Minggu, 11 September 2011

Sporting chance

Adele Horin must know it's Social Housing Month: she's written a fine column that challenges the negative stereotypes about two subjects that do tend to cop it: young single mothers and public housing.

Horin writes about Gemma, a young single mother of two – and, contrary to the stereotype, an 'articulate, intelligent and thoughtful' young woman who is looking ahead to finishing her education and commencing a career. She has also been in some dire situations, housing-wise: what's flippantly called couch-surfing or, more objectively, tertiary homelessness. So for Gemma – and contrary to another set of stereotypes – 'public housing is the only hope of a stable life'.

But, as Horin observes:
But being 21, pregnant, homeless and with a toddler to care for is not enough to speed access to public housing in NSW. You have to be on the streets, she was told, and then Community Services would probably take her child....

The federal government, through the stimulus package, has invested $5.6 billion in public housing, the biggest investment in 15 years. It is an unheralded success story. But even with this initiative, which is drawing to an end, Australia will be 100,000 properties short of what it would have had if governments had maintained the pre-1996 level of investment.

Stereotypes can be dangerous. Young single mothers deserve help, not disparagement, and public housing, in its modern guise, is an essential that should remain firmly on the government's agenda.

We agree completely. But this piece – and particularly its statement of the rule that you need to be on the street to get priority housing – invites further reflection on the rules of public housing, and indeed on the nature of rules generally.

All too often, rules are thought of (especially by those who make them) as if they are the program for a robot, and the intended outcome slavishly follows the operation of the rules. To the extent that people aren't robots, and from time to time break rules, the thing is to penalise them and bring them back into conformity with the rule. So, in the case of public housing, the rule is that it for those most in need, so people will have to submit to an assessment of their need, both at the point of applying for housing and, after they've entered the system as a tenant, at the point of lease review. This operation is backed up by penalties for those who are not in need but say they are.

If you think about rules this way, there's a lot about the way they work that you're going to miss. More insights are to be gained by thinking of rules as rules of a game, to which human agency applies, and out of whose operation any number of outcomes may be created as people pursue the prize. (This is not to cast aspersions on applicants for public housing, or to be cynical about people's motivations generally; it is just applying the lessons nearly all of us know about rules, through games and sport.*)

In sport, so as in public housing. On this view, the rule about lease reviews can become a matter of improving your circumstances, if you can – but not by too much, lest you lose your housing. In practice, of course, this can be difficult. The rule about priority applications, on the other hand, can become a matter of making your circumstances worse – but not so bad that you lose your children. Playing to this rule of the game is positively dangerous.

But people will play, because of what's at stake. Public housing is affordable and relatively secure – an all too scarce and valuable prize in our grossly inequitable housing game. We need to reduce the stakes. As Horin says, we need more public housing and social housing... but we also need a private rental market that is a lot less hostile to low-income households, and that is itself less of a plaything in the strategies of tax-minimisers and speculators.

* Except rugby league, where the rules do operate robotically and slavishly: tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle, chip-kick to the corner.