The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that Australia's housing system is not fit for purpose.
In the early days of Australia's pandemic response, it felt like big ideas were finally on the table for a better housing system. Governments banned evictions, prioritising public health and the security of renters over property investors' complete control of their assets. Housing departments and front-line services acted swiftly to provide accommodation for street sleepers, providing homes for over 30,000 people. Could a pandemic finally make us act as if all Australians deserved a secure home?
Unfortunately, the answer so far is no. Despite the so-called bans, a recent survey has revealed that over one in 20 renters was issued with an eviction notice during the pandemic. Researchers now fear a new wave of homelessness as income support is scaled back and eviction bans are lifted. In its recent budget, the federal government flubbed the opportunity to make a significant investment in social housing, an economic stimulus measure that could have provided affordable, secure homes for tens of thousands of Australians.
Making matters worse, this recession has been particularly uneven in terms of who it has affected. Young people and those in lower-paid occupations have typically been the hardest hit. Of course, these folks are much more likely to be renting their homes.
Our current housing system increases inequality. People who are worse off are trapped in the rental sector, where about one in two renters is paying the mortgage of someone who owns at least two investment properties (in addition to the investor's own home, this makes three properties total.) These properties are typically lower quality, resulting in higher power bills and worse health.
We could use housing to address and remedy disadvantage. Instead, it has become a commodity for the wealthy. In some years, investors have made more from rent and capital gains than the average worker made from actually contributing to society.
At the same time, we have property investors who feel poor - and some genuinely are. Our bizarre housing market has created a host of amateur landlords. These folks are desperate to avoid a retirement on the pension, heavily indebted, and unprepared for the responsibility of having control over another person's housing. They are generally better off than renters, of course. But their existence - and their genuine feeling of insecurity - demonstrates that we need a model that does better for all of us.
Part of the solution is certainly social housing. Governments have a responsibility to make sure that their citizens have homes. Whether or not the market can meet this need, it certainly hasn't thus far. In many countries, social housing is a significant sector. It includes a diversity of households on a diversity of incomes, with higher-income tenants cross-subsidising those who earn less. In fact, the head of the Real Estate Institute of Australia recently called for more social housing, recognising that it would have improved resilience in the face of crisis. Social housing provides direct benefits to the renters who occupy it. It also competes with private landlords - as it should - to improve affordability and set a higher standard for all rented housing.
Secondly, we need to reform the private rental sector so that people who don't own property can still have a decent home. Housing should be less a financial commodity and more about providing good homes. Getting rid of unfair evictions, preventing discrimination against renters with pets, and ensuring better minimum standards for rental properties: these changes would mean better homes for the growing number of long-term renters.
All the evidence is that rental law reform doesn't influence landlord investment decisions. But even if it does, that's OK. People shouldn't need to have a property portfolio to have a secure retirement. At the same time as providing better homes, governments could ensure that the pension is adequate for every Australian to have a decent, dignified retirement. This is an entitlement of every Australian.
The coronavirus has been a tragedy. Many have died. Lives have been turned upside down. The long tail of this crisis - the empty superannuation accounts, the debts, the mental health impacts - will be felt for decades.
So let's not add to the tragedy. Let's not double down on an unfair housing system that leaves thousands on the streets while renters and property investors are anxious and debt-ridden. Instead, governments at every level must fulfil their duty. Every Australian, whether or not they own a property, deserves a secure, affordable home.
- Joel Dignam is executive director of Better Renting, a community of renters working together for stable, affordable, and healthy homes.