Last week’s damning Auditor General’s report into the state of NSW social housing revealed that the current system meets less than half of the state’s need and that the shortfall is increasing. There are currently 120,000 people waiting for social housing in NSW.
Even the Department of Housing’s website is bureaucratically straightforward about waiting times, displaying a cheery colour-coded table which unapologetically indicates the many areas where applicants can expect to wait over a decade.
The sheer scale of government failure is breathtaking.
Aside from the massive and growing shortfall of available properties, one of the key findings of the report was that properties are ageing and increasingly not fit for purpose. They have too many bedrooms, while the growing demand is for smaller, accessible dwellings.
The O’Farrell Government was quick to point out that the report was a reminder of “the mess left after 16 years of Labor” and that it highlighted “the need to build a social housing system which breaks disadvantage for vulnerable people, rather than just managing it”.
But instead of committing to investing in new, more appropriate properties and a long-term plan to break the cycle of entrenched social disadvantage, the O’Farrell Government’s response has been to tax tenants who happen to have spare rooms. This is a handy way of punishing vulnerable people for the failure of government to plan and build appropriate housing stock, while simultaneously neglecting to address a very real problem of supply and demand. (Apparently market ideology doesn’t apply when it comes to providing public support for people who need help.)
When the same policy was rolled out in the UK it was broadly criticised. Partial concessions were made after public backlash. Those responsible for the difficult task of rehousing tenants in non-existent smaller dwellings highlighted the erroneous logic of punishing people for the shortage of appropriately sized homes.
I work in the electorate office of Greens Jamie Parker MP. It’s located in the heart of Glebe’s historic public housing estate, a cluster of properties purchased by the Whitlam government to provide housing for those in need.
Much of our constituent work involves advocating for people in social housing. Every day our office sees the impacts of chronic underfunding and disadvantage — the human faces of the system’s neglect.
A steadily swelling maintenance backlog blew out to over $300 million under the former Labor government and the O’Farrell Government has done little to address it.
In real terms, this often means squalid living conditions for the people who are served by social housing: predominantly the elderly, the disadvantaged, and those with significant disabilities and mental health issues.
Many are living in homes that are falling into disrepair, with common problems including broken guttering leading to roof problems and encroaching mould. During rainy weeks, we often hear from people whose homes have flooded.
In one dramatic case, a woman’s verandah collapsed after a termite infestation that had also infiltrated her home. After repeatedly reporting it to the housing maintenance service and the private contractor tasked with addressing it, she resorted to collecting the termites in take-away containers as they fell from her laundry roof. When we visited, she was worried for the health of her infant granddaughter, living with her in a room upstairs.
These people feel ignored and frustrated by a system which is so overwhelmed and bureaucratic that it is still taking names on a decade-long waiting list.
After increasing steadily in the 50 years to 1995, the number of social housing dwellings began to level out under Labor. Social housing has declined as a proportion of overall New South Wales housing and is now supporting fewer people than a decade ago.
Increased investment would allow for the broadening of criteria for tenancy, thereby lessening the stigma of social housing over time and reducing the concentration of social disadvantage.
Instead the O’Farrell Government plans to sell social housing properties at more than twice the rate it will be building them in the next four years.
The lack of social housing stock has led to the narrowing of criteria for placement, with the result that often it is only the most vulnerable and disadvantaged who make it into social housing. This is a recipe for entrenched poverty.
It should come as no surprise that a conservative government is implementing a privatisation agenda which reduces social welfare and increases private sector involvement in public service delivery (through public-private partnerships for example).
Labor, however, paved the way for this agenda over decades, by allowing properties to fall into disrepair. This fostered a culture of neglect and non-delivery, slowly lowering public expectations of government’s social welfare responsibilities.
In NSW we are experiencing what may yet be played out at a federal level if the Coalition forms government.
When a Labor government neglects social welfare and public services, it not only fails the most vulnerable people in our community, it also softens the ground for a Coalition government to do far worse, including fundamentally changing government responses to social disadvantage. This principle is also true for the public provision of services such as education, health and transport, as well as the protection of the environment.
This state of social housing in NSW is emblematic of the dangers of systemic neglect of social justice principles, particularly by a party which has woven them into its own rhetoric.
For the thousands of housing applicants who were sold the story of the PM’s rise to greatness off the back of a strong social welfare system, it will be a long wait.
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