Australian Greens dissenting report
1.1In its current form the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) legislation will see the housing crisis get worse.
1.2We can't fix the housing crisis by gambling money on the stock market and not guaranteeing a single cent will be spent on housing.
1.3We can't fix the housing crisis without taking action for renters.
1.4We can't fix the housing crisis by crossing our fingers and hoping (if our investment makes the maximum possible returns, and we find the world's cheapest construction) to build a maximum of 30000 homes when we need 715000.
1.5The current plan—to gamble $10 billion on investments via the Future Fund—could result in years where not a single cent is spent on housing. In fact, last year the HAFF would have lost $120 million. We would never accept leaving school and hospital funding up to a gamble on the stock market, so why should we do that with housing? Meanwhile, the government has offered literally nothing for renters, despite Australia experiencing a historic rental crisis.
1.6Even in the best-case scenario, where the Fund makes a decent return, spending on housing is capped at $500 million per year with no indexation. This means in 10 years' time there will be a cumulative $515 million cut in housing spending.
1.7The government claims the Fund will finance the construction of 30000 social and affordable homes over five years. The current shortage of social and affordable homes in Australia is 640000 homes, which will grow by 75000 homes to 715000 homes in five years. This means even in the best-case scenario Labor's plan will see the shortage of social and affordable housing end up bigger than it is now.
1.8To put this in historical context, if the Federal Government were to match rates of public housing construction in the 1960s, then the government would build 150000 public homes over the next five years.
1.9The government has claimed it wants homes on the ground quickly. Given the proposed scheme, this is either intentionally misleading or based on a flawed understanding of the operation of the HAFF as proposed.
1.10The fastest way to build public, community and affordable housing is by directly investing public money in building homes. Yet, under the Government's proposal, first the Future Fund would need to earn a return on the stock market, then community housing providers would need to raise capital to build the homes. Only then would the Federal Government provide an ongoing rental subsidy. This will delay the construction of homes by potentially years.
1.11When it comes to the HAFF bill the government has avoided transparency and proper scrutiny at every step of the way. This bill was rammed through the House of Representatives before the government had addressed a single concern raised by the Greens, despite concerns being made clear to the Housing Minister several months ahead of time.
1.12Further, consultation on the bill was only open for a few weeks, entirely over the Christmas holiday period and hearings for this committee were open for a single day.
1.13Such is the government's desire to avoid scrutiny, it is asking the Senate to pass this bill without having produced the Investment Mandate covering the details of the investment of $10 billion with the Future Fund and the funding of housing via Housing Australia—critical information necessary to evaluate the government's housing plan.
1.14Given the scale of the housing crisis, and its impact on millions of Australians right around the country, you would think the government would be doing everything in its power to get its centrepiece housing legislation right.
1.15Despite all of that, the evidence from this inquiry is clear. Under Labor's housing plan, the housing crisis will get worse. The bills should not be passed in their current form.
1.16Below, the Greens outline a series of recommendations to fix the HAFF. In short, the government should invest $5 billion every year in public, community and affordable housing, and produce a national plan for renters that includes a two‑year freeze on rent increases. Given the government just found $368 billion for nuclear powered attack submarines, it is no longer credible for Labor to claim that the budget can't sustain a modest $5 billion a year investment in housing.
1.17The Greens believe that the government's model of investing $10 billion in the Future Fund (therefore making housing funding contingent on uncertain stock market returns), rather than directly investing in social and affordable housing, is deeply flawed. We wish to see housing funding set on the same secure basis as education or health funding.
1.18This view was supported by a number of witnesses during the inquiry hearing.
1.19Dr John Quiggin, Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland, said that 'there is very little to commend the mechanism' of the HAFF, characterising the government's presentation of 'an initiative that will only perhaps deliver $400 to $500 million per year in expenditure…as a $10 billion proposal' as misleading, and 'an accounting fiction'. Further, Dr Quiggin identified that capping housing funding at the amount generated by fund returns is 'not a good way to fund public expenditure of any kind, particularly not…social housing'.
1.20Professor Quiggin also expressed concerns about the HAFF's mechanism:
If the fund were as described, and money was reduced when it was inadequate and increased when it was adequate, we would indeed be putting up the social housing sector but dealing with the risk of equity markets for no good reason whatsoever.
I guess that it's a concern in an environment of considerable financial stringency, with $360 billion just lined up for defence purchases, that if this expectation is not legislated then it may not be met in some year to come—that if we faced a budget crunch, for whatever reason, that it would be likely to coincide with a poor stock market return. The housing minister would be faced with a very hard task in saying, 'I want a budgetary allocation to top up the returns to keep this program going.' That's why I think each bit of this whole mechanism looks good, but the combination between them is, as I said, at best misleading and bad for public policy. And at worst it's potentially a high risk for the sector.
1.21Further criticism of the HAFF model came from economist Dr Cameron Murray, who described the investment of $10 billion in financial assets via the Future Fund as 'a risky, expensive and unnecessary waste', noting that:
…this fund has been portrayed as a low-risk long term politically-insulated funding source. It is exactly the opposite—it is a high-risk fund that defers tough housing spending decisions to future politicians who now have an excuse to limit housing funding to $500 million.
1.22Dr Murray expressed a view that direct investment in housing was preferable, noting that, 'had the Future Fund invested directly in Australian housing instead of the financial products it did invest in, it would have made more money once you factor in some rental returns'. Dr Murray added:
This would put housing equity—an asset—into the fund, increase the rate of new housing construction and immediately grow the pool of housing to allocate to public housing agencies, to CHPs…
1.23Dr Murray was puzzled that 'the housing policy we have come up with to help households being squeezed in rental markets is to not invest in building housing'.
1.24The efficiency of direct investment in housing was supported in the submission from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University (Centre for Urban Research), which drew on evidence from AHURIto point out that direct government funding via capital grants was the most cost-effective pathway to increase Australia's social housing stock.
1.25In its submission, the Antipoverty Centre described the HAFF as 'intentionally designed to sound more significant than it is', and called for 'the provision of social and affordable housing to be funded from consolidated revenue'.
1.26Concerns about the cost-effectiveness of investment via the Future Fund were raised by Dr Murray, who pointed out that the Future Fund 'spent $500 million just in fees last year in order to lose $2.4 billion of value', with the fees five times higher than the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.
1.27During the inquiry hearing, it was clear the government could not provide sufficient detail on how the HAFF would function. Treasury and the Future Fund were unable to provide concrete figures for projections of what returns the Fund would earn, estimates of how much will be paid in fees to investment managers, nor modelling of whether the HAFF's target of 30000 homes would be achievable given project Fund returns.
1.28Treasury confirmed that there was no guaranteed minimum spend on housing by the Fund, and suggested that the $10 billion fund may be inadequate to sustain indexed returns (with an ongoing real value of $500 million) without eroding the fund's capital. With no clarity about returns from the Future Fund, it is essential that the government guarantee a minimum level of housing funding, rather than relying on uncertain returns.
1.29Rather than making funding conditional on uncertain Future Fund returns, the HAFF bill should be amended to guarantee an ongoing minimum level of housing funding, indexed to the consumer price index.
1.30The Housing Australia Future Fund should be used to invest directly in social and affordable housing, rather than invested via the Future Fund.
1.31Under the government's housing plan, the HAFF has a target of building 30000 social and affordable homes over five years, with no further homes built thereafter. In the unlikely event the HAFF achieves its target, constructing only 30000 homes is grossly inadequate and will see the shortage of social and affordable housing get worse.
1.32According to research prepared for the Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA), Australia currently has a shortfall of 640000 social and affordable homes, which is set to grow by 300000 over the next 20 years, meaning the shortfall will grow by approximately 75000 homes over the five-year period that homes will be provided by the HAFF.
1.33The recent National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (set to become Housing Australia) review estimated that to meet Australia's shortfall an investment, of $293 billion would be required over the next 20 years (or $14.7billion per year). This investment would cover only the capital costs of building required new housing, not the ongoing costs of maintenance or operation of social and affordable housing stock. In this context it is clear that the planned spending under the HAFF—capped at a maximum of $500 million per year (with no indexation)—will not see any significant progress towards addressing the social and affordable housing shortfall.
1.34Concerns about the scale of housing need were raised during the inquiry by numerous witnesses, including the Centre for Urban Research, CHIA, Anglicare Australia, National Shelter, Antipoverty Centre, Homelessness NSW, Urban Development Institute of Australia, National (UDIA) and Master Builders Australia; with witnesses from Homelessness NSW, Anglicare Australia and National Shelter calling for the construction of 25000 social homes on an annual bases, ongoing, and UDIA a build of 45000 per year. This amounts to a very significant increase on the government's target of 4000 social homes per year for five years.
1.35Witnesses including Dr Murray, representatives from the Antipoverty Centre and the Centre for Urban Research called attention to the low level of social housing construction which would occur under the HAFF in comparison to historical public housing construction. Dr Murray pointed out that in today's terms, public housing construction comparable to the 1960s and 70s would mean the construction of 30000 dwellings per year, while Antipoverty Centre representative, Ms Mel Powersmith noted that despite a much lower population, the Australian government built 30000 dwellings in each five year period between 1945 and 1995. Evidence from Homelessness NSW and National Shelter recommended a long-term target of 10 per cent of all housing being social homes, to reverse the long-time decline in social housing stock which has occurred in Australia over recent decades.
1.36Given the current shortfall of 640000 social and affordable homes nationwide—forecast to grow by 75000 over the next 5 years—and the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation's estimate that $15billionper year of social and affordable investment is required over the next 20 years, the quantum of housing funding delivered through this package should be significantly increased to a minimum of $5 billion per year in real terms.
1.37To address the declining proportion of social housing in historical terms, the legislative package should include an aim for the Housing Australia Future Fund and the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council to reach a target of 10 per cent of all Australian housing being social housing by 2050.
1.38Right now, the scale of the housing crisis is pushing the three million Australian households who rent into severe housing stress. The Federal Budget has projected that over the next two years real wages will continue to decline while rents skyrocket. Without action, renters are predicted to be collectively paying $10 billion in rent increases alone in 2023. Without decisive action from the government, this will see Australia lurch into a major social crisis.
1.39Freezing rent increases and doubling Commonwealth Rent Assistance—along with providing a pathway towards national tenancy standards, including rent controls and protection from no grounds eviction—would ensure we provide immediate relief to the millions of households in serious financial stress as a result of soaring rents.
1.40Analysis by the Parliamentary Library estimates that renters across Australia would be $10.7 billion better off if rents had been frozen nationwide for the past 12 months. With rents having increased by 21.5 per cent nationwide, the average renter in Australia is paying $4896 more for their home than last year.
1.41Centre for Urban Research's submission noted that there is a 'dire state of housing affordability across the private rental market', with a particularly concerning shortage of affordable rentals for low-income households, which 'contributed to both by exorbitant private rental prices as well as structural concerns about adequate incomes for both employed and unemployed workers'.
1.42A number of witnesses highlighted concerns about severely declining affordability in the private rental market, including Mr Hal Pawson, National Shelter, Anglicare Australia, Centre for Urban Research and Antipoverty Centre. National Shelter called for the HAFF to be accompanied by 'rental reform for the significant proportion of Australians in very low- and middle‑income households who are struggling with housing insecurity, forced moves and significant rental increases', while Antipoverty Centre's submission called for the urgent implementation of rent caps, along with a ban on 'nogrounds' eviction.
1.43Given the current rental affordability crisis, this package should be amended to include concrete measures for the millions of households in rental stress, such as doubling the rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance and instituting nationwide rent controls.
1.44More than 20 per cent of First Nations people across this country are living in overcrowded homes, and homelessness amongst First Nations people continues to escalate at concerning rates. Advocacy groups including Everybody's Home and Change the Record have long been urging significant capital investment to address the shocking inequality in housing outcomes in this country. MrDarrenSmith, a representative from Aboriginal Housing Victoria, highlighted that Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the homelessness services system, and 'that access to safe, affordable housing is central to closing the gap'.
1.45Housing is absolutely pivotal to improving health and social outcomes in First Nations communities, yet the HAFF provides little more than some nominal funding to provide maintenance on a small stock of First Nations housing.
1.46Furthermore, Mr Smith and Mr Ivan Simon from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Association (NATSIHA), noted that federal housing funding has tended to focus primarily on remote areas, while significant First Nations housing needs also exists in urban and regional areas.
1.47To address the chronic shortfall of adequate housing for First Nations peoples, the legislative package should be amended to include a minimum investment of $1 billion over five years for First Nations housing in urban, regional and remote areas and upgrades and repairs in remote Indigenous communities.
1.48In addition to concerns about the deeply inadequate scale of the government's target of 30000 homes, it is also unclear whether the HAFF as designed can reach this target.
1.49In submissions from Powerhousing Australia and Industry Super Australia, estimates were made as to the number of homes which could be built by the HAFF under known policy settings. However, it was noted that—in the absence of the Housing Australia Investment Mandate (governing funding via Housing Australia), or the HAFF Investment mandate being made available for review—these figures were highly uncertain. Nonetheless, both submissions raised doubts about the ability of the HAFF to reach its target under the current design.
1.50Powerhousing's submission stated that 'in absence of further detail including the Investment Mandate, our financial modelling suggests that this approach will likely only deliver somewhere closer to 25000 social and affordable homes', and noted that the $500 million cap on disbursements makes 'delivery 30000 homes over five years difficult to achieve'. In testimony to the inquiry, MrNicholasProud, CEO of PowerHousing Australia expressed concerns about the changed cost of delivering housing since the package was announced, and noted that 'additional funds, apart from the $10 million, would certainly be welcome', and would provide more certainty that the HAFF could reach its targets.
1.51Industry Super Australia suggested that 'it is likely more than $10 billion in additional capital will need to be found to construct 40000 social and affordable dwelling units', with $570 million (in real terms) in annual subsidy payments required. Industry Super also noted that their 'estimates leave little room for capital grants beyond those already announced as part of the policy for acute housing needs', raising doubts about whether social and affordable housing will come into competition with acute housing need in future government disbursement decisions.
1.52Furthermore, numerous witnesses and submitters, including CHIA, Industry Super, Powerhousing, National Shelter and the Grattan Institute, called for the annual $500 million limit on HAFF disbursements to be lifted and/or indexed to ensure the ongoing ability of the HAFF to reach its targets. CHIA estimated that, without indexation, the cap would no longer be adequate to fund delivery 'beyond year five', and Mr Brendan Coates from the Grattan Institute argued that it 'makes no sense' for the cap not to be indexed to inflation, given that the HAFF will provide payments to community housing providers and the states, and 'the cost of delivering that social housing in terms of the subsidy gap will rise each year'.
1.53Finance accepted that the $10 billion capital investment may not be sufficient to sustain indexation, saying that 'were CPI to be applied, then there's a greater chance that the capital is drawn down, particularly in early years, if that indexation were to result in a drawdown on the fund at a rate faster than could be replenished through the investment mandate'. It also confirmed that there was no guaranteed minimum spend on housing by the Fund. Treasury did not provide a quantitative answer to questions about whether it had modelled the ability of the HAFF to reach its target of 30000 homes.
1.54The Housing Australia Future Fund Investment Mandate and updated Housing Australia (NHFIC) Investment Mandate should be made available for scrutiny immediately.
1.55To maintain the real value of housing investment and increase the likelihood of the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) meeting its target, the HAFF bills should be amended so that any cap of annual housing spending is indexed to inflation.
1.56Given the uncertainty about how many homes Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) funding can support, and the urgent nature of the housing crisis, the review of the Housing Australia Future Fund should be brought forward to occur within two years of the commencement of the Housing Australia Future Fund Act 2023, and every subsequent two years. The review should include evaluation of the adequacy of HAFF funding to make progress in decreasing the shortfall of social and affordable housing.
1.57A common concern expressed by witnesses was the legislative package's lack of definition of affordable housing, with witnesses including Homelessness Australia and CHIA calling for the bills to define affordable housing specifically as rental housing, to be provided in perpetuity.
1.58Additionally, witnesses including Antipoverty Centre, Grounded, and the Centre for Urban Research flagged the need for the legislation to include an income-based definition of affordability, such as the 30:40 rule (housing costing less than 30 per cent of income for households in the bottom 40 per cent by income), rather than being pegged to market rates of rent. Antipoverty Centre's, Ms Powersmith gave personal testimony about how severely unaffordable 'so-called affordable housing', based on discounted market rent, can be for someone on a low income.
1.59The legislative package should be amended to define affordable housing as rental housing, provided in perpetuity, which costs no more than 30 per cent of income for the bottom 40 per cent of households, by income, to ensure that all housing supported by the HAFF is genuinely affordable for those in need.
1.60A number of witnesses expressed concerns about the composition of the boards of both the Council and Housing Australia, calling for them to include representatives with expertise in community housing, public housing and the homelessness sector. Additionally, a common call was for the Boards to include representatives with relevant lived experience, to ensure that 'the expertise and needs of tenants in social housing and those in housing stress…be centred in activities related to planning for affordable and social housing'.
1.61Additionally, representatives from NATSIHA and Aboriginal Housing Victoria highlighted the importance of the Boards including First Nations representatives, and for all funding for First Nations housing to be directed via First Nations organisations. As the Centre for Urban Research highlighted in its submission:
…composition of the interim council reflects the concerns raised above, with no Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives, no representatives from the disability sector, and no representation from tenant advocacy or other housing and homelessness peer advocacy groups.
1.62A further concern is the inclusion of expertise in development, residential construction and economics as criteria for membership of the Supply and Affordability Council, allowing those liable to profit from Australia's broken housing market to have significant influence over housing policy. As the Antipoverty Centre said in its testimony, 'vested interests need to get out, and people who need homes need to be included… We urge the government not to take a bet on our lives or futures on the stock market or the kindness of property investors'.
1.63The legislative package should be amended to require the Boards of the National Supply and Affordability Council and Housing Australia to include a representative from the social housing and homelessness sectors, a FirstNations representative, and representatives from low-income households, persons with lived experience of homelessness and social housing residence, and persons with disabilities, to ensure that decision making includes those most in need of social and affordable housing. Additionally, the Boards should exclude individuals who have significant links to property development or the banking sector, to ensure that the industries that have fuelled Australia's housing crisis do not have undue influence over housing policy.
1.64In CHIA's submission, it recommended that not for profit organisations should be the 'sole delivery agent for the HAFF's social and affordable rental housing investment programs' (not precluding partnership with state or local governments), while Antipoverty Centre called for vested interests to be excluded from profiting from the housing package.
1.65The legislative package should be amended to limit the recipients of Housing Australia Future Fund grants to governments or non-profit organisations, to ensure that private developers and property investors do not profit from public housing funding.
1.66The legislative package does not provide any guidance about the quality or type of the social and affordable housing to be built by the HAFF. Given concerns with the energy efficiency of existing social housing stock, which comes with significant financial and health implications for its residents, it is essential that new housing stock built by the HAFF is of a high energy efficiency standard.
1.67Additionally, given that 2-in-5 social housing households have at least one person with disability, it is essential that new stock be accessible for all. At the bare minimum, all social and affordable housing should be built so it is easy to retrofit to meet accessibility needs.
1.68To ensure the housing built under the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) meets the needs of all residents, the legislative package should be amended to ensure that all social and affordable housing funded by the HAFF must meet minimum energy efficiency (8-star energy rating) and accessibility standards (LHA silver standard).
1.69Despite the government's claim that this bill amounts to a major investment in public and affordable housing, the reality is that this is deeply misleading. As evidenced by many expert witnesses, the HAFF is deeply unambitious and does not provide certainty in housing investment. Despite being the centrepiece legislation to tackle the escalating housing crisis in Australia, the government's plan would ultimately see the housing crisis get worse, not better.
1.70At this critical point, where homelessness, rents and interest rates are skyrocketing, and the housing crisis at an all-time high, this legislative package is a golden opportunity to make a real difference in tackling the housing crisis. The government has an opportunity to work with the Greens and Senate crossbench to amend this bill to address concerns about the package and choose to invest billions of extra dollars in building public, community and affordable housing. However, if it chooses to ignore these concerns, it is clear the bill in its current form is not fit for purpose.
1.71Given that this package will see the shortage of social and affordable housing get worse, and do nothing for renters, the Housing Australia Future Fund bills must be amended to address the concerns outlined above.
Senator Mehreen Faruqi
Greens Senator for Victoria
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Senate Standing Committees on EconomicsPO Box 6100Parliament HouseCanberra ACT 2600 Phone: +61 2 6277 firstname.lastname@example.org
15 Mar 2023: Canberra
House of Representatives