UN Condemns Australia's Housing


The Great Australian Dream of a quarter-acre block with a Hills Hoist in the backyard has long been a powerful image an ideal pursued by millions. And with Australia’s increasing prosperity  and low unemployment, we should be closer to fulfilling this dream than ever before.

Instead, according to a new report to be delivered on 11 June to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Australia’s housing quality and affordability has descended to such lows that they violate basic human rights.

The report produced by Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing from the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) criticises the lack of affordable accommodation, reduced funding for public housing and the discrimination faced by groups such as women, refugees and Indigenous Australians.

It has added an international voice to a chorus of recent   studies condemning the state of Australian housing.

From 31 July to 15 August 2006, Kothari toured Australia, meeting with community leaders, government representatives and social workers. Visiting everywhere from capital cities to Indigenous townships and Villawood Detention Centre, he gradually uncovered what he calls a ‘national housing crisis.’

According to Kothari’s report, Australia’s prosperity and First-World status means that the number of homeless people and the worsening condition of public housing constitute a violation of basic human rights.

‘The Special Rapporteur has come to the conclusion that Australia has failed to implement its international legal obligation to progressively realise the human right to adequate housing,’ the report says.

Australians for Affordable Housing spokesman David Imber agrees, saying that, ‘We still have unacceptable numbers of people homeless, in housing stress and even in housing-related poverty.’

The heated topic of housing-related poverty and affordability has recently gained recognition, forcing responses from all sides of politics. According to the March 2007 quarter HIA/Commonwealth Bank Housing Affordability Index, housing affordability in Australia has fallen to its lowest levels since recording began in 1984.

Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett agrees with Kothari. ‘Access to affordable and appropriate housing is such a fundamental basic right, and yet it’s just not on the political radar,’ he says.

According to Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Human Services, Housing, Youth and Women, Australian housing is in a state of crisis and the blame lies with the Federal Government: ‘The average house now costs seven times the average annual income up from four times the average annual income when John Howard was elected,’ she said in a statement.

Despite agreeing with the results, Mal Brough, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, sees a different culprit. ‘The Rapporteur’s criticism of State-provided public housing should be directed at States and Territories, which have responsibility for this issue. It is an issue of great concern that despite billions of Federal dollars being provided to the States for public housing, the stock has actually fallen.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The UN report, unsurprisingly, takes a less partisan stance showing how funding reductions to public housing at both State and Federal levels are increasing demand and prices. ‘There were about 30,000 fewer houses in the public housing stock between 1996 and 2004,’ it reads.

As mainstream Australia feels the pressure of plummeting affordability, vulnerable groups are already reaching breaking point. Women, young people, people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers are all identified as having increased difficulty accessing adequate housing because of discrimination, lack of protection and lack of suitable accommodation.

The demographic singled out as facing the most difficulty is Indigenous Australians. ‘In both urban and rural areas in all States, [the Indigenous people Kothari]visited are facing a severe housing crisis,’ the report says.

‘Australian governments must urgently address the humanitarian tragedy of the lack of housing and basic services for the Indigenous peoples of Australia.’

According to Kothari, speaking from Geneva, a major cause of housing failure for Indigenous Australians is lack of self-determination.

‘What I found on my mission was a general lack at the Federal and provincial level of genuine consultation with Indigenous people,’ he said. ‘The role that ATSIC used to play has not been filled, and given the scale of the problem and the decades of neglect that were very evident on the ground, it calls for an independent body where people can claim ownership and say œlook we trust these people and we will be able to go to them. ’

The UN report also warns against plans announced by the Coalition to scrap the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme (CHIP) and replace it with the Australian Remote Indigenous Accommodation (ARIA) Program in July 2008 a move that would see Federal funding for urban and regional Indigenous Australian housing discontinued.

‘ The Special Rapporteur reminds the Government that retrogressive measures, such as cuts in expenditure on public housing or homelessness services, are permissible only in œexceptional circumstances,  which is obviously not the case in Australia,’ it reads.

Although he feels that blame for the crisis must be shared amongst all Australian governments, Kothari is adamant that immediate national action and co-ordination is required from the Federal Government. ‘The primary responsibility we place for realising these rights is with the Commonwealth. That’s why I’ve called for a national ministry on housing,’ he says.

According to Plibersek, a Federal Labor Government would form such a ministry, but the Coalition is yet to follow suit.

Imber says Australia’s international agreements make the lack of a national body unwise. He says:

Australia has signed these international conventions and yet the Federal Government, is refusing to take national leadership. We will not solve the situation where one in seven Australians are in housing stress and more than 100,000 Australians are homeless on any one night if we don’t have national leadership.

With mounting pressure on all governments to improve housing, and the Federal Labor Party promising to make it an election issue, the Australian Dream is not yet lost. But according to Kothari, the most vulnerable in Australia face a terrible future unless change is swift and meaningful.

‘I see conditions worsening and I think the whole notion of public housing is about to disappear,’ says Kothari. ‘A lot of people will simply be left out.’

The Federal Government is expected to respond to the Kothari report on 11 June.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.