Melbourne's Housing Squeeze

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The final closure of The Hub, a large private rooming house in Fitzroy, earlier this year received a remarkable amount of media and public attention — particularly when you consider how inevitable it was. The story should have been about how and why it had remained open all these years when other similar accommodation providers had closed their doors years before.

There are two reasons for the intense interest around this issue.

The first was the human story: 83 people who faced bleak prospects of re-housing were given 60-day eviction notices. Many of us can relate to the turmoil a 60-day eviction notice from a landlord brings.

The second was that this event marked almost the end of an era for large private rooming houses in Melbourne. As someone who has spent more than 20 years as a housing worker, I understand the significance of this major structural change in our low income housing market.

Over the last century, large inner-city rooming houses like The Hub provided accommodation for thousands of itinerant blue collar workers, students, the unemployed and those undertaking apprenticeships and training courses for jobs in health, hospitality, retail and a host of other industries. Back then they often came with cooked meals and cleaning thrown in.

Over the last 30 years or so, a shift has taken place. Working people increasingly choose long commutes over inner-city convenience and students create share houses. This has coincided with the beginnings and then intensification of the house price boom. This in turn started putting pressure on rooming houses, which were often located in prime locations, as is the case with The Hub which was just across the road from the Carlton Gardens.

In the early 1990s, places like the Toorak Private Hotel still offered a private room with shared facilities for just $65 a week. Back then, The Hub was called Staffa House and offered rooms for an even more affordable $55. I remember them well.

The last decade and a half has seen an additional spike in prices and the resultant gentrification of the inner city. Rents have followed house prices and these days you would struggle to rent a parking space for $65, let alone somewhere to live. Salaries, pensions and welfare payments have not nearly kept up with the rising cost of housing. Housing affordability is now an everyday problem rather than an affliction on the margins.

As private operators looking for a profit, the owners of large private rooming houses have cashed in on the property boom and turned their land holdings into multi-million dollar developments. This has added to our supply of luxury apartments and boutique hotels — and has meant the loss of thousands of beds formerly available to low income households.

The loss of these older rooming houses and their largely respectable management has created a gaping hole in the market. Less reputable operators, such as those highlighted in the recent Call This A Home? campaign for safe rooming houses, moved in and filled the hole with privately head-leased suburban homes. These homes are then sublet to as many individuals or families as can fit. There are examples of five-bedroom homes being filled with up to 20 people. Garages, backyards and communal spaces are turned into "rooms", often with the help of cheap partitions.

This new breed of rooming house is hidden throughout suburban Melbourne. They are rarely registered and often the stage for summary evictions, standover tactics and casual violence. When women and children are thrown into this kind of environment the potential for mental and physical abuse increases exponentially.

Our new Victorian Premier and his Minister for Housing will need to take ownership over the positive reforms started by their predecessors if they are to succeed in cleaning up this unsafe and poorly regulated corner of the housing market. A good start would be the introduction of a "fit and proper person" test for operators and the imposition of strong minimum standards.

The Hub weathered the storm through all these changes. Although not suitable for more vulnerable residents, it became a true home for many. Its loss is a major blow to homelessness services like ours who are unable to find safe, secure and affordable housing for the majority of those who come to us for help. In the absence of sustained government investment to turn around the rapid decline in affordable housing supply, The Hub became the "best worst" option for housing workers faced day after day with people in crisis.

One Hub resident who lost his room was Ray, a gentle 85-year-old man who served in the army and found himself stuck in homelessness more than three decades ago. He had lived there for more than 25 years. Before we helped him move into his new home provided by aged housing agency Wintringham, he was paying more than $160 a week for a room where you could touch both walls at the same time.

Around 50 of the 83 residents served with eviction notices have been supported to secure good quality long-term housing, mainly thanks to the leadership of community housing providers including the YWCA, Wintringham and Yarra Community Housing. Around 35 are currently in temporary accommodation, couch surfing or sleeping rough. The Victorian Government provided resources for us to keep working with this group until the end of June. So far, no-one evicted from The Hub has been able to access public housing.

The loss of the last large private rooming houses to redevelopment is an inevitable symptom of Melbourne’s affordable housing crisis. What isn’t inevitable is that this must lead to increasing homelessness with the huge social and economic cost burden that this places on mainstream systems like hospitals, ambulances, mental health beds and crisis accommodation. Victoria still lacks a coherent plan for turning around declining housing affordability and stemming the flow of individuals and families into the damaging experience of homelessness.

We know that homelessness can be reduced and we know that taking smart and effective action in this direction will save both dollars and lives. We know that combining long-term housing and tailored support is the key. We have a talented social services sector who are willing to work with government, corporate and philanthropic partners to make it happen. However, success will require local, state and federal leadership — and a bit of policy courage to bring it all together.

 

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