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Our homes are the key

The number one instruction that every Australian has been given in combatting COVID-19 is “Stay Home and Stay Safe”. 

However, as Labor’s Shadow Minister for Housing, Jason Clare, has rightly pointed out, “you can’t stay at home if you don’t have one”.

Australia faced a housing problem before this current crisis took off and the inequities in housing have only been exacerbated by the current economic and health emergencies caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.  

However, in determining how we come out the other side of this Coronavirus crisis, we must learn from history that housing needs to be central to our health and economic recovery. 

During the Great Depression, housing was key to President Roosevelt’s recovery plan. 

While being focused on the private housing market and the financial institutions, FDR knew that housing was needed in building a functioning and more robust economy. 

At home, it wasn’t until WWII that the Australian Government played a central role in the provision of Housing. 

By 1943, Prime Minister John Curtin established the Australian Housing Commission as he saw housing crucial to post-war recovery efforts. 

A key recommendation of Curtin’s Housing Commission was that there would be a huge housing shortage after the war, and that the Federal Government would need to fund a significant portion of the roughly 700,000 homes needed over the next decade. 

And just over a decade ago, a major part of Kevin Rudd’s Economic Stimulus Plan, in response to the Global Financial Crisis, was the Social Housing Initiative that was aimed at building new social housing and investing in the maintenance of existing homes. 

Today in Australia, we face an awful health challenge that is compounding as our biggest ever economic test. 

But as Labor’s Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has pointed out, now is the time to think about the world we want to live in post-Coronavirus. 

Despite being pulled through enormous daily challenges, we are being given a rare opportunity to reflect and to reset. 

The Coronavirus epidemic shows us the need for safe housing, and it is also creating the economic imperative for significant new investment in housing. 

Already, we are already seeing previously unimaginable policies being introduced. 

The newly formed National Cabinet agreed to a moratorium on evictions. 

State Governments are providing refuge for homeless people in hotels to protect them and others from the virus, and the Reserve Bank unlocked one-hundred billion dollars to assist people to defer their loans. 

But perhaps the most dramatic shift in policy on housing has been the demand that we all stay in one. 

Our homes are our refuge and our best defence against the Coronavirus. 

A safe place for each of us means that we can stay at home to prevent the spread of infection.

So, what of the rising number of Australians who are homeless? 

What of the victims of domestic violence – women and children trapped in their homes with their abusers and no respite? 

What of the casual or insecure workers whose income has now shrunk or disappeared? 

What of the thousands of Australians who were already facing rental stress before this crisis?

At the 2016 census, 116,427 Australians were homeless – an increase of 13.7% in five years, well above population growth of 8.8%.

Rough sleepers are just the tip of the homelessness iceberg – they make up just 7% of homeless Australians. 44% of them are in severely overcrowded dwellings; 15% are in boarding houses and another 18% are in supported accommodation for the homeless.

Statistically, an average of 250 people are turned away from crisis centres in Australia every day.

Strikingly, 58% of homeless Australians are 34 or younger. 20% are Indigenous. And the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians is women over 55. 

We have been forced to confront this bleak picture as we collectively try to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. 

It must be said that the Coronavirus has resulted in some positive, albeit temporary solutions. 

In Victoria, places such as motels, short-term accommodation and disused aged care centres will be made available with State funding to homeless Victorians and women and children fleeing domestic violence.

The short-term homeless centres will be operated by existing charities and organisations including the Sacred Heart Mission and Launch Housing.

Meanwhile, the National Cabinet implemented a moratorium on evictions across the nation; and state-by-state packages are being released to support renters, both designed to prevent Australians from becoming homeless due to Coronavirus causing them to fall behind on rent.

These are good solutions for now, but, in some way, they are only kicking the can down the road.

These temporary solutions are directly targeted at getting through the health challenge of Coronavirus, but they don’t deal with Australia’s long-term housing challenges.

Last year, almost 200,000 Australians were on waiting lists for some form of social housing – whether public, community or Indigenous community housing.

And our waiting list has grown by 5% in five years, which simply put means we aren’t building enough housing.

When this is all over, sending homeless people back onto the streets can’t be the answer. Nor can ripping the rug out from underneath those who may be on the cusp. 

In six months, the Government plans to cease the JobKeeper payment and return JobSeeker to the old, inadequate Newstart rate. Meanwhile, how many businesses will have collapsed, be unable to resume immediately, or will restart as smaller companies but without the ability to keep paying all their employees without Government support?

Combined with the sudden resumption of loan repayments and rents, a frightening number of Australians may be about to find their housing situation on the brink.

With many renters having their bills deferred but not waived, their rental stress may be compounded with the difficulties of having to repay those deferred debts.

31% of Australians were renters at the 2016 census – an increase of over 5% since the 1980s. 

For young Australians especially, the percentage who own their own home is shrinking.

In 2016, 53.5% of Australians under 35 were renters – 7% higher than just a decade earlier and I suspect that number will continue go up. 

This generation, for whom the majority are virtually locked out of the homeownership market, now will face increased rental stress on top of their compounding debt after the six-month eviction moratorium period.

To be clear, the six-month moratorium on evictions is a good thing. We need people to have a safe home now more than ever. 

However, for those experiencing financial hardship now, we need to make sure we are supporting them throughout the recovery. 

Ongoing support for people will be important as we extract ourselves from the Coronavirus settings – but the ideological voices within the Morrison Government will be desperate to return to its first seven years of austerity and cuts.

Australians cannot afford more of what we saw from the conservatives for the past seven years, we need a government that won’t leave people behind. 

The truth is, with unemployment estimated to go deep into double figures and an international travel ban that may last years, Australians are going to have to find a way to locally stimulate an economy out of a deep recession.

So, in order to kickstart our post Coronavirus economy, we need to get building. 

Building more housing across the spectrum – from social housing to affordable housing to the broader residential market – will be vital. 

We have already seen that Coronavirus has had a major impact on the pipeline of work being started in the residential construction industry. According to the Master Builders of Australia, 73 percent of residential construction businesses are reporting a reduction in future work. 

That means further pain for the economy and it means less work for our tradies in coming months.

We need the government to ensure the future of our construction industries because without them, we will have little hope of quickly returning the economy to its pre-Corona state. 

At the last election, Labor brought a National Housing Strategy that outlined the problem and also offered policies that would address it. 

The Morrison Government, by contrast, has had very little to say on housing affordability and has not articulated any plan to tackle the crisis. There has been some piecemeal policy by the Morrison Government but certainly nothing that resembles a coherent plan. 

Building social and affordable housing will keep people with roofs over their heads, but it will also drive much-needed economic activity. 

We know building homes creates jobs and improves social outcomes. 

When we think about the post-Corona Australia, a renewed focus on housing will be good for jobs, good for the economy and really good for people who need a home. 

Combined with continuing support for people and businesses throughout the likely long and slow recovery period, we will need to provide people with stability if we want to rebuild the economy.

This Coronavirus is historic in so many ways. Australia must learn from the examples of previous economic hardship and come out of the most significant health and economic crisis of our generation with a renewed focus on our people.

Australia must come out of the Coronavirus with a commitment to a very basic principle – everyone deserves a safe home. If we do that, we will help build a better and more prosperous Australia.


This article is a part of The Chifley Research Centre’s “After The Crisis: What Next for Australia?” idea series. During this time, we will be publishing the diverse perspectives of some of the Labor Movements greatest thinkers. If you have a contribution to make, please share no more than 750 words with us to ideas@chifley.org.au

About Josh Burns

Josh Burns

Josh Burns is the federal member for Macnamara in Victoria.

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