President’s column – 7 August 2020

Over 116,000 Australians – more than the population of the city of Ballarat – were estimated to be homeless on Census night in 2016. Can Local Government help?

That figure is almost certainly higher now, with key drivers of homelessness like unemployment and domestic violence having spiked dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With stage four restrictions now in place on Victoria’s retail, manufacturing, and construction sectors, overall numbers of people couch-surfing, sleeping rough, or staying in emergency accommodation will doubtless rise again.

Hardly the most encouraging background to Homeless Week 2020.

To suggest, however, that the pandemic is a major setback to efforts to provide secure, long-term accommodation for unemployed or low-income Australians – and to deal with underlying or contributing issues – is misplaced.

Homelessness Week has demonstrated yet again the strength of commitment, particularly at the local government level, to reducing homelessness and housing stress.

The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors, long-time vocal reform advocates, have marked the week  by publishing their submission to the federal parliamentary inquiry into homelessness.

Councils in Greater Melbourne have also been at the forefront of efforts to tackle homelessness, and they too have reaffirmed their commitment to the cause.

The cities of Knox and Casey both endorsed the Regional Local Government Homelessness and Social Housing Charter 2020, while the cities of Yarra and Monash published documents responding to the needs of their individual local government areas.

Adequate shelter is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of Australians, and rightly enshrined as a human right. Get it wrong and we risk institutionalising disadvantage.

Which is why ALGA continues to call for the Commonwealth to continue to host meetings of Planning and Housing Ministers, with ALGA representation, to support and coordinate local, state and territory governments work in addressing affordable housing and homelessness, beyond traditional planning requirements.

That “extracurricular” work encompasses diverse programs and local government initiatives such as:

  • Setting social housing targets for medium and high-density residential developments;
  • Collaborating with not-for-profit organisations providing housing or homelessness support services;
  • Investigating regulatory flexibility to facilitate micro-lot homes or transportable housing projects;
  • Providing council-owned caravan parks, land and even council buildings to help meet housing needs; and
  • Hosting housing forums or undertaking surveys.

Ahead of the last federal election, ALGA called for the Commonwealth to acknowledge the work of local governments in this area with appropriate funding – for, as with so much else of what we do, we’re financially constrained by increased cost-shifting, creeping rate-capping, and diminishing FAGs funding which is now below the one percent level relative to Commonwealth taxation revenue that it was when implemented.

There is no escaping the reality that homelessness and housing stress are complex issues which defy easy analysis or straightforward answers.

But much useful work is being done on practical “real world” solutions.

One of the most promising of  these is the Housing First model – an evidence-based approach for quickly transitioning homeless people into affordable housing while providing the support services and the community connections they need to stop them from slipping back into homelessness.

The Housing First model evolved in the US, and has been replicated with some success in Britain, Canada, and New Zealand.

According to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), however, the lack of appropriate affordable housing stock in Australian militates against their development here.

This under-investment in appropriate housing, together with the impacts of Covid-19, points to the urgent need for housing to be a priority area of reform for the new National Cabinet.

Alas, housing has been relegated to the second tier of priority reform areas – leading some to speculate there may not even be a successor to the Housing and homelessness ministers’ meetings (which were on an “as needs” basis anyway).

This is something ALGA will pursue in our talks with Peter Conran, who is leading a review of the former COAG councils and ministerial forums with a view to “rationalising and resetting their work”.

In the meantime, I commend those local councils who continue to go above and beyond tackling this long-running, but resolvable, social problem.