Public Housing in Port Phillip – targeted to greatest need

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Article: by Polly Rymer

Lack of affordable housing affects many local residents

Public housing provides secure, affordable housing for low-income households. It is owned or leased and managed by government housing authorities. In Victoria, public housing is administered by the Department of Human Services (DHS). To this authority, Victorian public tenants pay rent capped at 25% of their income up to full market value. Public tenants do not receive Commonwealth rent assistance (CRA).

Community housing is managed by organisations such as the Port Phillip Housing Association, whose purpose is to provide secure, affordable housing for residents on low to moderate incomes.  Community tenants pay 30% of their income or up to 75% of market rent. CRA may be available to community housing tenants on low incomes.

Many households in the bottom 40% of income distribution are affected by ‘housing stress,’ meaning they are paying 30% or more of their income on rent or a mortgage and have difficulty with other costs of living. More than 100,000 people in Australia are homeless. They sleep in rough or unstable, substandard accommodation. But public housing is scarce – Public and community housing together (social housing) make up approximately 5% of all Australian dwellings. For the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the average is 15%. In 2010, there were 3,790 social-housing dwellings in the City of Port Phillip, or 8.1% of all dwellings, of these, 2,493 were public housing and 1,297 were community housing. Only 1% of one-bedroom flats on the private rental market were affordable for residents on Centrelink or equivalent incomes.

“Housing affordability is an issue all over Melbourne,” notes a spokesperson for the Sacred Heart Mission. Established in St Kilda in 1982, the Mission provides crisis assistance to people in need of food, material goods and accommodation. “St Kilda is just one of many suburbs where private rental is very expensive. A standard one-bedroom flat may cost more than a person’s entire income. Many people are trapped in private rentals paying more than 60% or 70% of their whole pension in rent. Many can’t afford to buy food or heat their property. There are not enough affordable properties available in Australia. The housing crisis is the product of a range of issues. Pushing up private rents are many structural factors such as negative gearing, shortage of available properties and high cost of purchasing housing. There is more competition to obtain affordable housing so this pushes up waiting list numbers and in private rental, it pushes up prices”.

The targeting of public housing to those with the greatest needs began in Victoria in February 1999 and has resulted in a concentration of tenants with complex needs and low incomes now living in public housing. Meanwhile, State and Federal funding has decreased.

“There are 173,000 people on the national waiting list,” continues the spokesperson, “Many thousands more have given up applying. This has been a consistent problem for 20 years. In inner city regions like St Kilda there is an even larger demand for properties. When applying people have to pick regions, not suburbs, so even if you wish to live in St Kilda, by the time you get offered a property you may end up much further; 15 or 25 kilometres away – a great distance from services and local supports. It needs to be remembered that originally public housing was designed for low paid workers. It wasn’t intended to be housing for people experiencing chronic disadvantage and homelessness. In most cases the waiting list might be between one to 15 years. In special circumstances (e.g. currently sleeping in a park) the waiting time is reduced but it can still take years. If you have requested a property in a popular inner-Melbourne region you will always need to wait for extended periods. While people are waiting for a property they stay with friends, sleep on the streets, or live in rooming houses, some of which are unsafe and run by negligent owners”.

Rooming houses may be privately owned or managed by community organisations. Older rooming houses do not have private kitchens, bathrooms or living rooms, leaving tenants without adequate privacy and safety. Newer rooming houses may have private bathrooms or kitchens though. “Frequently,” according to the spokesperson, “rooming house tenants live in a single room, sharing toilet and kitchen facilities with many others and paying a high weekly rate for the privilege”.

In April this year, the Victorian government released two discussion papers as part of its ‘Housing Framework’ consultation, calling for submissions from tenants and organisations that offer housing assistance. The papers suggested changes to public housing, including possibly higher rents, transfer of tenants to private rental, and ownership of properties to be transferred to non-government organisations. In its submission, the Victorian Public Tenants Association (VPTA), the peak body representing public tenants in Victoria, presented the response of its members: “the public tenant community have overwhelmingly informed us that their priority for the future of public housing is security of tenure, rents set at 25% of income, and for public housing to remain owned and managed by Government”.

The City of Port Phillip also responded to the consultation, rejecting a proposed transfer of tenants from public to private rental as unrealistic, expensive to administer and unlikely to have positive outcomes for the lives of tenants or for housing affordability. In its submission, Council advised a broader mix of tenants in the public housing sector to include households with moderate incomes as well as the more disadvantaged. Council advised the retention of present levels of public housing alongside a growing community housing sector. “Social housing residents,” states the submission, “participate in community life, contribute to the local economy and are valued as citizens of this municipality. As a result Council sees them as contributing to Port Phillip’s diverse and inclusive community”.

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