Selasa, 27 September 2011

Community Housing - what's not to like?

"Public housing is sometimes blamed for social problems ... However, that's the wrong way of looking at it because it's not the cause but the symptom."

So says Keith Jacobs from the University of Tasmania, in an article recently published by The Australian, called New ways of looking at social housing.

He also says "there's no question public housing is stigmatised in the eyes of many people, which is a real shame because 20 or 30 years ago it wasn't seen that way. I think part of the reason is that it's seen as a public policy failure, but I don't agree."

Indeed. But as the article in which he's quoted goes on to show, there's already a policy-shift taking place. Public Housing is on the decline. It's being swallowed up by the more politically attractive (and fiscally flexible) Community Housing - that is, non-government organisations who manage the government's housing assets (and, let's not forget, those consequential tenancies) for them...

Perhaps we're being a little melodramatic when we say "swallowed up". But there's certainly been a strong push in NSW to grow the Community Housing sector over the last three years or so, and this is not about to subside. Almost 3500 properties have been transferred over from HNSW's books to a number of Community Housing Providers (CHPs) since 2009, and the vast majority of properties built under the Federal Government's Nation Building stimulus plan are being handed over to CHPs as well.

...and in more good news for CHPs, a recent report into the social value of Community Housing in Australia has found them to be, well, significant. According to this report, the social benefits of a first year of living in community housing could add up to a substantial amount in monetary terms.

(Extract from "The Social Value of Community Housing
in Australia Report" page 3 - click to enlarge)

To break it down:
  • The economic benefit for residents due to greater financial flexibility and less ‘housing stress’ was assessed at $2,500 per person or $78.5 million across the sector.
  • Improved education opportunities for adults and children were valued at $75 million.
  • Health benefits due to improved health and less demand on public health services came in at $23 million.
  • The total social value of community housing was calculated at $176 million per year or $665 million over a five-year period.
Numbers like those should have everyone jumping on the Community Housing bandwagon. It would be interesting, of course, to see how the social value of Public Housing in Australia stacks up... and more interesting still to see what the cost of stigma really is. But that's not on the agenda right now. Right now it's all about Community Housing... and with so many of the benefits of Public Housing, minus the negative associations, what's not to like?

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a nark, here's a short list:

1. There's not enough of the stuff. Despite its recent growth, Community Housing still only accounts for about 1% of the NSW housing market. For comparison, private rental accounts for about 25%, and Public Housing accounts for 5%.

2. It's pretty tricky to get into. There are two reasons for this - the eligibility criteria is fairly tight, and on top of that there's not enough of the stuff. The successful applicant will be on a low income and experiencing some kind of difficulty obtaining or sustaining a tenancy in the private market... before being placed on a waiting list until a suitable property becomes available.

3. It's complicated. The sector operates within a complex maze of legislation, regulation and contractual obligation - and much of this is new. For many, finding a way through this web of complexity is a very daunting task. But quite aside from that, the very nature of the system results in inconsistencies across the sector, as each CHP is entitled to set its own policies and procedures as long as it complies with a general set of rules. While this is hailed by some as a key strength of the sector, it is felt by others as a new source of frustration.