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Federal housing minister, building program needed urgently to fix housing crisis

A roundtable of community housing leaders in Canberra on Wednesday backed a call for the appointment of a federal housing minister with the powers and the funding to address the housing crisis.

With 206,000 households on social housing waiting lists, 105,000 people designated homeless at the time of the last census, 61 per cent of people entering public housing being homeless at the time they received a place and 40 per cent of people receiving rental assistance still paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, urgent action was needed, the gathering was told.

Delegates to the National Housing Strategy symposium, who included representatives of Compass Housing, Access Housing, St Vincent de Paul, the Community Housing Registry Association and Foundation Housing, said while federal Labor governments usually had housing ministers, federal Coalition governments usually did not.

Recent Labor ministers, including Tania Plibersek​, had made little headway on homelessness, public housing and the broader issue of housing affordability because they were not given the tools for the job.

"The key issue is, in discussion with Treasury, empowering the housing minister to bring funding and financial resources into the housing sector," Professor David Adamson, the co-author of the National Housing Strategy Report, said.

The document, commissioned by Compass Housing, outlined an action program to effectively eliminate the public housing waiting list and make homes more affordable for first home buyers.

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The appointment of an empowered and well-resourced housing minister headed the list of 15 recommendations.

"Discussions in Treasury and cabinet are notoriously difficult and you need a good strong minister to stand their ground," Professor Adamson, Compass Housing's research and development manager, said. "If you haven't got that voice at the table then you've got no chance."

He told Fairfax Media that Coalition governments tended not to appoint housing ministers because they saw the issue as something that could be addressed by market forces.

"But, in reality, markets do often get distorted and government intervention is required," he said.

Economics commentator Saul Eslake, who has worked for some of Australia's largest companies, including the ANZ Bank, said both sides of politics had a poor track record on the shortfall in community housing.

Coalition politicians didn't care greatly because the people who needed public housing were unlikely to vote for them. Labor politicians didn't give the issue high priority because they already had the disadvantaged vote.

Mr Eslake said the public housing sector was not immune to problems in the private market and the affordability crisis had seen people of limited means priced out of the private rental sector by better heeled would-be home owners who hadn't been able to buy.

Professor Adamson agreed: "We are seeing the emergence of the concept of a 'generation rent' with first home buyers having great difficulty entering an overheated market".

Mr Eslake, an advocate of the abolition of negative gearing since the 1980s, said the baby boomers had rigged the property market in their favour at the expense of their own children.

Instead of marching in the streets to protest what had been done to them by their property-investing parents, those children, now 30-somethings, were either asking their parents for money to get into their first home or just refusing to move out at all, he said.

Wednesday's forum also endorsed a call to transfer public housing, including title, to not-for-profit community housing providers.

Professor Adamson, an emeritus professor at the University of South Wales in the UK, who has worked as a senior adviser to the Welsh Government, said this had been very successful in Britain and other parts of Europe.

"If London can reduce homelessness to residual levels in five years, I can't see why it can't be done here," he said.