There’s a famous Bruce Springsteen song with the words “families sleeping in their cars in the south-west, no home, no job, no peace, no rest”.
They’re telling words which echo the struggles, both far and not so far from us here in Australia, of past generations - but also of this one. I think they encourage those of us who enjoy the comfort and security of a stable home to think about those who aren’t as lucky, and to ask ourselves how we can meet the housing needs of more people, whether it’s helping them to break the cycle of homelessness, secure a rental property or buy their own home.
As the song suggests, a good secure home is fundamental to so many parts of life: school, work, health, friendships, comfort, security, happiness. Homelessness can be just one or two big life events away from any one of us, and it’s well-known that in a housing market driven by Canberra’s high average incomes, too many people face housing stress.
The ACT Government has released a new housing strategy, built on the contributions of hundreds of community voices.
What’s good to report is that the 2016 census shows we are defying a national trend by reducing homelessness (by 8 per cent since 2011) and Canberra has the lowest rate of rough sleeping in the country.
This reflects a caring community and an ACT government that’s been willing to intervene where the housing market fails to provide for people with less money.
Social housing tenants I chat to – low income earners, older women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families – are often overcoming challenges in their lives that many of us can’t even imagine. This is something only made possible by safe and secure housing. For over a decade the government has pulled policy levers to respond to homelessness and housing affordability issues. We’ve maintained the highest ratio of social housing in the country with nearly 12,000 dwellings, home to more than 20,000 people.
The government has also established a tax reform program, replacing stamp duty with a broad-based land tax which has moderated house price growth and helped to avoid the extremes of Sydney or Melbourne. And we’ve invested heavily in specialist homelessness services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, with additional funding in this year’s budget on top of the $20 million provided to the sector every year.
The new ACT housing strategy will continue this work to improve affordability for people in all facets of housing, from getting people into safe and secure shelter, to helping them find an affordable place to rent or buy.
So what did the Canberra community have to say when we asked them?
They wanted assurance that future supply of new land will meet the growth of the city without sprawling forever into the countryside. The new strategy will see land supply grow with population needs – around 17,000 dwellings over the next four years – and provide more sites for public, community and affordable housing.
Canberrans want to know where to get help or information, or how better to help others. The strategy will bring government information together more clearly so it’s easier for people to help others get in touch with a support service.
They want to know that they won’t be treated as second class if they rent. Rental laws are being strengthened.
Parents want to know their children will be able to buy a home to live in and not be priced out by investors. The new strategy will continue to put first home buyers first with a stamp duty waiver, and for lower income households the government is now working directly with people who are eligible for affordable housing properties to make sure they go to the people who need them most.
Our tireless community housing organisations and specialist homelessness services also wanted to know that the ACT would continue to advocate for their work at the national level, and we will keep doing that, as I’ve done constantly since becoming housing minister. This year we finally achieved funding certainty for homelessness services. Next, we need to see the Commonwealth come good on their promised support for community housing growth.
There’s more to do. The Canberra community has always shown its willingness to give to the greater good. The new housing strategy will guide the government, on behalf the community, to continue to do just that.
Yvette Berry is the Deputy Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory.