In his budget reply on Thursday, Greens Leader Shane Rattenbury made much of the role the Greens had had in shaping a territory budget that funded some important and worthy projects. But he also drew attention to a shortcoming in Labor's 2017-18 budget: There is little in there to address affordable housing. Mr Rattenbury described this as the budget's greatest gap and has urged the ACT to demonstrate leadership in tackling this issue and not to sit back and wait for the Commonwealth to remove negative gearing and capital gains tax.
Mr Rattenbury's is not a voice from nowhere. Affordable housing has been identified for many months as one of the most urgent challenges facing a nation that risks locking a generation out of buying their own home. Apartments are still within reach for young professional couples in Canberra, but if you're looking for a freestanding home with a backyard where you can bring up a family you will struggle anywhere but the fringes. To consign a generation to apartment living is not only a different economic equation in terms of an apartment's capacity for capital growth, it's a different social equation in terms of putting down roots in a place that you and your family can call home for many years to come, and a different environmental equation in terms of connection to land and ability make use of the soil around you.
None of these issues are trivial and the answers are, it goes without saying, complex. But the ACT is in a unique position with its hands on the levers. It largely controls the number of blocks that are sold, and it controls the price. It is within the power of an ACT government to make land available at price points that can accommodate a young couple or family on a moderate income.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr says the ACT has an unprecedented diversity of land for sale in the coming years - the government's own suburban development in north Gungahlin, the englobo release at Denman Prospect being developed by the Snow family, the Fluffy blocks spread among the suburbs, the joint venture with the Corkhill family to deliver an eventual 11,500 homes near the Murrumbidgee River in West Belconnen, and the CSIRO land near Gungahlin being developed by the Commonwealth for a similar number of homes. House and land prices in Denman Prospect and on the CSIRO land will not be set by the ACT government, and in that sense there will be some much-needed competition in the market.
But more must be done, and one part of the equation is supply. The government's own four-year land release program, released in Tuesday's budget, is modest, at best. The government plans to release 16,250 residential sites over four years, which amounts to 1500 less than the program released last year. The Land Development Agency says it will sell about 300 sites more than planned in the current year, but has scaled back the number of blocks to be sold in the year from July. In the 2015-16 land release program, it earmarked 4566 blocks for sale in 2017-18. By last year, it was expecting to sell 4430 in 2017-18, and now it is targeting 4120.
This probably has something to do with the large number of apartments set to come on to the market in the coming years in Northbourne Avenue, with the sale of large blocks of land there. But the push to apartment living addresses only the price and suburban sprawl parts of the equation, ignoring the rest of an issue so important to Canberrans' sense of belonging and of security.