Thursday, 25 October 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017; Second Reading
We are currently facing a housing crisis in this country. The cost of living is rising, and wages have not been this stagnant since the release of Jurassic Park in 1998. This government's solution is to tell low-income earners that, if they ever want to be able to afford housing, they need to stop eating smashed avocado. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017 outlines the government's perception that there is a need to create a system for the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. This scheme will be applied to public- and community-housing tenants who rely on income support or family assistance payments. This government is victimising individuals and families who are already struggling with this government's out-of-touch attacks on low-income earners.
I bet the people who are behind this bill have never gone to the letterbox and felt their stomach turn, never experienced the fear or the dread of opening that bill for fear that they won't be able to make the rent on time from having to pay something that lands unexpectedly. They've never had to make the choice between eating and paying rent. I use the word 'choice' because it is a human right that these people are attempting to take away from people who are affected by the outcomes of this bill. The basic dignity of being able to decide if you can pay your bills, buy groceries or replace school shoes is something that people who need income support value.
This bill would introduce the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. Under the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme, everyone who receives an income support payment or family tax benefit and lives in public or community housing could have their payment withheld by Centrelink and paid directly to their housing provider. What concerns me, though, is the ability for people to choose to manage their own already limited finances and make decisions that potentially impact their day-to-day lives. This bill will allow states, territories and community housing providers to withhold a portion of the tenants' income support payments and use those funds to directly pay the rent, utilities and other costs relating to the dwelling on behalf of those tenants. It will enable providers to do this with family tax benefits also.
This bill makes changes also to the administration of the National Rental Affordability Scheme by removing the ambiguity in relation to the calculation of below-market rents in a given year, providing flexibility in the way that maximum periods of vacancy are prescribed, and authorising the variation of conditions to allocation and the transfer of allocations to low-rent dwellings.
When we were last in government, we tried to introduce an automatic rent deduction scheme. The purpose of that, though, was to protect vulnerable individuals who were at risk of homelessness, and it was targeted in its scope. The government's scheme, on the other hand, according to the National Social Security Rights Network, proposes a very broad management scheme for social housing which ignores the very complex nature and causes of homelessness. I have incredibly serious concerns about how this government's plans will affect social-housing tenants.
I also have concerns about how this will affect victims of domestic violence. Seventy-two thousand women sought homelessness services in the 2016-17 financial year due to family violence. This alone should paint a worrying picture about the very real and tangible risk of further pushing women into housing stress and poverty.
Many people ask me: is housing a women's issue? The trends indicate that women are retiring more and more frequently into housing stress. Of women over 55 in the low- to middle-income group, more than 640,000 women, 15 per cent are already in housing stress and over half a million are likely to come into housing stress moving forward. For those women who are accessing homelessness services, those in the over-55 category have increased by four per cent, and women over 65 have increased by 11 per cent. This is four times the general housing population. Gendered housing analysis shows that there are two key areas: firstly, housing access needs of older women—affordable housing close to transport and/or medical services—and, secondly, women exiting houses where there is violence, who may leave with children.
Filthy Rich and Homeless, which aired on ABC on 14 August as part of a three-part series, told a story of too many Australians being pushed to the fringes and finding themselves in need of housing assistance. They followed the case of Selvi, a woman who lives in Kingswood in my electorate. She's a single mum to three small children. She found herself homeless after separating from her partner and has been living in temporary accommodation in transitional housing. Domestic violence is the lead cause of homelessness for women in Australia, and the reforms we have seen in my state of New South Wales do nothing whatsoever to address what we already know is happening In her part of the documentary, Selvi spoke of her struggle to find a permanent place for her family to call home and of approaching the private market and getting knockback after knockback because she's a single mum. Moreover, it's because affordability of private rentals is a pathetic one per cent. One per cent of private rental homes are affordable for those on low incomes. Selvi spoke of the agonising multi-year wait and multi-year waiting times for emergency housing from the Department of Housing.
We know the best place for children and young people is in a stable home. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has ignored those on the fringes. It's now been five years. They have turned their back on so many vulnerable people in Lindsay and in communities right across Australia, doing nothing other than demonising those who can't find a home. I can't imagine what it would be like to be in Selvi's position. I'm a mum and I have three kids my own. But raising three children in temporary accommodation must be absolutely heart-wrenching for her as a mum. She's doing the best she can and she's incredible. Her determination to get out of that situation is commended.
Those on the other side think that this isn't a real issue. They often make light of it. I can't remember—and I don't care to remember—which one of them it was, because it is a reflection on all of them over there. They are making light of the situation we find our country in. They are telling people they can afford a house if they get rich parents, stop eating smashed avocado or simply get a better job. How can this government look at people like Selvi and her three children and call that a solution? They were out of touch under Turnbull—who didn't even live in the Prime Minister's residence because his own home was too plumb—they were out of touch under Abbott and they are still out of touch now.
Between 2011 and 2016 the number of people experiencing homelessness in New South Wales increased by 37 per cent. In the city of Sydney, it increased by 48 per cent, which is far higher than the nationwide increase of 14 per cent. This increase is due to the lack of affordable housing. There are 60,000 applicants on the social housing waiting list in New South Wales and less than one per cent of private rentals are affordable for them. There's a need to identify specialist housing services to support women who are exiting violence. Housing organisations have expressed concerns about the arbitrary nature of the scheme that is proposed to be introduced by this bill depriving tenants of the flexibility to respond to upcoming financial obligations.
Labor's scheme would have exempted deductions for compensation made for damage caused by others, including as a result of domestic or family violence. The government's bill, as it stands, could mean that a tenant experiencing family or domestic violence could be liable for the damage caused by the perpetrator. We do not support a mandatory automatic rent deduction scheme for all public and social housing tenants; only when we are aiming to prevent homelessness should we apply automatic rent deductions. We will keep this Liberal government accountable, and we will ensure that we move amendments in the Senate to make sure that those who are most vulnerable, those individuals who are in arrears, are not at risk of being left on the street without a place to live—left behind by this government. We'll move an amendment to cap the maximum deduction to prevent the scheme from forcing people into housing distress and to make sure people have money to meet other needs and pay other bills as they arise.
Labor will move amendments to require that compulsory deductions can be made for rent and utilities and not property damage. This is to protect people from being unfairly held responsible for somebody else's actions in the case of domestic and family violence. Currently 86 per cent of public and social housing tenants use the rent deduction scheme. At the moment, some social housing tenants are also income support recipients and they can choose to have the Department of Human Services withhold a portion of their fortnightly payment and pay it directly to their housing provider to cover rent and some bills.
It's an absolute shame to see young people in this country being locked out of the housing market under this government. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government can't be trusted to deliver housing reform, let alone something like we need to see in this sector. The government needs to have a clear focus and focus their energy on clawing back the income that oversees investors are taking from our nation and the housing market.