ACTCOSS concerned housing deal put ahead of affordable rentals
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ACTCOSS concerned housing deal put ahead of affordable rentals

The ACT's Council of Social Service is at a loss as to why the territory government seemingly put a deal to build townhouses to sell to Defence Housing Australia ahead of addressing affordable housing in the private rental market.

The Canberra Times on Monday reported the deal with DHA would see the government's public housing taskforce build 33 townhouses in Taylor and Gungahlin, to sell to the Commonwealth entity at an undisclosed sum.

ACT Council of Social Service director Susan Helyar, does not understand why the DHA sale was given priority over more affordable rentals.

ACT Council of Social Service director Susan Helyar, does not understand why the DHA sale was given priority over more affordable rentals.Credit:Jay Cronan

But ACTCOSS executive director Susan Helyar said the community sector did not understand why the government seemed to have put the deal ahead of providing more affordable rental properties for low income Canberrans and growing public housing dwelling numbers.

Housing Minister Yvette Berry has said the deal would help to provide a better social mix of residents on the four blocks in the two suburbs, a proposal the council supports, but has not yet explained how much revenue the government will secure, nor what it would fund.

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While Ms Helyar said she could not speculate on the motivation behind the deal, she said both the social services sector, and the industry stakeholders it dealt with, supported providing concessions to community housing providers to buy land more cheaply.

She said the council had been raising the need for more affordable rentals with government for months, but had seen no action on the issue.

Ms Helyar said the sector was receiving two messages from government, one being that it had some ideas but was not ready to talk about them, and the other that the long-awaited announcement of a new housing strategy had to come before action on affordable rental properties.

"What is of most concern for affordable housing advocates, [is that] we seem to be at the end of the queue when it comes to putting government resources into solving a problem," she said.

Ms Berry has previously said the deal with DHA was done for financial efficiency, and that the 33 townhouses to be sold to DHA were in addition to the 1288 public housing dwellings being replaced under the government's extensive renewal program.

On ABC Radio Canberra on Monday, she said the DHA dwellings were never going to be for public housing, and the arrangement meant the government could secure funding immediately for those homes through the Commonwealth.

Ms Berry also said if the government had built more public housing, it would have led to a poorer social outcome, which the research told government would not provide the greatest benefit for those in public housing.

While the dwellings were on blocks of land earmarked for public housing, the government's previous public statements on the matter indicated only that the land could be subdivided to sell the remaining land, not for the taskforce to build homes on that land to sell off.

Ms Helyar said while the government had said the DHA dwellings were in addition to the replacement of the 1288 public housing dwellings being torn down, she assumed the revenue from the DHA deal would go back into maintaining public housing.

The government has not yet clarified whether that is the case.

Ms Helyar told ABC the bigger question was that Canberrans struggling with the worst private rental market in Australia for low income households had been told for years that "they just need to be patient".

"I’m not sure how we can demonstrate further to the [ACT] government how urgent an affordable housing action strategy is," she told ABC.

"We’ve seen action for people purchasing affordable housing, we’ve seen some more money for homelessness support services, but people are homeless because there’s nowhere to rent.

"I just don’t understand why people are being asked to wait for action."

She told ABC the council had defended the government's public housing renewal program, and its salt-and-pepper public housing policy, but the point the council had made over and over again was the program was not increasing the number of public housing dwellings available.

Ms Helyar said the people needing public housing were going without food, or heating, or taking out pay day loans to pay for such expenses, given the high cost of rental accommodation in the city.

"I can’t see what would drive the government to see this as more urgent than these kind of circumstances they are facing," she said.

Ms Berry has previously said a new affordable housing strategy, promised in October 2016, would be released in the second half of 2018, but has not committed to specific release date.

DHA Managing Director Jan Mason said the housing it was buying from the territory was intended to house Defence staff and their families.

Ms Berry's spokeswoman said in a statement that "the community presentations [about these sites] informed stakeholders and the community about the dwellings intended for public housing purposes only".

"Those public housing sites that were discussed with the community are being delivered in full," she said.

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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