Senin, 04 November 2013

A new way home? The National Housing Conference 2013

Last week, while many of my colleagues in the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program were gathering for their annual Regional Network Meeting in Newcastle, I hopped on a plane to check out the 8th National Housing Conference in Adelaide.

The National Housing Conference is convened by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and is generally considered the prominent meeting of minds on all things housing in Australia. Representatives from numerous Australian governments, universities and other academic institutions, finance corporations, community organisations and housing providers gather for several days to hear of and discuss the latest developments in housing related research and policy.

These are my thoughts based on the sessions I attended and, to be fair, the prejudices of my position. I'm interested to hear from others who might have a different take on the conference. I'm also interested to hear from others who were not at the conference - I'm sure there are countless doers and thinkers within the housing realm who were not in attendance.


I approached the conference with equal measures of skepticism and pessimism, knowing that there are a great number of challenges faced by housing policy workers across Australia, and probably always will be. Of course, these challenges pale into insignificance when compared to the standard daily experience of low income 'consumers of housing' - those for whom housing policies manifestly fail. But it is hard to shake the sense that if only 'someone' could talk this or that department into acting on the right advice, even just once, then we could take a step towards a better, fairer housing system...

My interest is in how current housing related research and thinking might be of benefit to tenants, and particularly to tenants in the private rental market. That is, after all, where the bulk of people on low incomes turn for their housing. For that matter, it's increasingly where many people on moderate or high incomes turn for theirs, too. But the more I looked for signs of recognition that the driving force behind our housing crisis is a series of assumptions - that we must deliver financial independence to the relatively well-off by offering incentives to acquire assets that perpetually increase in value - the harder it became to imagine holistic housing policies ever seeing the light of day in this country. All I got were the usual platitudes - how can we arrest the decline of home ownership in Australia? If we can't do this, how can we build more social housing? How can we get 'markets' to take care of the lot, so that we don't have to dip into consolidated revenues? Because it's pretty clear that our governments do not want to pay for housing. (A recurring theme of the conference - occasionally a good suggestion or question came from the floor, where it was met with the usual response: "the political will is not there...")

Perhaps I'm being too hard on the conference... perhaps I should just accept that housing is expensive, and will remain so while ever so much of our economic growth is reliant on its value going up and up and up. The only landlords represented at this conference came from the not-for-profit housing sector; and these 'social' landlords seem to believe they have just as much of an interest in rising asset values as any other speculative investor. The more they're worth on paper, the more cheaply they can buy their next batch of money, the more they can invest in 'affordable housing'.

Maybe that's okay if it means more properties can be rented out to more people down the track at affordable rates, if only we can get our policy settings right in the meantime? Or maybe that's just the kind of paradox that's got housing policy in such a tangle from the start. If that's what we're prepared to accept, then we end up in a very difficult place indeed: the only way that we can deliver affordable housing is to rely on housing becoming more expensive.

But it's not surprising that amateur 'mum and dad' investors were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it seems naive to even mention this - after all, they're not exactly an organised cohort and their 'consumption' of housing is not really consumption at all - they merely park money there, hoping that it will multiply and expand. Any interest they might have in housing policy is likely to be an afterthought - something to worry about if the market doesn't deliver the kinds of returns they might have been hoping for. Amateur landlords are unlikely to bring much of use to a conference about housing.

The irony is that we need them to. If we're looking for market based solutions to a housing affordability crisis then we need to take a closer look at what the markets are doing. It's no good to simply discuss what we'd like our markets to look like, if only we could... I don't know... if only we could talk this or that department into acting on the right advice. We need to bring these players to the table, to engage with them, to hear from them and learn from them as much as to try to convince them that the part they play in our housing system carries just a hint of social responsibility.

... because right now our markets are not delivering affordable housing. They are delivering wealth to those who are able to buy in. And those who take this option on that basis - and let's face it, that's pretty much every property owner there ever is, was and will be - are making it ever more difficult for others to even consider the option a valid one. This applies to social housing landlords who want to use their growing wealth for social good, as much as it applies to slumlords, amateurs and everyone in between.

The good news is that markets are delivering expensive homes to tenants just as much as they are to owner occupiers. It's just that they do so on very different terms. If we are prepared to accept that this is simply the way of all things, then so be it. But if that's how it is then let's put some thought into what it means for the interests of tenants, and what we might come to expect...

... and if we're not prepared to accept that, how do we build the case for change, given neither governments nor markets are ready to deliver?