OPINION: Under pressure to tackle deepening housing affordability problems, Treasurer Scott Morrison has included various housing policy measures in his budget, some relating to Australia’s small sector of social and affordable housing.
One headline-grabber is the creation of a new entity, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC). This will source private funds for on-lending to affordable housing providers to finance rental housing development. However, the bigger issue for the sector remains federal and state funding.
This public funding is the money that, along with tenants’ rents, co-funds state and territory housing and homelessness services. Here too Morrison is proposing reform, particularly to the primary federal-state funding arrangement for social and affordable housing, the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA).
A couple of months ago we suggested the NAHA needed a reboot. Recognising the seriously run-down state of the system, we argued for an increase in funding from its present starvation level. Morrison now proposes a new federal-state funding agreement, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA).
The level of federal funding will be the same as under the old NAHA. But the Commonwealth will press states and territories for action in defined “priority areas”. In effect, this looks like a return to a Canberra-led reform agenda for social and affordable housing unseen since the early Rudd government.
Setting aggregate supply targets
In what appears a significant passage, the budget papers reveal the government’s “priority areas” for the NHHA. We’ll consider these in turn, and then the recurring issue of inadequate funding.
Lack of transparency on the costs incurred by state and territory housing authorities in operating their social housing portfolios has been a particular problem under the NAHA. This is an area where federal engagement is welcome.
All levels of government should be pressed to quantify the level and type of need for housing in the community. And they should be made to set clear “new supply” targets for meeting that need.
That said, the federal government should stop pretending to be shocked at the lack of new social housing delivered by those authorities under the NAHA. The shortfall in NAHA funding has been obvious for years. It simply is too low to bridge the gap between the rents low-income public housing tenants can afford to pay and the costs of properly maintaining the system, let alone growing it to keep pace with rising need.
Residential land development
The stress laid on this issue within the budget policy statement reflects the federal government’s stated concern about “the supply side” of the housing affordability problem. It has framed state government planning controls as an impediment to new housing development.
However, merely loosening requirements and offering existing land owners the prospect of greater development does not ensure it will actually happen.
To ensure land owners don’t just sit on development opportunities speculatively, the federal government should use its NHHA leverage. This could include pushing the states and territories to make greater use of land tax, which would spur development and bring under-utilised land and housing to market.
Inclusionary zoning is a specific type of planning mechanism. It requires housing developments (above a certain size) to include some proportion of dedicated affordable housing. Ideally, this should be rental housing preserved as “affordable” in perpetuity.
Inclusionary zoning is long established in other countries and has long been demanded by housing advocates in Australia. It is now the subject of increasing interest from planning authorities – for example, the Greater Sydney Commission.
The co-financing arrangements for the NHFIC could incorporate active use of land-use planning powers for inclusionary zoning. Development sites – or developer levy proceeds – could be part of state and territory contributions to funding affordable housing development.
A commitment to build into the NHHA incentives for stepped-up use of inclusionary zoning by state governments is, therefore, very welcome.
However, the budget papers indicate that state compliance with this NHHA expectation might involve not only housing dedicated to affordable rental housing, but also “dedicated first home buyer stock”. This seems to raise the prospect of developers meeting inclusionary zoning requirements simply by reserving some newly built units for first home buyers rather than investors.
The best way to enhance first home buyer prospects vis a vis investor landlords would be to level the playing field by winding back investor negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, not through this kind of tinkering. And to cast such “FHB reservation” initiatives as in any way equivalent to inclusionary zoning for affordable rental housing would be a highly retrograde step.
Renewing affordable housing stock
An interesting inclusion in the proposed terms of the NHHA is a clause about renewing affordable housing stock.
First, it appears positive in acknowledging the need for a public housing overhaul and indicating a new level of federal government interest in making this happen.
At a minimum, states and territories should be required to undertake a comprehensive audit of their existing portfolios. The level of outstanding disrepair has to be costed. They also should identify where renewal can best take place, balancing need for expanded and upgraded housing with sensitive treatment of existing communities.
Second, it indicates federal backing for further transfers of public housing as a growth path for the affordable housing industry. However, as our recent research for AHURI shows, this is feasible only if the operating cost gap is funded.
Past community housing growth through transfers, particularly following the 2009 housing ministers’ commitment to expand community housing to 35% of all social housing, involved an understanding that Commonwealth Rent Assistance, paid through Centrelink to transferred tenants, would help cover that gap.
Without additional funding in the NHHA, a new phase of growth through transfers requires a recommitment by governments to use rent assistance as an effective operational subsidy to community housing providers. A new target and timeframe to replace the 35% benchmark also need to be considered.
Previously the subject of a separate funding agreement (the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness), homelessness services have struggled for years in the face of that agreement’s pending expiry and short-term extensions.
The NHHA will fund homelessness services on an ongoing basis, which the sector has welcomed.
Funding shortfall remains
As we’ve indicated throughout, the objectives of the NHHA – and of the social and affordable housing system generally – will continue to run up against the reality that decent housing of this kind costs more than low-income households can afford to pay.
This applies especially to people living on the miserable level of benefits such as Newstart. A subsidy is required, both to build up the stock and to keep it in good order.
Clearer targets, more transparent cost accounting, and innovations like NHFIC finance won’t bridge the gap. On the contrary, to successfully use those initiatives to build more stock, both state and territory housing authorities and non-government affordable housing providers need a larger subsidy than present funding provides.
The budget has indexed NHHA funding to wages. It would be nice to think that land and housing prices will increase only in line with wages.
In reality, properly funding the growth and maintenance of our social and affordable housing stock will require more than what the federal government is offering.
Chris Martin is a Research Fellow, Housing Policy and Practice at UNSW and Hal Pawson is an Associate Director, City Futures, Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice at UNSW.