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Affordable housing – governments must act

The recent stoush between the NSW government and Sydney City Council over the Martin Place “tent city” has shone a spotlight on Greater Sydney’s underlying crisis of unaffordable rents.

Tent city protest in Martin Place Photo: Andrew Collis
Tent city protest in Martin Place Photo: Andrew Collis

Not a stone’s throw from the tents, on August 3 a petition of over 16,000 signatures was presented to State Parliament calling for legislation to earmark at least 15 per cent of units in new developments for lower-income-affordable rental.

The St Vincent de Paul Society petition was presented (with reservations) by Liberal MP for Epping, Damien Tudehope, to ringing endorsement from Labor and Greens MPs. Watching was the biggest public gallery ever mounted for a petition in the parliament’s history. A Vinnies launch event in the Parliament Theatrette was packed out.

The growing surge of public concern about affordable housing is shown in opinion polls and attendance at public events – huge Sydney Alliance assemblies at Eastwood and Sydney City on May 4 and July 12, and the Vinnies petition launch.

While housing affordability is complex, practical improvements are possible at all tiers of government – and the community is increasingly impatient for action.

Federally, there are growing calls for reform of negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions. Done carefully, these can moderate house and rental prices without disadvantage to “mum and dad investors”. While foreign investment also needs addressing, simply pointing the finger at migrants won’t wash as an intelligent response.

At state level, research and worldwide experience supports “inclusionary zoning” – setting quotas for affordable rents in new developments. Again care is needed – as noted by Mr Tudehope when presenting the Vinnies petition – to ensure this is done in a way which doesn’t push prices up or housing supply down.

But there are enough examples of successful implementation of this policy in cities like London and New York, where many thousands of affordable units were created without adverse impact.

The NSW Opposition has adopted the policy, and the government’s Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) is proposing cautious targets. Expert planners and 122 organisations (including Uniting) supported the Sydney Alliance submission on inclusionary zoning to the GSC, and turned out in droves to Alliance assemblies.

At local government level, councils must work with the state to build inclusionary targets into rezoning – and to view legislative quotas as minimums to be bettered in appropriate developments. State government agencies need to reduce impediments to this – it’s suggested current council proposals for affordable units are being seriously delayed.

The community looks to the Berejiklian government for practical steps to reduce rents. People know simply building more houses won’t work – it hasn’t in the past, and can’t without inclusionary quotas.

NSW could also help make rentals more secure by ending the “no cause” eviction under NSW law (see the Make Renting Fair campaign).

Failure to act will create serious logjams throughout the housing system: if the rental market remains prohibitive, there’s no way out of social and community housing (of the sort Uniting provides); if social housing tenants are stuck there, then no space can be found to move people from emergency and crisis housing into social/community units; if crisis housing is full, there’s no room at the inn for the increasing homeless.

Result: more tents, more families dispersed, more pressure on public transport and infrastructure, local businesses and community diversity. In short, a dysfunctional city.

This issue hurts everyone, not just renters. Governments will neglect it at their peril.

 

 

More information at Uniting Social Justice Forum’s Affordable Housing Campaign webpage or contact ssanders@uniting.org.

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