradigm that has been influential in informing other programs or even broad homelessness strategies.
In keeping with the understanding of Housing First as a broad philosophy or paradigm, the Committee was given a number of different accounts of the principles behind the approach and the details of its application.
In its strategy on homelessness, All Paths Lead to a Home, the Western Australian Government outlined what it saw as the various dimensions of Housing First, which it said ‘can be distinguished in terms of a philosophy, a systems approach and as a program model’:
As a philosophy, Housing First can be a guiding principle for an organisation or community that prioritises getting people into permanent housing with supports to follow…
Housing First can be considered embedded within a systems approach when the foundational philosophy and core principles of Housing First are applied across integrated systems of service delivery…
Housing First can be considered more specifically as a program when it is operationalised as a service delivery model or set of activities provided by an agency or government body.
The Western Australian Government said that ‘while the core principles guide its application, Housing First can be delivered in different models for different contexts. … It can take many forms and is applied in new ways across different contexts’.
Ruah and St Bart’s endorsed the view that Housing First is primarily a systems approach directed at a holistic and integrated effort to overcome the sets of problems affecting those most vulnerable to homelessness. The organisations said the Housing First terminology was becoming increasingly adopted internationally, but stressed the importance of the full application of the core principles of the model, which it said could be described as a ‘Housing Led’ approach.
In their submission, Ruah and St Bart’s outlined how a Housing Led approach could be applied to the spectrum of groups experiencing or at risk of homelessness, ranging from the chronic homeless to those newly homeless. Each of these cohorts require different responses, as shown in Figure 4.1.
Figure 4.1: Model of a ‘Housing Led’ systemic approach
Source: Ruah Community Services & St Bart’s, Submission 13, p. 8
The Unison Housing Research Lab at RMIT University concurred with the view that Housing First is best understood as a systems approach, which means viewing a problem “as a whole rather than its individual component parts” and “taking into account behaviour of systems over time rather than static ‘snapshots’”.
It argued that approaches to homelessness should not, on one extreme, just focus on the individuals experiencing homelessness or, on the other extreme, view the problem entirely at the aggregate level, but should analyse the systemic factors that generate homelessness:
Focusing on … finding out many details about individuals, at particular points in time … can encourage the perception that homelessness is attributable only to individual characteristics. At the other extreme, aggregate statistics (such as total numbers in Australia) can disguise the fact that homelessness is not equally distributed, and that there are significant variations between, for example, different age groups and different geographical locations.
It added that a systems approach highlights the fact that homelessness is fluid, with different people flowing into and out of homelessness under the influence of a range of different push and pull factors. Therefore, ‘reducing the number of homeless people requires thinking not only about the prevalence at a point in time… but also movement into and out of homelessness over time.’
Some submitters noted the importance to the Housing First model of the provision of a broad range of ‘wrap-around’ services—in the words of the St Vincent de Paul Society, the approach is a ‘”housing first”, but not a “housing only” approach to preventing and addressing homelessness’.
At the same time, the Northern Sydney Housing and Homelessness Collaboration, a group of not-for-profit community housing providers and homelessness services, emphasised that the model involved ‘the provision of secure, affordable housing with flexible, wrap-around supports’ and that:
The level of support must be flexible in order to respond to the changing needs of clients over time and housing tenure must be permanent in that it is not tied to engagement with support.
Similarly, the Australian Government explained that in the Housing First approach, engagement with wrap around services is not required for people to maintain accommodation.
The City of Adelaide, describing its programs to deal with homelessness, stated:
A ’housing first’ model proposes safe and permanent housing as the first priority for people experiencing homelessness. Once housed, support can be wrapped around the individual to address other complex needs such as drug and alcohol use or mental health.
Both international and Australian examples were offered to the Committee in support of the success of Housing First approaches.
Ruah and St Bart’s told the Committee that Housing First is being ‘adopted internationally and has been the subject of several evaluated programs that have built a strong evidence base around the model’.
In the case of Finland, a world leader in the field, Ruah and St Bart’s reported that the strategy had reduced the number of rough sleepers from 3,000 in 2010 to 1,000 in 2019. This had been achieved through investment in housing infrastructure, social work supports for the homeless, investment in preventative services and expert consultations with people experiencing homelessness when developing services.
Mission Australia added that Finland had been the first country in Europe to achieve a decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The City Futures Research Centre noted that Housing First approaches to homelessness in Finland, Denmark and Norway had been particularly successful in the context of rough sleepers.
The Mercy Foundation told the Committee that:
A study of 225 people in the USA compared the outcomes of those using traditional housing services and those using a Housing First program known as Pathways to Housing. The research found that 88% of those in the Housing First program retained their housing for two years compared to 47% in the other programs. Housing First programs in Australia show similar rates of success.
An example of a Housing First strategy implemented by several organisations is known as Common Ground. Common Ground was developed in New York in the 1990s and, in the last decade or so, the model has been applied in a number of Australian cities: first Adelaide, then Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Compass Housing Services explained that Common Ground is ‘not a homelessness service offering crisis services or transitional housing’, but is both a ‘safe place to live permanently and the support to help [people experiencing homelessness] achieve stability in their lives’. It is a ‘mixed tenancy’ model that not only provides housing for ‘the most vulnerable chronically homeless people in the community’, but also offers support to those ‘who may not have a history of homelessness, but who need affordable housing’:
The Common Ground model can be applied to any population group which requires the combination of permanent affordable housing, connected with support services that are appropriate to the chosen population.
The Committee was also told about the Adelaide Zero Project as a further example of an initiative based on the principles of Housing First. Adelaide Zero was launched in 2017, and involves a consortium of 40 organisations, including service delivery agencies, social housing providers, state and local government, universities and private sector organisations.
Adelaide Zero is based on the Functional Zero model, which has been successfully adopted in several communities in the United States:
Simply put, Functional Zero happens when a community's average housing placement rate is more than the number of people sleeping rough. Housing placements are any outcome where someone is securely housed, for example long-term lease in public housing, community housing or private rental, [or] home ownership. In order to reach Functional Zero, the number of housing placements made per month must be more than the number of people sleeping rough in a city for a minimum of three consecutive months.
The Functional Zero model recognises that people will still fall into homelessness, but works to ensure that people’s experience of sleeping rough is ‘rare, brief, and non-recurring’.
An important aspect of the Functional Zero model is ‘knowing the names and needs of every person experiencing homelessness in real-time’ through a ‘By-Name List’. This enables service providers to monitor the number of people in the system and match housing and support to people’s individual needs.
The Northern Sydney Housing and Homelessness Collaboration gave examples of Housing First approaches in New South Wales. For example:
Bridge Housing and Neami National partnered on the Platform 70 initiative in 2011 to house and support rough sleepers in inner Sydney. The program was particularly successful with an 85 percent success rate in sustaining housing tenancies and housed 105 rough sleepers. It is an evidence-based example of a person centred program with housing and support partners working closely to bring about a range of positive outcomes for the clients.
In a supplementary submission, the Australian Government provided a list of other Housing First approaches in Australia and overseas.
However, the Committee heard that the adoption of Housing First in Australia had been constrained due to a shortage of housing in which people vulnerable to homelessness can be accommodated.
AHURI observed that while Housing First principles and methods had been applied in Australia for some time:
… many homelessness programs still follow a stepped housing model, with people notionally moving through crisis, transitional and then longterm housing even though housing pathways are often not linear with many people cycling in and out of crisis accommodation … The key reason for a delay in accessing long term housing has more often been due to shortages of affordable housing and the lack of long term viable housing pathways, rather than programmatic reasons.
HHS submitted that ‘approaches like Housing First – successful overseas, are hampered here in Australia as stock is not available to implement the program’.
This was echoed by the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into homelessness, which found that ‘Victoria’s Housing First programs are significantly handicapped by a lack of affordable long-term accommodation to house participants’.
The Northern Sydney Housing and Homelessness Collaboration said that insufficient funding had made it difficult for providers to make the transition from traditional systems and embrace Housing First approaches:
While there have been a number of highly successful individual Housing First initiatives and pilot programs in Australia, our homelessness system is still predominantly crisis-driven with stepped housing. The absence of a capital funding stream to deliver additional social housing in combination with the fragmented and short-term funding cycles for support services have prevented the expansion of Housing First models.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre said the development of Housing First approaches in Australia was constrained by:
the lack of appropriate social housing stock to move people experiencing homelessness into,
the split responsibilities between State and Federal levels of government, and
the lack of wrap around services to support people housed in maintaining tenancies and address any other underlying issues they may have.
National Shelter argued that the adoption of Housing First methods required reform of existing systems:
Focussing on the required housing needed to address homelessness also requires reform of the specialist homelessness service system to tailor support needs around the household and housing requirements rather than the prevalence in the current system of forcing people experiencing homelessness to fit specialist homelessness services.
While submitters argued that shortfalls in investment had limited the adoption of Housing First approaches, some also suggested that Housing First was cost effective and could reduce the total government expenditure on homelessness and related problems.
For example, Mercy Foundation submitted that:
An evaluation of the Brisbane Common Ground model in 2016 reveals that governments can save in excess of $13,000 per person each year, by providing secure, long term housing and access to relevant support services. The savings are primarily in health (less mental health episodes, less visits to the emergency department, fewer hospital admissions). There are also saving[s] to criminal justice and homelessness services.
In a similar vein, LawRight, an independent legal centre, reported that:
Prioritising housing as a foundational response to homelessness not only improves social, financial and health outcomes, it has also been found to reduce costs associated with supporting homeless populations.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre also argued that the Housing First model ‘reduces costs borne by government due to reduced strain on the justice system, hospitals, and psychiatric care services’.
Homelessness Australia said that while Housing First trial programs in some cities had achieved ‘extraordinary results’, Australian governments had not prioritised the expansion of these programs to support more people across the country.
Enhancing social housing
The Committee received evidence about the important role of social housing in helping to address homelessness. As outlined in this section, a strong theme in evidence to the inquiry was the need to increase investment in social housing.
As noted in Chapter 2, the term ‘social housing’ is conventionally used to refer to both public housing (provided and managed by state and territory governments) and community housing (managed by community-based organisations).
The term ‘affordable housing’ is sometimes used in association with social housing (for example, some submitters wrote about ‘social and affordable housing’). However, affordable housing can mean either social housing or, more generally, housing available on the private market which is affordable to lower income earners. Evidence about a lack of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness is discussed in Chapter 3.
This section begins with a general discussion of evidence on the need to increase investment in social housing, noting concerns about the failure of the supply of social housing to keep pace with demand. The section then considers more specific evidence relating to the distinct roles of public and community housing.
Need for increased investment in social housing
AHURI submitted that social housing is a ‘key source of affordable and secure housing that can benefit people who are homeless or at risk’. It explained that as at June 2018, there were 434,502 social housing dwellings across Australia, comprising 73 per cent public housing and 20 per cent community housing, with the remainder being Indigenous community and state owned and managed Indigenous housing.
AHURI explained that people who are assessed to be homeless or at risk of homelessness are given a high priority on the waiting list for social housing.
However, as noted above, the Committee heard that growth in the stock of social housing has not kept pace with population growth and increasing demand, which has resulted in the waiting list for social housing increasing.
For example, AHURI advised that:
The total number of social housing dwellings has grown over time—from 401,576 dwellings in 2010 to 434,502 dwellings in 2018… but this growth has not been sufficient to enable social housing to keep pace with population growth and demand.
Similarly, the City Futures Research Centre (CFRC) submitted that:
Australia’s stock of social housing has remained virtually static in nominal terms for almost 25 years – a period when population (and therefore need) has continued to increase. The number of social rental units has therefore fallen from 6.2 per 100 dwellings in 1991 to 4.2 in 2018. Consequently, over the past quarter century, what was already an internationally modest level of provision has effectively contracted by one third.
The Committee heard that while there had been some growth in community housing, there had been a significant decline in public housing. This trend is discussed in further detail below.
Another contributing factor discussed in evidence was the low turnover of tenancies in social housing. According to the Grattan Institute, ‘tenants generally take a long time to leave social housing: most have stayed for more than five years’ and few enter the private rental market:
As a consequence, there is little ‘flow’ of social housing available for people whose lives take a big turn for the worse, and many people who are in greatest need are not assisted. The result is that fewer Australians are living in social housing than in the past, and every year proportionally fewer social housing units become available for new tenants.
The CFRC also noted the ‘declining mobility’ of existing tenants as a factor contributing to the effective contraction of social housing supply.
The Everybody’s Home campaign (discussed further below) said there was a ‘backlog’ of 430,000 social housing dwellings in Australia. It outlined the numbers of people on waiting lists for various forms of social housing:
… latest available figures demonstrate the considerable waiting list for social housing with the wait list nationally of 140,600 applicants on the waiting list for public housing and 8,800 households … wait-listed for state-owned-and-managed Indigenous housing… Another 38,300 applicants were waiting for mainstream community housing… These figures exclude people temporarily suspended from waiting lists … who need social housing but are ineligible and others not on waiting lists but still in need, such as rough sleepers and very low-income households in housing stress.
The Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA) argued that planned investments in social housing will not make up for past shortfalls but will continue the downward trend:
No reliable figures exist on the additional new social and affordable homes currently planned but even on optimistic assumptions it is highly unlikely to exceed 10% of what is required. …the prospective net increase in social and affordable homes over the next five years is likely to be barely above zero. Unless there is a change of course by Australian governments, social and affordable housing provision per capita will continue to contract, just as it has for the past 25 years.
CHIA also quoted an audit conducted in 2019 by Infrastructure Australia that found:
…‘the social housing system suffers from a lack of funding, an ageing housing stock with high maintenance needs, increased demand due to housing affordability issues, insufficient funding to increase the supply of dwellings in the system, and tenants with increasingly diverse needs’.
As discussed earlier in this chapter, the Committee heard evidence that the adoption of Housing First in Australia had been constrained due to the limited availability of social housing.
Against this background, a large number of submitters called for substantial increases in government funding for social housing.
One prominent example was the Everybody’s Home campaign, which submitted that it involves 400 organisations and more than 27,000 individual supporters. The campaign is calling for government investment to ‘meet Australia’s identified shortfall of 500,000 social and affordable homes by 2036’. It proposes new capital investment in 300,000 new social housing properties and tax incentives or subsidies to leverage private sector investment in a further 200,000 affordable rental properties.
A number of other submitters expressed support for the campaign, including Homelessness NSW, St Vincent’s Health Australia, Jesuit Social Services, and Wintringham, an organisation supporting older homeless people.
Noting that most submissions to the inquiry were received in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic contraction, a range of submitters suggested that investment in social housing would not only serve as a foundation for addressing homelessness, but would be an effective form of economic stimulus.
Anglicare Australia argued:
Ending our affordable housing shortfall would be the most powerful way to tackle the homelessness crisis and boost regional economies. … Social housing projects can get off the ground much more quickly than road or rail infrastructure – and it brings greater long-term benefits.
The St Vincent de Paul Society said the economic and social benefits of investment in social housing were ‘far-reaching’ and that:
… a significant investment in the building and maintenance of social, community and transitional housing and supported accommodation would not only improve housing options for the homeless, it would create jobs, kick-start the economy and provide long-term benefits to the community as a whole.
National Shelter submitted that:
Directing public investment towards the construction of social and affordable housing during a period of economic decline has been widely recognised as an effective means of both stimulating the economy and creating meaningful social and systemic change.
Compass Housing Services took a similar position, arguing ‘there is no escaping the fact that a shortage of affordable and social housing is the primary determinant of homelessness in Australia’. It recommended the Australian Government support a ‘major program of building social and affordable housing’ in partnership with private sector and community housing providers, suggesting that this would ‘provide important economic stimulus’ following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Grattan Institute also supported investment in new social housing, and said that this would be ‘a quick and affordable way to stimulate the economy in the wake of COVID-19’. However, it argued that new social housing stock should be reserved for those most in need:
Social housing is particularly effective stimulus, but does come at a cost. Once more units are constructed, they should be reserved for those most in need, and at significant risk of becoming homeless for the long term.
The Grattan Institute went on to argue that public financing is the most cost-effective way to finance construction of new social housing, and noted that the actual cost to government of providing more social housing is less than the up-front cost due to the ongoing rental returns.
Other submitters expressed support for the Social Housing Acceleration and Renovation Program (SHARP) proposal, launched in 2020 by CHIA, Homelessness Australia, National Shelter and the Everybody’s Home campaign, partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SHARP proposal calls for the Australian Government, with contributions from state and territory governments, to invest in:
… at least 30,000 additional social housing units and renovation to high environmental standards of many thousands more existing properties. The program should aim for 75% of new homes to be completed within three years.
The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors recommended that the Australian Government invest $200 million over four years in a ‘Capital City Housing First Fund’ for the construction of 2,000 tailored units for people sleeping rough and/or at risk of primary homelessness.
As noted above, the Committee heard that there had been a significant and long-term decline in the amount of public housing in Australia relative to population.
AHURI submitted that ‘public housing as a proportion of all housing has declined significantly, falling from 5.2 per cent in 1996 to 4.1 per cent in 2011’.
The Victorian Public Tenants’ Association (VPTA) presented data about the decline in public housing over the last two decades, which is reproduced in Table 4.1.
Table 4.1: Numbers of public housing dwellings, by state and territory
New South Wales
Source: Victorian Public Tenants’ Association, Submission 21, p. 5.
In addition to declining public housing stock, some submitters suggested that a decline in investment had caused a deterioration in the standard of current public housing, resulting in poor living conditions for tenants.
Sacred Heart Mission submitted that:
Much of the existing public housing stock is poorly maintained and in disrepair, poorly ventilated and insulated, often unsafe and no longer fit for purpose.
… Not all areas are unsafe; some residents of public and community housing mention the positive sense of communities that are formed in their neighbourhoods. However, for others they can be extremely unsafe places to live…
We consider that public housing is a form of social infrastructure that should be viewed as essential in the same way that public transport, roads, schools, hospitals and other forms of infrastructure are considered essential and worthy of long-term and considered investment.
The Exodus Foundation, a charity in Sydney’s Inner West which assists homeless and vulnerable people, noted that in 2020, one in five government-owned homes failed to meet minimum standards, including standards relating to facilities for washing, showering, food storage and sewage removal. It noted these statistics are significantly worse for those in Indigenous housing and those with a disability.
While many submitters advocated for increased provision of social housing generally, in the context of reduced availability of public housing, some submitters stressed the particular role that public housing has for more vulnerable populations.
The VPTA argued that while ‘public and community housing must continue to exist and grow side by side’:
We firmly believe that public housing is the most equitable, affordable and appropriate form of tenure for the most vulnerable Australians, including those who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
It quoted research from RMIT University which found that ‘public housing is the most protective factor against homelessness, and that community housing did not have the same preventative effect’. This finding was attributed in part to the security of tenure afforded by public housing relative to community housing, which it was suggested was more dependent on rental revenue and therefore less tolerant of rental arrears.
The VPTA concluded that public housing must be the ‘central pillar’ in any homelessness response and that the ‘single most important thing that Governments can do to address the issue of homelessness and marginalised housing in Australia, is to build more public housing’.
Similarly, Homelessness Australia made the case that ‘rigorous research has shown that there is no single intervention more effective in ending homelessness and preventing its re-occurrence than providing public housing’.
Per Capita said that community housing is ‘an important component of a robust housing sector’, but cautioned that growth in community housing at the expense of public housing was problematic. It outlined what it saw as the benefits of public housing over both community housing and the private rental market, and said:
Evidence both internationally and locally shows that providing good quality public housing in appropriate locations is the most effective way to keep people out of homelessness. Data from the University of Melbourne’s Journeys Home study - the only longitudinal study in the world that tracks currently homeless populations alongside at-risk and vulnerable populations – shows that public housing is by far the strongest preventative factor against homelessness, finding that ‘…the magnitude of its effect was many times greater than anything else.’
As noted above, to the extent there has been growth in the overall number of social housing dwellings, this was due to an increase in community housing. The AIHW explained:
The number of community housing dwellings more than doubled over a decade, from 39,800 in 2008–09, to 87,800 in 2017–18, partly due to the transfer of ownership or management of public housing dwellings to community organisations.
CHIA—a peak body representing non-profit community housing providers (CHPs)—advised that its more than 170 members managed a portfolio of more than 100,000 homes.
A number of submitters emphasised the strengths of the community housing sector. For example, Southern Homelessness Services Network (SHSN)—a network of specialist homelessness services in the southern region of Melbourne—submitted that:
The community housing sector builds high quality housing that meets the needs of a range of groups for which the private market cannot respond. Community housing providers often have very strong relationships with local support agencies…
Link Housing said the benefits of CHPs managing social housing included:
… greater flexibility to respond to residents’ needs, strong capacity to build effective partnerships with support organisations in order to benefit residents, a propensity to be innovative and ease in implementation of innovation and minimal ‘red tape’.
HHS explained that CHPs can:
… mediate and gain better value between the developer and Council and ensure greater investment in models that cater for diverse local growing communities and are designed and developed to meet critical community need…
Ms Wendy Hayhurst from CHIA told the Committee that:
AHURI conducted research that looked at the cost-effectiveness of both the public and community housing sector. It looked both at their costs but also … the outcomes from that expenditure. It showed us in a very good light. We are generally well-liked by our tenants. Whilst we have higher staff ratios to properties, we're still not spending any more on services. So I think there's evidence out there to show that community housing providers will spend government investment extremely wisely. We are also regulated, so we're much more transparent [than the public housing sector]…
However, Compass Housing Services told the Committee that policy settings ‘have not favoured the growth of the community sector and its ability to contribute new housing stock has been limited’.
CHIA expressed concern about the perception that community housing is transitional rather than a long-term solution to the housing problems facing many people. It said CHPs:
… frequently find themselves required to balance an expectation (from governments) that tenants in social housing are on some form of ‘pathway’ to market housing with the reality that sustainable move-on options do not exist in sufficient numbers and / or that household incomes and circumstances make long term social housing the best and most appropriate option.
It said that in assessing the performance of landlords, ‘tenancy sustainment’ was equally as important an indicator as ‘move on’ rates.
CHIA also argued that there was a need for support to improve the capacity of CHPs to provide additional services for tenants with special needs:
… there is currently insufficient income or subsidy to enable [CHPs] to focus on all the needs of tenants with complex and challenging issues. What is spent is essentially a transfer payment from disadvantaged tenants to those who are even more disadvantaged. Spending funds on support also means there is less money that can be spent delivering new homes for people.
Similarly, SHSN said that funding for community housing is ‘not sustainable for housing people on very low incomes and requires subsidies to ensure it can house larger numbers of people on the lowest incomes’.
More generally, AHURI submitted that current arrangements do not always encourage affordable housing where the need is greatest:
AHURI research has shown that not for profit affordable housing growth is driven by opportunity rather than need – that is, new dwellings are provided where it proves viable, rather than where there is greatest demand for housing. It is dependent upon provision of subsidy, and at present affordable housing providers have to source that subsidy from varying sources (e.g. from land grants, market sales or operating subsidies). This fragmentation of subsidy mechanisms adds costs and complexity to the development process. A more coherent and long term policy framework would overcome this by providing public subsidy to reflect need across a continuum of need.
The Committee heard a range of evidence about efforts to increase the supply of community housing.
The Committee was told of ‘head leasing’ programs, where a CHP leases a certain number of privately-owned properties, which are then sub-let to tenants. AHURI advised that head leasing offers advantages for landlords, can provide tenants a high degree of stability, and is especially useful for certain client groups, such as families who may need larger housing or housing located near schools.
As an example, the Tasmanian Government explained that it provides owners with a financial incentive to make their property available via a head lease to a registered CHP for a two-year period. At the end of the lease, owners can offer tenants a direct lease agreement. The Tasmanian Government also makes use of head leasing for rapid rehousing for people in need of traditional accommodation.
PowerHousing Australia said that head leasing was one option for a rapid response to assist people experiencing homelessness. However, it also classified head leasing as a ‘short-term’ solution.
Similarly, Sacred Heart Mission argued that while head leasing was an effective solution for providing immediate access to housing, and a useful interim measure while other approaches are undertaken to increase supply of permanent social housing, it was not a long-term solution.
Another approach discussed in evidence to the inquiry was the practice by some state and territory governments of transferring management of public housing to CHPs. For example, the Tasmanian Government explained that its Better Housing Futures program, launched in 2013, involved transferring the management of 4,000 government-owned properties to four CHPs for an initial period of 10 years. A further 2,000 properties were subsequently added to the program and it was extended to 2040.
Mr Peter White from the Department of Communities Tasmania characterised the arrangement as being ‘effectively’ a head lease.
Mr White told the Committee that the program was financially advantageous because tenants became eligible for Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA), which was not the case when the housing was managed as public housing. Mr White explained that CRA payments went directly to the CHPs, which ‘allowed for increased investment in maintenance and upgrading and tenancy services and community support services’.
Mr White said the program initially focused on areas with a high concentration of social housing, and that the program had delivered positive outcomes for tenants:
We've had really, really positive feedback from tenants in those communities. … They've seen a suite of services and improvements over the last six or seven years in those areas. Across Tasmania last year … those [CHPs] received approximately $11 million in Commonwealth rent assistance. All those moneys, under our agreements, are required to be invested back in to making a difference within the communities themselves.
When asked more generally about the transfer of public housing to the community housing sector, Mr White also noted that CHPs receive GST concessions and are potentially able to attract philanthropic donations or access other forms of equity.
Mr White told the Committee that Tasmania’s experience had demonstrated that—with appropriate protections in place for vulnerable clients—it would be possible for states and territories to transfer responsibility for tenancy management and property management to CHPs:
… what we have shown in Tasmania is that the community housing sector can do the tenancy and property management function very well. I could see that model being expanded across social housing across the board.
However, Mr White told the Committee there was still a role for public housing, particularly for clients with ‘very specific and complex needs’:
… public housing does a great job; we manage 8,000 homes at the moment as tenancy managers. But my point is that there's additional resources that come in for the community housing sector that the public providers don’t have access to, which is resulting in improved amenity of the stock … and the ability to put more programs on the ground for tenants. So I don't think it's a matter of saying one's better than the other but I would say that we've shown that working with the community housing sector has been positive, and they’ve shown a willingness to provide good quality accommodation and services for the most vulnerable people in Tasmania.
The Committee also heard about approaches to raise funds from the private sector for affordable housing, including community housing.
For example, the Homes for Homes model, which is an initiative of the Big Issue, involves raising funds via tax-deductible donations linked to property transactions:
Funds are raised via individuals and property developers agreeing to register properties with Homes for Homes, enabling a tax-deductible donation of 0.1% of the sale price to be donated to Homes for Homes. Participation is recognised through a caveat registered on the property title… The donation flows seamlessly through the settlement disbursement process. Donations are pooled and funding is granted to housing providers to increase supply of social and affordable housing.
Homes for Homes advised that the model had so far provided almost $1 million in grants to CHPs and had the potential to raise over $1 billion over the next 30 years if adopted by 5 per cent of the property market. It said the Australian Government could accelerate the adoption of the model through funding agreements with states and territories.
While not specifically targeted to community housing, another example was the Permanent Rental Affordability Development Solution (PRADS) model, proposed by the private-sector not-for-profit organisation Housing All Australians (HAA). According to HAA:
The purpose of creating the PRADS model is to maximise the involvement of the private sector in delivering affordable rental housing, by acknowledging and mitigating the risks normally considered part of the development process. Over the medium term, this should result in the delivery of affordable housing becoming part of a [developer’s] normal business.
The PRADS model works via an agreement between a developer and the relevant local government, under which the local government accelerates or amends the development approval process, with the saving to the developer passed on through the provision of an agreed number of dwellings at an agreed percentage below market rent.
Mr Robert Pradolin from HAA explained the arrangement to the Committee in the following terms:
…where a developer says, 'Local government, you've got the levers to actually add huge value in terms of planning. You've got the levers to actually accelerate time and save money. If we work together collaboratively and you save some of that money or give me extra value, I will share some of that value with you and lock in affordable housing at a below-market rent for life that is at no cost to either federal, state or local government’.
In its submission, HAA said that the principles of the PRADS model had been applied in a development in Victoria.
However, Mr Pradolin explained that the model ‘needs to be done at scale’ and stressed the importance of attracting superannuation funds to invest in affordable housing. HAA recommended that the Australian Government work with HAA to ‘explore the scalability of the model’.
SYC, a not-for-profit housing provider, said that PRADS was ‘a creative and innovative proposal’.
The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into homelessness also considered the PRADS model, recommending that the Victorian Government further investigate the use of the model ‘to ascertain whether it is a practical and appropriate mechanism for increasing provision of affordable housing in Victoria’.
Speaking more generally, the Grattan Institute cautioned that there are limits to the extent to which private sector financing can meet a shortfall of government investment in social housing:
No amount of innovative financing can paper over the need for extra funding to boost the supply of social housing. Social housing provides heavily discounted rents to tenants, to assist them with their housing costs. And therefore government funding will be required to make up the shortfall between what tenants can afford to pay and the cost of acquiring land, building social housing, and maintaining it over the life of the asset.
Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator
In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Government said it ‘recognises that greater private and institutional investment is needed to expand the community housing sector’. In 2018, the Government established the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC) to operate the Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator (AHBA).
As outlined in Chapter 2, the AHBA provides 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.
Several CHPs spoke positively about the AHBA, but the Committee also heard that additional funding would be required to address the shortfall in social housing.
Compass Housing Services said that NHFIC has ‘gone some way to increasing the capacity of the community sector to increase supply’.
HHS to the Committee that it had refinanced existing debt at a cheaper rate through a 10-year loan from the AHBA:
This has reduced refinancing risk for HHS and lowered costs, enabling us greater capacity to invest and develop. ... The scheme has been [a] very important initiative … in supporting Community housing providers to engage in the development of social housing.
Ms Trudi Ray from HHS told the Committee that her organisation had saved approximately $10 million over the term of the loan.
However, while positive about its own experience with the AHBA, HHS said that the initiative is ‘not generating enough new housing stock to close the existing gap in supply for those in urgent need of community housing across the states and territories, let alone to address the projected increasing gaps in future years’.
Launch Housing told the Committee:
The establishment of [NHFIC] is an important reform that should increase affordable housing. On its own, however, it will not provide a sufficient subsidy to increase the level of social housing and affordable housing at the very low end of the market.
Mission Australia submitted that:
[NHFIC] … will make a useful contribution in making concessional funding available for Community Housing Providers. However, without significant funding to bridge the gap between cost and operations, this initiative is insufficient to generate sufficient investment in social and affordable housing to address the current critical shortfall.
Similarly, AHURI said that while NHFIC offers a new source of financing to support an increase in the supply of social housing, this increase in supply would be ‘dependent on ongoing subsidy’:
AHURI research has shown that the most efficient way to achieve this is through capital grants subsidies with housing being supplied according to community needs (Randolph et al. 2018). The depth of subsidy should reflect the higher risks and costs associated with accommodating homeless or at risk persons.
Indigenous community housing
Evidence on the experiences of Indigenous communities with homelessness is discussed in Chapter 3.
Further to this, the Committee received evidence on Indigenous community housing, which highlighted a common view that community-controlled organisations were best placed to manage housing to meet the needs of Indigenous communities.
For example, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress submitted that:
Aboriginal community-controlled housing services, by understanding local cultural needs and knowing the local Aboriginal community are much more able to provide effective and appropriate housing and homelessness services.
The submission added:
Each community has its own specific history, ways of living, relationships to land, and social relations, so the design and placement of housing requires close collaboration and consultation with each place.
Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation (TCAC) said it and other Indigenous organisations had advocated for the transfer of public housing to community housing under the control of Aboriginal Community Controlled Housing Organisations. It explained it had entered into an agreement with the Northern Territory Government to oversee such a transfer on the Alice Springs Town Camps:
A model that is placed based [sic]; community controlled; culturally appropriate and delivered by a consortium underpinned [by] professionally accredited and skilled partners will deliver a community housing model that can deliver the best outcomes…
Similarly, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency submitted:
… that to achieve self-determination in a housing and homelessness framework there needs to be a transfer of social housing stock to Aboriginal organisations so that we can address the needs of our communities. Particularly in providing crisis accommodation for individuals affected by family violence and young people leaving out of home care.
Planning and zoning reform
In considering factors that impact the supply of social and affordable housing, a number of submitters highlighted the importance of planning and zoning policies. As noted in Chapter 2, while state governments set policies to guide planning decisions, local governments are responsible for developing and implementing land use plans at the local level.
For example, Shelter Tas, the peak body for housing and homelessness services in Tasmania, said that the planning system ‘needs to be modernised to recognise the importance of social housing and treat it as an urgent priority’.
A key concept discussed in evidence was ‘mandatory inclusionary zoning’ (MIZ), which is when planning rules require that residential developments include a certain number or proportion of affordable houses. This is an alternative to an incentive model, where affordable housing is encouraged by reducing costs for developers (for example, by relaxing development controls or expediting approval processes).
The Constellation Project—a network founded by Australian Red Cross, the Centre for Social Impact, Mission Australia and PwC Australia collaborating on solutions to end homelessness—explained that:
In delivering on MIZ obligations, a developer may include affordable housing units within their project or elsewhere. Otherwise, an equivalent levy may be paid towards such housing, with the funds being passed as grant aid to an affordable housing provider (probably a not-for-profit CHP).
The MIZ proportion required in a development may vary according to local circumstances – but it should be a significant, not token, proportion.
It explained that some cities have implemented MIZ quotas of up to 50 per cent, but also said such quotas should be considered in light of factors such as the definition of ‘affordable housing’ used.
Ms Jacqui Jones from the Constellation Project told the Committee that she considered the United Kingdom to have a ‘very, very mature’ implementation of MIZ which ‘has created significant amounts of social and affordable housing’. Ms Jones said that while MIZ was occurring in some jurisdictions in Australia, it was not comprehensive or consistent.
Professor Kristy Muir from the Constellation Project and the Centre for Social Impact highlighted the example of South Australia:
In South Australia, we know that they were quite successful over a 10-year period, with a particular focus between 2005 and 2015. They added almost 5½ thousand affordable homes, which was about 17 per cent of the total housing supply in that state. It shows you that you can quite quickly get your proportions and numbers up if you do it in an appropriate way.
The Constellation Project estimated that, over the period from 2020 to 2036, MIZ could potentially provide between 32,000 and 160,000 additional social and affordable rental houses in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. It said that while MIZ ‘is not a substitute for public investment in social and affordable housing', it is ‘one of the tools that governments should be using’.
The Constellation Project outlined a proposal for implementing MIZ in Australia, recommending as a baseline that 10 per cent of housing space developed on privately owned land in metropolitan areas be designated in perpetuity as social or affordable rental housing under CHP management.
Other submitters also expressed their support for MIZ, suggesting a range of quotas for private and public land ranging from 10 to 30 per cent.
For example, the Mercy Foundation recommended setting quotes for affordable housing of 15 per cent of dwellings built on private land and 30 per cent of dwellings built on formerly public land:
These targets will eventually lead to an increased supply of affordable dwellings for vulnerable cohorts as well as key workers and minimum wage workers. Inclusionary Zoning policies create additional affordable and social housing stock across the metropolitan area, rather than concentrating development in particular suburbs.
While noting that implementation of MIZ was a matter for state, territory and local governments, the Constellation Project said that the Australian Government ‘must play its part’ by helping to establish a nationally consistent approach to MIZ.
The Australian Government noted in its submission that under the NHHA, state and territory governments are required to incorporate ‘planning and zoning reform and initiatives’ in their housing strategies where appropriate to the needs of those jurisdictions. This includes consideration of inclusionary zoning and land release strategies.
However, Q Shelter said that the NHHA ‘could be more explicit in its requirements for state/territory governments to mandate the introduction of inclusionary zoning through the state planning systems’.
The City of Port Phillip in Melbourne recommended that the Australian Government reach agreement with the states on consistent approaches to both MIZ and ‘value sharing’ mechanisms to deliver more social and affordable housing.
Developing a national strategy
Proposals to develop a national strategy on housing and/or homelessness featured in a number of submissions. Generally, these proposals sought to address problems that were seen to exist regarding two inter-related issues:
the interconnectedness of policies and programs on homelessness and housing; and
the respective roles of the three levels of government, particularly since the states and territories are primarily responsible for homelessness and housing while the Australian Government has authority over other relevant issues such as welfare.
As outlined in this section, the focus, objectives and details of the proposals for a national strategy varied considerably. Most submitters called for Australian Government leadership, some focused primarily on the issue of homelessness, and others addressed broader issues such as the housing market and housing affordability, taxation settings, and welfare.
The Committee notes that the evidence considered in this section builds on evidence about the existing roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government and the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA), which is set out in Chapter 2. Under the NHHA, each of the states and territories are required to publish and implement a homelessness strategy for their jurisdiction.
Some submissions also referred to the Australian Government’s 2008 White Paper on homelessness, The Road Home, as an example of a previous national strategy.
In making the case for a national strategy, Ms Jenny Smith from Homelessness Australia told the Committee that:
Only a national strategy can take a bird's eye view of broader Commonwealth government services and change policies that are creating homelessness. Only the Commonwealth can bring together state, federal and even local government agencies to address and prevent homelessness.
Ms Katherine McKernan, also from Homelessness Australia, added:
We need to have that universal view across the country that incorporates not just the housing and support elements of ending and preventing homelessness, but also all of the other policy and programs that are in place that can prevent homelessness. It could be through preventing people leaving the health system into homelessness, leaving corrections into homelessness or leaving out-of-home care into homelessness. It could also look at the settings in the welfare space and how that can help assist people in ending homelessness, and also preventing homelessness.
Homelessness Australia in its submission stressed that responsibility for the broad factors that impact on homelessness is shared among the different levels of government, and therefore argued for a ‘coordinated approach’ led by the Australian Government. It said a national strategy should incorporate prevention; support for universal services to meet the needs of people who are homeless or at risk; a national framework for the homelessness service system; and targets relating to rough sleeping and homelessness more generally.
National Shelter recommended that the Australian Government lead the development of a 10-20 year housing strategy incorporating a separate plan to address homelessness. It said the strategy should include increased financial support for social housing. In calling for a national strategy, Mr Adrian Pisarski from National Shelter said:
I know the committee … have been discussing who is principally responsible for dealing with homelessness and housing. Our contention is that we are all responsible—every level of government in Australia as well as the private and community sectors—and nobody is doing enough.
Similarly, Ms Trudi Ray from HHS said a national strategy was important because homelessness is a ‘national issue’:
I think having a national plan creates certainty; it creates some momentum that we are actually all in this together and that housing is a fundamental right for everybody, and it's on the national agenda.
Link Housing also emphasised the importance of leadership by the Australian Government. It said a national housing strategy would:
… bring relevant stakeholders together to set an agreed way forward to reduce homelessness, to deliver social and affordable housing, to make private rental housing a longer-term, more secure [form] of housing, and identify new strategies to support people on low incomes [to] rent from the private rental market.
It said a national strategy should be supported by a suitable funding agreement and include a review of Commonwealth Rent Assistance.
The Salvation Army submitted that a national housing and homelessness strategy should include a ‘commitment to the eradication of homelessness, and clear targets to achieve that goal’ and consideration of broader systemic issues, such as income support and housing availability and affordability.
In advocating for a national housing and homelessness strategy, Per Capita argued that the Australian Government should have the same role in housing as it has in education and health:
… there has been a strong public consciousness of the fundamental role of the Commonwealth government in funding and framing the right to health and education, even though most of these services are delivered by the states and territories. In the main, however, the same does not go for housing. It is time housing was treated as a national priority and responsibility.
Per Capita said any national strategy should be coordinated by a ‘permanent, dedicated national housing authority’ and include a broad series of reforms to taxation settings, planning legislation and market regulations.
Ms Abigail Lewis from Per Capita argued that a national strategy had been a successful approach in the past:
We support a national strategy because we have seen it work before. The Road Home strategy under the Rudd government was the only time in my lifetime that we saw a significant increase in social housing stock in Australia. Looking back through our policy history at what has worked before, when have we actually managed to increase the stock of social housing in this country? It was under that national strategy.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre similarly recommended a national housing strategy ‘to address systemic policy issues’, including reforming taxation settings; increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance; working with states and territories to invest in social and affordable housing; and developing a national framework for tenancy legislation.
Other suggestions also focused on increasing the supply of social and affordable housing. For example, Anglicare recommended:
Establishing a national housing plan across all levels of government to increase the supply of Social Housing and meet demand within five years. The plan should be co-designed with housing service leaders and residents to identify the mix of housing, and pathways between transitional and supported housing into permanent options.
St Vincent’s Health Australia advocated a national housing strategy that included new capital investment in social housing and incentives or subsidies to leverage additional private sector investment in low-cost rental properties.
CHIA argued for a 10-year national housing strategy ‘to tackle the supply and demand drivers of housing affordability in a coordinated way across all levels of government’. It said such a strategy ‘should contain clear targets for overall housing supply, and for homes that are affordable to households in all income quintiles’ and should include a ‘separate but fully integrated plan’ to address homelessness.
Ms Wendy Hayhurst from CHIA argued that ‘the sheer scale of the problem’ requires national leadership articulated in a national strategy.
A number of state and territory governments expressed support for a national strategy and made suggestions for issues that could usefully be included in any such strategy. For example, Ms Louise Gilding from Housing ACT told the Committee that:
We need to increase the supply of affordable housing, and we need to be able to develop both community and public housing stock together, not one at the expense of the other. This is where we need to work together as national, territory, state and local players. We all influence the supply and cost of housing across the continuum, and we need to consider how we work together to collectively leverage our efforts. To that end, the ACT would welcome the development and implementation of a coordinated national housing strategy, which incorporates homelessness but has contributions and tangible commitments from all players.
Ms Karen Walsh from the Northern Territory Government said a national strategy should:
… consider alignment of all of the subsidies and policy settings, including things like Commonwealth rent assistance, the tax settings, the welfare policies and the impact of how they actually influence each other, so that there's actually a coordinated response at the Commonwealth level, from a policy and planning perspective. I think it needs to be absolutely systemic, it needs to be long term and it needs really solid investment for the long term.
Ms Christine Fitzgerald, also from the Northern Territory Government, added that a national strategy would serve to connect the work of individual housing and homelessness agencies, which she said would reduce duplication and result in better outcomes for clients.
The Queensland Government said consideration should be given to a nationally coordinated housing and homelessness strategy to align with and augment existing efforts.
Mr Troy Sloan from the Department of Social Services cautioned that a national strategy, if it were concrete and prescriptive, could ‘limit states' ability to respond in a way that is addressing their local needs and their local challenges’. Mr Sloan said the NHHA provides ‘a really good framework that sets the broad direction’, which the states and territories could then adjust to their own circumstances.
However, Ms Smith from Homelessness Australia stressed that the purpose of a national strategy would not be to abrogate the responsibilities of the states and territories or limit their flexibility to address the needs of their own populations. Rather, she said:
It is really important that the states and territories are held to account for the funding that is given to them by the federal government and that is very tightly managed. … It's a partnership in terms of strategy that we are looking for. That is why a national homelessness strategy is so important: not only to sit above and guide the strategies of the states and territories but also for the partnership in investment and the accountability of both parties. … We're talking about a partnership, and that is when we have done the best in housing and in ending homelessness in this country in the past.
The Committee also heard evidence, as discussed in Chapter 2, about the need to include local government in national responses to homelessness. Ms Liz de Chastel from the Australian Local Government Association outlined what she saw as the benefits that had been forgone from having less dialogue between the three levels of government:
What's happening is that local governments are using a lot of innovation … but they feel that there isn't that recognition about what they're doing. Also, there's value for local governments to actually let governments know what is working on the ground and what measures are making an impact. We feel that's the sort of dialogue that could increase solutions, innovation, conversations between the levels of government, even in terms of how funding is allocated. We know there's duplication in some areas, so just having that ability to have that dialogue would be really useful.
The Municipal Association of Victoria said there was a need for ‘a co‑ordination of roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local government, private industry and non-government organisations’, which it said could be best addressed through a national housing strategy. It called for a national strategy to include ‘a plan to increase social and affordable housing through investment and support for mechanisms such as mandatory inclusionary zoning’.
Similarly, the City of Adelaide expressed its support for the establishment of a ‘clear framework outlining the roles and responsibilities of all three tiers of Government, the private sector and the broader community in delivering a well-connected and accessible housing and support system’.
The City of Hobart said that ‘one of the biggest hurdles’ to implementing change is ‘the lack of coordinated, collaborative and aligned partnerships between stakeholders at all levels of government and the community’.
In its submission, the Australian Government said it is ‘using City Deals to bring together the three levels of government’. It said that as part of the Hobart City Deal, it was providing more than $30 million to community housing providers to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in Greater Hobart.
Prevention and early intervention
The Committee considers that prevention and early intervention are critically important elements of efforts to overcome homelessness. Prevention strategies can target root causes of the problem by dealing with risk factors that may lead to homelessness, while early intervention is essential for ensuring that people experiencing the early stages of housing stress do not become chronically homeless.
The Committee also notes the evidence that prevention and early intervention initiatives represent the most effective and cost-efficient approaches to addressing homelessness. Strategies that address the factors that increase a person’s risk of homelessness—such as family and domestic violence, disadvantage, ill-health and substance abuse—will ultimately be less costly to the community and the public purse than managing entrenched and chronic homelessness.
Unless homelessness is addressed in its incipient and early stages, we are merely deferring the problem to a time when it is more urgent, more complicated and more expensive.
While there was general support among stakeholders for existing early intervention programs such as Reconnect, evidence to the inquiry also suggested that the effectiveness of these programs could be improved with better coordination and cooperation across governments and services sectors, and with local community organisations.
The Committee therefore considers that there is a role for the Australian Government to work with the states and territories and others to identify opportunities for a more integrated approach to prevention and early intervention, which focuses on ‘place-based’ approaches.
This should include the development of a strategic framework for prevention and early intervention, and work to identify what structural supports may be required to facilitate a broader rollout of ‘place based’ programs across Australia. It could also include funding for research and pilot programs, including programs based on the COSS model.
In this way, while the Committee recognises the importance of ‘place-based’ approaches to prevention and early intervention, these would be designed, funded, implemented and evaluated in a coherent way with the involvement of all levels of government. The Committee suggests that achieving this would be an important objective of a national strategy on homelessness, as recommended below.
The Committee further recommends training in the health and community services sectors and better data collection and reporting to support improved prevention and early intervention.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state, territory and local governments and community organisations to develop a more integrated ‘place-based’ approach to homelessness prevention and early intervention. This should include:
establishing a national strategic framework for prevention and early intervention, setting out targets, roles and responsibilities, data collection and reporting requirements, and evaluation;
identifying the structural support and resources required to support ‘place-based’ programs; and
funding for ‘place-based’ research and pilot programs.
Recognising the importance of stopping homelessness early in life, the Committee further recommends that there be a particular focus on prevention and early intervention of youth homelessness.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to strengthen training across the health and community sectors on prevention of and early intervention in homelessness, particularly for disadvantaged and vulnerable children and families.
This should include training on the impact of homelessness and family, domestic and sexual violence on the social and emotional wellbeing of children.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to ensure that data collection and reporting systems adequately capture the experiences and needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable children and families, in order to support the early identification, assessment, support and/or referral of those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Adopting a ‘Housing First’ approach
The Committee notes that national and international best practice in addressing homelessness is increasingly influenced by the Housing First approach.
For some people at risk of chronic homelessness, Housing First can be seen as an effective example of early intervention, as it involves remedial action before problems often associated with homelessness can multiply or become entrenched.
The Committee recognises that Housing First is best thought of as a principle or paradigm, rather than a specific model to be replicated in all circumstances. However, the Committee considers that key to the approach is the provision of a broad range of ‘wrap-around’ services, on a flexible basis.
The Committee supports the view that the adoption of Housing First principles is not inconsistent with measures such as ‘three-strikes’ policies which seek to ensure that social housing tenants pay their rent, meet their tenancy obligations and are mindful and respectful towards property and their neighbours.
The Committee was provided with a range of examples of the application of the principles of Housing First, both internationally and increasingly among governments and housing providers in Australia.
To further the adoption of Housing First initiatives in Australia, the Committee is keen to ensure that, where appropriate, and particularly for priority at-risk groups, the principles of Housing First are reflected in formal funding arrangements involving the Australian Government and state and territory governments.
The Committee acknowledges that a prerequisite for the successful design of Housing First initiatives is an adequate supply of affordable housing in which to accommodate homeless people before associated problems can be addressed. That issue is discussed further below.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in making relevant funding agreements with state and territory governments and housing providers, incorporate the principles of ‘Housing First’, particularly for any priority groups identified in those agreements.
Enhancing social housing
The Committee recognises the important role that social housing has in reducing the incidence and risk of homelessness, particularly among the most vulnerable in the community. The Committee also accepts that there is an ongoing need for both public housing and community housing to meet the needs of individuals and families in different life circumstances, and with different housing needs and requirements for other wrap-around services.
The Committee notes and supports the trend for state and territory governments to transfer management of state-owned housing to CHPs and the evidence that, in many circumstances, these arrangements can offer benefits to both governments and social housing tenants.
It is clear, however, that the availability of social housing has not kept up with demand and that, as a result, there is currently a significant shortfall of both public and community housing. Addressing this shortfall will be an important part of the collective response of all Australian governments to homelessness.
The Committee notes that provision of housing is primarily a state and territory responsibility, but also acknowledges the Australian Government’s involvement: particularly through NHFIC and the AHBA, but also through the provision of CRA to tenants in community housing.
The Committee commends the AHBA as an important initiative which has enabled CHPs to strengthen their investments in new housing stock. The Committee supports the increased funding made available to NHFIC in the 2020-21 Budget.
Further to this, in Chapter 2 the Committee has recommended that the Australian Government waive or refinance the historical housing-related debts of the states and territories, in exchange for investment in affordable housing including community housing and planning and zoning reform. If implemented, the Committee expects that this measure will further expand the funds available to CHPs to invest in new housing stock.
In addition, in Chapter 3 the Committee has recommended funding for emergency and crisis accommodation, which may ease the burden on social housing to provide short-term or transitional accommodation.
The Committee heard about innovative proposals such as the PRADS model, which seeks to attract private-sector investment in the construction of social and affordable housing. While the PRADS model involves local governments negotiating with developers, the Committee considers there is a role for the Australian Government to assist in the facilitation of its viability at a national scale.
While acknowledging the important work of NHFIC, the Australian Government should seek to identify additional opportunities to leverage private-sector investment to address the shortfall in social housing, including from superannuation funds.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state, territory and local governments, seek to increase affordable housing supply when land is rezoned for residential development, through the introduction and harmonisation of inclusionary planning approaches across Australia.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the National Housing and Finance Investment Corporation, investigate opportunities for attracting greater private-sector investment in social and affordable housing, including from superannuation funds.
Finally, recognising that there is a limited amount of social and affordable housing, the Committee considers there is a need for additional measures to ensure that this housing stock is allocated efficiently.
In particular, there should be a uniform approach to allocating housing stock to people at different life stages. This approach should seek to avoid circumstances where, for example, an older couple whose children have left the family home still occupy a large house, which could instead be used to meet the needs of another family. It should also seek to ensure that, in so far as possible, the allocation of social and affordable housing stock accommodates different household family structures.
The Committee also recommends in appropriate circumstances and locations, the amendment of restrictions on secondary dwellings (‘granny flats’) to further encourage the use of these kinds of dwellings to free up more large houses for families to use.
Furthermore, there should be a nationally consistent approach to removing social and affordable housing tenants who continue to seriously breach their tenancy obligations. There may be a view amongst some that such breaches can be made with impunity, but the Committee rejects this and considers that priority in the allocation of social housing should be given to those who are willing to meet their obligations. As noted above, the Committee does not consider that this is inconsistent with Housing First principles.
To this end, the Committee recommends the adoption across all states and territories of a ‘three strikes’ policy for eviction on the grounds of criminal offending and repeated anti-social behaviour, as already exists in some jurisdictions such as New South Wales.
In making this recommendation, the Committee reiterates its support for the adoption of Housing First principles. It is the view of the Committee that the provision of housing should be a priority and provide a foundation for wrap-around support services for people who are homeless or at risk. However, once people are housed, and immediate issues are addressed, all tenants should be required to meet reasonable requirements as a condition of maintaining their tenancy in social housing.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state, territory and local governments to:
ensure the appropriate allocation of social and affordable housing stock to meet the needs of individuals and families at different life stages and accommodate different household family structures;
in appropriate circumstances and locations, amend local government restrictions on secondary dwellings (‘granny flats’); and
consider new measures to encourage the use of secondary dwellings to free up primary dwellings for larger families, including grants to Indigenous community-controlled organisations to construct new secondary dwellings.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments toward implementing consistent national legislation imposing a ’three strikes’ policy for the eviction of social and affordable housing tenants who repeatedly breach their tenancy obligations.
Developing a national strategy
The Committee acknowledges the strong view in evidence to the inquiry about the need for a national strategy on housing and homelessness.
As discussed in Chapter 3, evidence suggested that the issue of homelessness is difficult to separate from broader issues related to housing supply and housing affordability. Further, in calling for a national strategy, many submitters noted that all levels of government have responsibility for a broad range of policies and programs that ultimately impact on the prevalence of homelessness in Australia. The complexity of these issues led to concerns and some criticism about the effectiveness of existing arrangements for coordination and cooperation.
The Committee observed that there was limited consensus on the scope of any national strategy, especially on how far the strategy should extend beyond the immediate issue of homelessness, into broader housing policies and programs, or into other issues such as taxation settings, planning and zoning, and social welfare.
However, the Committee accepts that a strong theme in evidence was the need for the Australian Government to have a stronger leadership role.
The Committee notes that the Australian Government through the NHHA has sought to bring together the states and territories, setting the overall policy direction in relation to housing and homelessness while— importantly—retaining the flexibility for states and territories to implement specific measures suited to their own circumstances and requirements.
The Committee also acknowledges that the NHHA requires state and territory governments to have homelessness strategies in their own jurisdictions.
The Committee’s view is nevertheless that more could be done to improve coordination in the national response to homelessness, and the Committee considers that a national strategy is a worthy objective.
The Committee stresses that any national strategy should not represent a transfer of what are primarily state and territory responsibilities to the Australian Government. Similarly, the Committee’s view is that care is required in determining the scope of any national strategy to ensure it is well targeted at the problem of homelessness and its causes.
In any national strategy the Committee would be particularly keen to see greater formal recognition of the important role of local government, particularly in relation to the use of zoning reform to contribute to increased housing supply. A national strategy should also provide for more formal opportunities for community organisations and the private sector to contribute to national efforts to reduce homelessness.
Further to this, the Committee suggests that other recommendations made in this chapter could usefully be considered in developing a national strategy. These include more integrated approaches to early intervention, the adoption of Housing First principles, and investigating opportunities for more private-sector investment in social and affordable housing.
Similarly, the Committee suggests that negotiations on a national strategy could address the recommendations made in Chapter 2 in relation to needs‑based funding and historical housing-related debts. In this regard, the Committee considers that the development of a national strategy should include consideration of the role and scope of the NHHA, and how a new strategy would be coordinated with, or even incorporate, the existing funding arrangements under that Agreement.
Finally, the Committee believes that a national strategy should provide clear objectives, key performance indicators and accountability measures for states and territories in the way that they use Australian Government funding.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state, territory and local governments, develop and implement a ten-year national strategy on homelessness. The scope of a national strategy should include, but not be limited to:
creating new and strengthening existing arrangements for inter-governmental coordination and funding accountability of state and territory governments;
formally recognising and strengthening the role of local government;
identifying opportunities for greater involvement of community organisations and the private sector;
encompassing existing arrangements under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement and reflecting other relevant Australian Government policies and programs; and
giving effect to other relevant recommendations made in this report.
Mr Andrew Wallace MP
26 July 2021