Housing and homelessness clear examples of a Canberra of two parts

In his 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! former Federal Minister Barry Jones attempted to jolt our national complacency.

Sleepers, Wake! was startling in an Australia hopefully complacent that it could continue to ride off agriculture, historic industries and trading alliances that had been set in place since the Second World War.

Housing and homelessness issues have barely rated a blimp on our radar.
Housing and homelessness issues have barely rated a blimp on our radar. 

In a way Canberra is like Australia at the dawn of the 1980s – we hold advantages that mask growing social and economic divides.

Canberrans live against pristine vistas laid out in the Griffin Plan while having a third of people working in secure public sector jobs creates an aura of affluence. The ACT community has a genuine commitment to equality that saw us become the first to sign up to a whole of jurisdiction National Disability Insurance Scheme. We spoke out for marriage equality and welcomed refugees.

ACT Council of Social Service director Susan Helyar.
ACT Council of Social Service director Susan Helyar. Photo: Jay Cronan

Yet in our economy the reflected glow is becoming dimmer as federal agencies realise they don't have to be based here. The National Disability Insurance Agency, administering the biggest new social program since Medicare, is based in Geelong.

The stream of secure, well paid public sector jobs that allow families to pay down a mortgage is receding and more people are living paycheck to paycheck in casual or insecure employment. The news for Canberra in the recent Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook says this won't change anytime soon.


Our city is ageing, as more people choose to retire here and the revenue base is changing when our demographic changes require more resources to sustain the healthcare, community services, education services and urban amenities the community needs.

Amid this change Canberra exudes an air of hopeful complacency – imagining that our capital smarts and zeal for progress will see us through.

Decision-makers have backed innovation and many hope that with another turn of the Federal wheel the jobs and prosperity will return and we will be "alright on the night".

We are a smart city with bright ideas – but we face growing economic and social divides that require us to make choices as a city, set priorities and choose long term investment in social infrastructure as the foundation for prosperity.

Housing and homelessness are the clearest examples of a city of two parts – those people who can get into the market, can enjoy stable housing and build a secure asset base, and those stuck in an unaffordable private rental market, never able to enjoy security of tenure. Housing market failure shows the capital smarts and the natural advantages that have worked for us in the past are no longer enough to ensure prosperity for all.

The impacts are all too clear.

There are waiting lists for public housing. People are sleeping rough, couch surfing or living in inadequate and overcrowded housing.

Canberra is a launch site for the NDIS, yet we only have patchwork solutions to a lack of affordable and accessible housing for people with disability. The same problem faces our greying population as their health needs and mobility change.

Our land supply is not focused on increasing affordable rental accommodation.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people face cost barriers and discrimination when looking to rent. People leaving the child protection system, the justice system and mental health settings need affordable, suitable housing, not referrals to homelessness services.

The last census in 2011 reported a 70 per cent rise in homelessness with 1785 Canberrans experiencing homelessness (Australian Bureau of Statistics).

Every year about 5000 people are supported by homelessness services including over 1000 under the age of 18.

In July 2015, in the depths of winter, the central intake service for the ACT Specialist Homelessness Service system found that 645 people were seeking homelessness support.

Women and youth are especially at risk. Over 40 per cent of people experiencing homelessness on Census night were under 25. A study found over half of all women escaping domestic violence lost their homes, whether rented or owned, within 12 months of separation.

Yet housing and homelessness issues have barely rated a blimp on our radar as we enter a watershed year which will see not one but two elections with high stakes for Canberra.

If we assume that it won't be alright on the night, what can we do?

We need to fund services so we can respond promptly and effectively to people who are homeless, to support recovery from homelessness and prevent recurrence of homelessness.

We need a whole of Government commitment which includes: a requirement that all directorates report on how their policies and funding decisions impact on homelessness as part of annual reporting requirements; and part of the operating budget of each directorate quarantined to improving housing affordability and reducing homelessness.

Finally we need to increase supply of accessible and affordable housing in the ACT such as a land release pipeline to improve certainty and reduce cost of development and construction as well as investing and incentivising non-government investors to fund affordable housing construction, with a focus on affordable rental.

Measures like these will involve marking out priorities and making choices, but are essential if we are to address the underlying challenges we face while retaining the genuine commitment to advancing social equality and justice that Canberrans see in ourselves.

Susan Helyar​ is the director of the ACT Council of Social Service