Anthony Albanese's journey from social housing to The Lodge demonstrates that a secure home is not a safety net, it's a ladder to stability, opportunity and prosperity.
The PM is right to hope his story inspires others. But we should also recognise that story is less likely today. Right now, only 4 per cent or our national housing stock is social housing, compared with 6 per cent when Anthony Albanese was a child.
Many Australian families are struggling to stave off the threat of homelessness and housing stress, rather than reaching for the stars.
These are families who pay so much in rent that they struggle to provide the basics needed to nurture a future leader; having to make impossible choices between a roof over their head, decent food on the table, filling the school book list, or turning on the heater.
So as the new government begins drawing up Labor's first budget it will find few investments that better tick the box of productivity boosting economic growth than social and affordable housing.
Providing access to affordable homes to people on low and modest incomes means more people who have the stable home they need to be refreshed and healthy for a day's work or education. It decreases the strain on our hospitals, police, mental health and community services.
It also happens to be the right thing to do.
Study after study demonstrates the wisdom of social housing investment. Although we don't need to rely on theory alone. After a decade of stalled investment we are living with the real world cost of neglect. Extra trips to hospital emergency wards and more psychological counselling. Lower school achievement and lower incomes. Women and children unable to escape family violence and more pressure on the justice system.
Each year, for example, an estimated 7,690 women return to perpetrators because they have nowhere to go, and an estimated 9,120 women become homeless.
Swinburne University's Centre for Urban Transitions crunched the numbers on this in March and found the wider social and economic cost of underinvestment is at least $676 million annually, rising to $1.3 billion if nothing changes over the next decade.
At a human level, author Malcolm Gladwell captured this poignantly in a 2006 piece. Gladwell examined the experience of two Nevada police officers who spent much of their working days interacting with homeless people like Million-Dollar Murray. A former marine, Murray was charming and potentially productive when he was sober. Yet police spent years ferrying him between hospital emergency wards, drying-out clinics, mental health facilities, and custody.
When he eventually died of intestinal bleeding it was calculated his homelessness had cost US$1 million over a decade.
The swathe of people affected by our lopsided housing system is now expanding as a toxic combination of underinvestment in social housing, demographic changes and stagnant wages put more Australians at risk of either homelessness or housing stress.
Over the last year, median rents have risen 8.7 per cent, while wages rose just 2.1 per cent. People are going backwards.
In Sydney and Melbourne, for example, 40 per cent of renters are suffering financial stress, with the figure surging to between 61.5 per cent and 76.5 per cent in the top five NSW and Victorian seats.
Coastal and bush communities - traditionally a reservoir or more affordable rentals - are also hard hit. Across the board, regional rents have increased 10.7 per cent, partly a consequence of people on metropolitan incomes realising during the pandemic they can do their job by zoom.
In specific communities the social upheaval is devastating. Even before the devastating floods, rents in the Northern Rivers region of NSW had increased 25 per cent. While on the South Coast, still reeling from bushfires, rents were up 16 per cent. In Victoria's Mornington Peninsula region rents have increased 12 per cent in the past year, while on the Gold Coast in Queensland, they are up 28 per cent. People in these communities are forking out hundreds of dollars extra every week, slashing their after housing income.
This creates more harm than the immediate impact on families forced to cut back on food budgets, or live in a tent; with communities finding they can't attract low-paid essential workers, like aged care or childcare workers, or even workers on modest incomes like teachers and nurses, who won't move to a community where they can't find a home.
So perhaps now, with the election over, we can talk about the real housing crisis and real solutions. For the new government, the clock starts ticking now on fixing the housing system. Three years will pass in the blink of an eye.
As interest rates rise, the demand for building will subside, with Westpac already forecasting a significant slowdown in construction. Now is the time to start planning the construction of 25,000 social homes per year, an injection that would generate annual economic output of $12.9 billion, and create 15,700 jobs.
This will go some way to arresting the decade of neglect in social and Indigenous and affordable housing. In 2013-14 the amount budgeted was over $2 billion, but in the 2023-24 budget only $1.6 billion is allocated. Indexed for inflation this should be at least $2.7 billion.
As one of the world's wealthiest nations we have the resources and capacity to get the most from all of our people. This is socially worthwhile but also economically prudent. Giving people on low and modest incomes security and stability will provide long-term dividends for us all.
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