Speech to Regional Development Australia ACT’s Canberra Leaders Consultative Forum

During the week, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of giving a speech on social inclusion, homelessness and housing affordability in the ACT. Here is the body of the speech:

We’re talking about social inclusion this afternoon and that requires a holistic perspective that traverses the landscape of individual experiences within an ever changing political, economic and social context.

Social inclusion is not a single action that Government should take, but rather a lens through which the structures and functions of governance should be viewed, decisions considered, and their impacts on vulnerable people understood. Such a lens encompasses all aspects of policy making from environmental planning, through economic development, to health, education and social policy.

To have policy makers see issues through the lens of social inclusion is an important step in redressing inequality and reducing disadvantage in our society.

Affordable housing itself is a right enshrined in several international conventions and is a necessity for a sustainable, inclusive and well-functioning community.

We know that we have significant challenges in achieving this aim here in the ACT given we had over 1,000 people recorded as homeless in the last census in 2006. In the past 5 years, the average property price in the ACT has grown from just on $400,000 to $550,000. The average year-on-year price for all residential properties to February 2011  was up 7.1%. Full time ordinary time earnings for the last 5 years were up 4.3%.

In order to look at future possibilities, we must first understand our past. In its early years Canberra’s housing was entirely government-built to house the many public servants that moved to the city. Unlike many other Australian cities, Government housing was dispersed across suburbs rather than concentrated in one area.

When responsibility for public housing switched to the ACT government in 1989, the stock of government houses in Canberra was already ageing. Planning at the time focused on quickly housing a rapidly growing workforce. Canberra has since matured with its own private housing however, the concentration of federal government employees on higher average wages than the rest of the nation has been one of the legacies that has contributed to the rising cost of housing.

There are other multiple factors that have contributed to the housing affordability crisis including: access to cheaper finance, the general cycle of long term economic growth, low unemployment rates, the demand for rental housing and associated increasing costs, changing patterns of employment & urban development, and broader economic, cultural and demographic drivers such as the move to smaller and more diverse families.

Changes in the labour market have had major impacts on housing costs & urban development, and in turn, a lack of affordable housing makes it more difficult – and therefore more costly – to recruit and retain employees. The availability of affordable housing plays a role in where businesses decide to build, relocate or expand their operations. From an employer’s perspective, a lack of affordable housing can certainly put the local economy at a competitive disadvantage.

There is also a risk of significant social and economic exclusion as a result of a lack of affordable housing. As our population ages, the challenge is to develop housing choices for people, providing flexibility as the need for support increases. Ageing women are particularly vulnerable as they generally have a lower degree of housing security and therefore choice of appropriate accommodation as they age.

Both the Federal and ACT Governments have increased their investment in affordable housing over the last few years. The introduction of the National Affordable Housing Agreement in 2009 initiated a whole of government approach in tackling the problem of housing affordability.

The Housing Affordability Fund is addressing holding costs for developers and the cost of infrastructure investment, targeting greenfields and infill development.

Locally, the Affordable Housing Action Plan has seen the release of more and more land, fast-tracking the approval process for greenfield sites, providing stamp duty concessions for eligible first home buyers, the introduction of the Land Rent Scheme and measures to ensure that 15% of new residential estates have house and land packages available below $300,000.

CHC Affordable Housing is delivering up to 1000 new properties for sale and rent, and new public housing stock is being developed for older Canberrans to provide a variety of options and locations, close to shops and transport, helping ease the demand on public housing for larger family homes.

But these measures in themselves still cannot address the needs of our burgeoning homeless population.

The Street to Home outreach program for rough sleepers run by St Vinnies has attracted significant government funding over the past year and a program that I am on the Board of, Common Ground Canberra has been provided $150,000 of funding in the 2011/12 ACT Budget to develop a feasibility study.

Common Ground Canberra is working closely with other service providers, government, and the community and business sectors to develop permanent, safe and supportive housing for those who are most vulnerable in our city and region. With a 50:50 split between homeless and low income workers, Common Ground will provide both a mechanism to help end homelessness in the ACT and to drive housing affordability by providing accommodation for those on low incomes. The buildings will have 24/7 concierge and a keycard security system, and will be architecturally modern and integrated with their local environment.

There is also a need for broader urban planning that reflects our changing demographics, and encourages a cultural shift to an acceptance of medium density housing, providing diversity and choice.

Changes to economic policy should encourage investment in affordable housing, while reducing tax distortions and increasing social and community housing run by the not-for-profit sector.

Larger organisations and businesses can also be encouraged to invest in affordable housing as a workforce strategy.

And it is that collaboration and partnership between government, the private and not-for-profit sectors that will provide the best chance of minimising our housing affordability challenges. There is a lead role for government to set the public policy framework, to release parcels of land, and provide a cohesive and efficient planning process with appropriate transparency, openness and community engagement, but it is with private and not-for-profit sectors that we look to, to drive supply and accessibility.

Finally, there is the question of our future population – on one hand we have the need to live sustainably within the constraints of our environment and infrastructure, and on the other the need for further growth to enhance the services expected by the community. Getting the balance right, and the associated demand generated by sustainable population management measures will be key to providing affordable housing for our growing community.

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