Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Answers to Questions on Notice

Questions Nos 1520 and 1521

3:51 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

They were question Nos 1520 and 1521, and the minister's office was forewarned a good couple of hours ago. I move:

That the Senate take note of the government's failure and the minister's failure to provide an answer or explanation to these questions.

I've asked about these two questions in particular because they are very pertinent to the discussion that the government put on the Notice Paper about their Housing Affordability Future Fund, their completely inadequate response to the housing crisis. Again, actually having information, having data relating to housing and homelessness, is critical. It shows how inadequate the government's response to the housing crisis is. The questions that I asked were these: what modelling has the department undertaken of the impact of rental increases on the rates of homelessness, and has the government taken a decision in relation to extending funding for homelessness services in relation to the social and community services equal remuneration order?

I'll start with the second one. That question was asked on 20 March. I understand from media reports that in fact the government did make a decision, but they haven't bothered to answer my question on notice. It would have been very simple to answer my question on notice, after media reports on 23 March that the government had decided to extend some more funding—just for the next year—in response to the fact that homelessness services are absolutely smashed, with a huge increase in the number of people who are homeless. The figures on census night showed we had 120,000 homeless Australians. So the government made a stopgap effort of providing some extra funding. It would have been nice to have had my question on notice responded to—but no. It really shows just how little consideration this government has for the very legitimate questions from the senators in this place. It seems that they think they're above having to answer basic questions. But these questions are critical.

The first question was: what modelling has the department undertaken of the impact of rental increases on rates of homelessness? It's pretty critical to understand what the intersection between homelessness and rent increases is. The housing crisis is affecting millions of people across the country, and this government is not taking the steps to fix it, yet it claims to be taking issues of housing and homelessness seriously. This question goes to the issue of rental affordability, something that you would think that a government that was concerned about it should be on top of. They should have good data at their fingertips. In fact, they should have done some modelling on it. You would think if this government was serious about tackling the housing crisis that that question should have been very quick and very easy to answer, to have come back to me and said: 'Yes, here's the modelling we have done. We understand what impact the skyrocketing rents are having on homelessness, and this is what we are doing about it.' But, no. And the fact that they haven't answered my question seven weeks on leads one to presume that maybe they haven't actually done any modelling. Despite having a crisis in rents—skyrocketing rents—perhaps they actually haven't done any modelling, perhaps they're not even really looking at this issue. They're happy to see rents skyrocket on one side and homelessness skyrocket on the other but are not willing to put two and two together and to show that we need to be doing something about the skyrocketing rents to be tackling homelessness.

They could model, for example, what having a rent freeze might do to rates of homelessness. We know that we're not going to be able to tackle the housing crisis and tackle skyrocketing rents unless we actually do something about those skyrocketing rents—a rent freeze? Our request has been for the government to put that on the national cabinet agenda. Yes, I will give them credit for that—after pressure from the Greens, as part of our negotiations over their housing bill, it was on the national cabinet agenda. Now we want to actually see some action from the state and territory governments, led by the federal government, to say we need a rent freeze. You would think that they might have done some modelling on that.

I want to just go to how significant this is and the impact of rent on homelessness. Anglicare Australia do an annual rental affordability snapshot. They've just recently released their 2023 report, and they describe the results as 'alarming'. This is despite that in previous years things were looking pretty bleak. But in 2023 things are 'alarming'. I want to quote from this report pretty extensively, because it's critical to the debate that we are having about housing and why the government needs to get serious about it rather than pretending to do something about it, rather than pretending by gambling $10 billion on the stock market and only committing to 240 houses each year per state. That's pretending to do something about it. The Anglicare 2023 Rental Affordability Snapshot noted:

This year, there were only 45,895 listings across the country, the lowest number in the history of the Snapshot. Australia's vacancy rate remains at its lowest rate on record, at 0.8 percent. The market for affordable properties is fiercely competitive, with many households on low incomes unable to get a look in to a rental. We have heard reports about people queuing down the street for inspections, competing with dozens or even hundreds of other potential renters.

Rents have never been less affordable. Average rents have risen by 11 percent in the last year. Our analysis shows that a mere four rentals were affordable for a single person receiving JobSeeker across Australia. None were affordable for someone on Youth Allowance. Couples out of work, single parents relying on Centrelink, and Australians receiving the Disability Support Pension must all contend with a rental market where 0.2 percent of rentals were affordable. A person on the Age Pension can only afford to rent 0.4 percent of properties, and the percentage of affordable rentals for a person on the minimum wage has dropped to below one percent for the first time.

Such dire results have a real impact on people's lives. They show that large numbers of Australians will not be able to land a lease without getting into severe rental stress. This means that people can be forced into unfair choices like skipping meals, foregoing essentials, or turning to payday loans to get by. As our rental crisis becomes a permanent reality, many people can expect to live in these conditions for most of their lives.

Our results show that we are in the midst of a crisis that can no longer be ignored by governments. There has never been a more critical time for governments across the country to step up, and ensure that every Australian has a place to call home.

You'd think that a basic part of that stepping up would be to actually do the analysis so that you could then take action to do something about it, actually do some modelling and let the Senate know what the results of that modelling are—but no. All we have is the government's current housing bill, and there's not a guaranteed dollar that's going to be spent on housing. If the fund loses money, like it did last year, there'll be no money to be spent on public housing. All they've done is commit to a minimum of 1,200 properties per state over the forward estimates—that's 240 houses a year in my home state of Victoria—when we've got a public housing waiting list that is decades long. Even if the fund comes into effect, we won't see a single house built before the next election, and, at the end of the fund, the waiting list is going to be longer than it is now.

We need a rent freeze now. We're seeing the biggest rent increases in 14 years, putting millions of Australians into severe rental stress. Families are sleeping in their cars, workers are unable to afford a home near where they work, people are being evicted from their homes because they can't afford 20 per cent rent increases, and the government are just sitting on their hands. They've got the capacity to intervene and stop the worst of this crisis, yet when you ask them a question about what they're doing there's silence. In the past 12 months rents in capital cities have grown seven times faster than wages. Just as the government coordinated a national response to the COVID-19 health crisis, the federal government should intervene to coordinate an emergency nationwide response to the housing crisis, and that includes a rent freeze. And, at the very beginning of that process, they should actually do the work to see what impact the skyrocketing rent increases are having on homelessness.

Under the Greens' plan, National Cabinet would agree on national tenancy standards that would include a two-year emergency rent freeze. This would be followed by ongoing rent caps, an end to no-grounds evictions, minimum standards for rental properties and giving tenants the right to make minor improvements to their homes. With more and more people renting long term we desperately need legislated protections against unfair, arbitrary evictions and skyrocketing rents.

The other element of this is that rising house prices and rents mean that people are paying so much of their income on rent that they can't afford the other basic necessities of life, such as food, health care and education. This is especially true for low-income earners and people on income support, who are being forced to spend an absolutely huge proportion of their income on housing, which, of course, is then exacerbating homelessness. More and more people are being forced into homelessness, which has a devastating impact on the people affected and puts a significant burden on the healthcare system and other support services. The evidence we've heard through the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into poverty has been heartbreaking. There are regional towns where every car park along the highway every night has at least half-a-dozen cars with people living in them. People are bringing their kids up living in cars. That's what the reality of the housing crisis means, and yet this government can't even see its way clear to providing basic information to the Senate about what impact rents are having on homelessness.

I want to share some more stories from people who have given evidence at the poverty inquiry about people living at the intersection of the housing and cost-of-living crises. There was a man, Brian, who said:

My flatmate, Maurice, and I have been living in public housing since 1997 and 2008 … We've had two years of flooding from a neighbour above us, with ten floodings in two years, with human faeces in what was coming down.

Len said:

The reason I've come here today is to say part of the reason I went on the streets was that I couldn't cope on the money. I could not cope on the money paying private rental, going through what I was going through, the depression and whatever. But what brought me off the streets was permanent affordable housing. And that extra couple of hundred dollars that I was getting on the disability pension gave me a chance.

People who are living in poverty also face the issue of discrimination and stigmatisation when it comes to housing. They experience marginalisation and social exclusion, which makes it really difficult—even if there are more affordable houses—for them to secure adequate housing. For example, landlords can refuse to rent to them or may charge them higher rents due to their income level, their background or other factors. The difficulties faced by people living in poverty in finding adequate housing in Australia are really significant and really complex. It is crucial that the government do the work—that it realises that we are in a housing crisis and commits to doing the work that is necessary. We have to have sufficient affordable and secure housing options. We need to ensure access to essential services and facilities and to combat discrimination and stigma. Only then will we be able to ensure that everyone has access to a safe, secure and dignified place to call home. The Greens believe that everyone should be able to afford a home that meets their needs, whether they are renting or buying. We need to tackle these issues head on.

Homelessness is a complex issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But we know that there are a range of things that we can do, that governments can do, and that there are choices being made now to not do these things. We need to have much greater investment in affordable housing and much greater funding for emergency accommodation support services; renters facing eviction need access to legal advice and representation; and a national strategy to prevent and end homelessness needs to be established.

We need to make sure that everyone has got access to safe and healthy homes. Everyone's got the right to live in a home that's free from harmful toxins, mould and other environmental hazards. And we need to build a fairer, more sustainable and more inclusive society for all. These are the choices that could be being made by this government, that aren't being made by this government, that the Australian Greens will continue to campaign for.


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