Kamis, 04 Oktober 2012

Bad piggies? Underoccupancy in public housing

We discussed recently the issue of public housing 'underoccupancy' or 'underutilisation': that is, where a public housing tenant happens to have a spare room.

In Queensland, the State Government considered that this was a 'crisis' and made the ludicrous suggestion that public housing tenants there should share their spare rooms with strangers from the waiting list, or move somewhere smaller.

Concern about underoccupancy has also registered with the NSW State Government, though its response to date has been more sober: the Audit Office is investigating the issue.

As we noted last time, public housing tenants are the least likely persons to be underoccupying their housing. Owner-occupiers – especially those without a mortgage – and even private renters are more likely to have a spare room than public housing tenants. In other words, public housing allocates housing much more frugally or, in this sense, 'efficiently', than the private market.

(Source: ABS (2011) 'Housing Occupancy and Costs 2009/10', Table 14. Click on the image for a better view.)
But, even where underoccupancy does happen, is it such a bad thing?
A spare room in public housing is not necessarily a waste of space. It might be used for visits by grandchildren and other family members – which is not just a nice thing, but a material way of maintaining family connections and the support they afford. It might also be used to house friends or relatives in need, and who might otherwise be without housing and without support.

This figure below gives a bit of an indication of this function of public housing underoccupancy. It comes from Census data, over a 30-year period, in relation to a particular public housing estate in the suburbs of Sydney (I've no data from the most recent Census, or from the 1986 Census). Construction on the estate finished in the mid-70s, so the amount of housing on the estate was pretty well constant over the period. The number of people, however, was not.

Long-term, the population has declined. You can imagine the process: the first households on the estate (many of them being two parents with kids) have lost members as kids have grown up and moved out, and as partners have died; many of these households will have moved out altogether, to be replaced (as public housing eligibility has tightened) by smaller households of single-parent families and single persons. 
But the population movement is not all one-way: in the early 1990s the spare rooms filled up. Again, you can imagine what may have happened here too: as the economy faltered, some households on the estate took in friends and family members who were doing it tough.

This is conjecture, but is accords with the experience of tenant advocates whose clients occasionally take in a grandchild when the parents aren't coping, or who have a room ready for a relative who is getting out of gaol, or who is in and out of treatment for illness.

In other types of housing, and for other types of households, this might be called 'flexibility' or 'capacity'. Instead of governments slinging angry letters at public housing tenants, maybe the relatively small degree of 'underoccupancy' in public housing should be considered in those terms too.