Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023, National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill 2023, Treasury Laws Amendment (Housing Measures No. 1) Bill 2023; Second Reading

1:02 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak to Labor's housing package. Before getting into the details of Labor's policy, I want to say that housing is totally cooked in this country. The scale of the housing crisis has never been more acute, yet all Labor can offer is an extremely weak plan that will do so little, if anything at all. New homelessness figures released by the ABS show that the number of people without a home rose by 5.2 per cent over the last five years. Of those without a home, 56 per cent are women and children. Women make up the vast majority of the newly homeless. We hear over and over that rising rents and the higher and higher cost of living, combined with lower savings and superannuation, are pushing older women to the brink. Young people's dreams of owning a home have become nightmares. More than 20 per cent of those without a home are First Nations people, despite them making up just 3.8 per cent of the population. It is an absolute disgrace that so many First Nations people don't own a home on their own land. We have a shortage of 640,000 social and affordable homes.

Being a renter in Australia has never been more difficult, and there are record low vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents. There are 2.7 million people living in rental stress. Rental prices are a staggering 22 per cent higher than they were in 2020. Renters are predicted to pay $10 billion in rent increases alone, in 2023, at a time when real wages are falling. Virtually no region in Australia is affordable for aged-care workers, early childhood educators and carers, cleaners, nurses and many other frontline, essential workers. People are sleeping and living in cars, in caravans, in tents. They're being forced to couch surf, with rental vacancy rates at their lowest levels ever. Whether they are in regional Australia or live in a capital city, more and more people are struggling to pay rent and having to make the choice between rent and food, between medication and dental care. No-one should be in a situation like this.

With interest rates rising, the RBA predicts that 4.5 million households soon won't be earning enough to cover their mortgages and pay for essentials. The housing crisis, of course, is hitting those already marginalised the hardest. Less than one per cent of private rental properties in Australia are affordable for those earning the minimum wage, while people on Centrelink payments are barely able to afford rooms in shared houses, according to a recent Anglican report. More than 70 per cent of the people who come to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne in housing distress were unable to be placed in accommodation, with the broader housing crisis putting more pressure on temporary and emergency housing services. International students are being forced to pitch tents in the living rooms of houses, and students are lining up at food banks. Unstable and unaffordable housing is causing long-term mental health impacts and enormous stress, and it is harming people every single day.

The housing and rental crisis does have a human face, and I want to read out a few recent stories from people. Cheryl Rowe, a cleaner in Western Australia, has been forced to live in a camping trailer for the past few months, after her landlord sold her rental. As Cheryl says: 'It's hard every night after work coming home to a tent rather than a home. You're living out of your car. You're living out of supermarket bags. I work full time. I should be able to get a home.' But the hardest part of Cheryl's ordeal was checking her terminally ill husband into hospital after she realised that she couldn't care for him in a home and that a caravan park was her only option.

Cassie and her two young sons on the South Coast of New South Wales have been homeless since July, when she became unable to afford their rent. Since then, they have been bouncing between hotels and crisis accommodation, hoping various charities will foot their bills. As Cassie says: 'I just want my boys to grow up happy and healthy and know that they've got somewhere to sleep every night.' Bob, a 79-year-old pensioner in Sydney, was recently served a no-grounds eviction notice. He gets emotional when he thinks about the people he will have to compete against to secure a new place: 'How many people are going to take in a pensioner on very cheap rent? There's not going to be too many offers, I think.'

It is absolutely obscene that, in a wealthy country like Australia, people are struggling and suffering like Cheryl, Cassie and Bob. Shamefully, Labor's housing plan will do little if anything for people like Cheryl, Cassie and Bob, and there are many more people facing harrowing circumstances because of a housing system that sees millions being screwed over while banks and property developers make an absolute killing off the misery of others. We have a housing system where it's impossible to get into public housing because there is so little of it. But it's also impossible to get into a rental because rents are just so damn high.

We need big, bold, long-term action on housing in this country. We need a minimum of $5 billion invested in social and affordable housing every year, indexed to inflation. We need to invest directly in building hundreds of thousands of well-designed, accessible and sustainable public homes—enough to not just clear the waiting list but also provide affordable housing to the millions who are locked out of the housing market. We need to invest big in First Nations housing. We need to phase out perverse tax incentives that encourage and reward property hoarding, such as negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount.

We need to stop ignoring renters and treating them like second-class citizens. That's why the Greens are calling for an immediate freeze on rent increases for two years. Renters deserve an immediate relief. They are facing serious financial stress as a result of these soaring rents. We need a pathway towards national tenancy standards that deliver protection from 'no grounds' evictions. The government's plan to deal with the crisis, though, involves very few of these things, though we have forced the government to at least put rent freezes onto the national cabinet's agenda.

The boldly named but pathetically inadequate Housing Australia Future Fund legislation won't even touch the sides of the housing crisis in this country. And let's start by being clear about what this legislation does and does not do. It does not invest $10 billion in affordable and social housing, contrary to what Labor repeatedly tells you to think. However, it does invest $10 billion in the stock market via the housing fund. It's the returns, if there are any at all, that will be invested in affordable and social housing projects. Property developers in the private sector will be relied on to deliver these projects. It is completely speculative and a reckless way for a government to deal with something as essential and meaningful as housing, which is a core human right. There could be years where the fund doesn't make a single cent or even years where it loses money.

It is hard to know where rock bottom will lie with this neoliberal, market-obsessed Labor government, but I hope we would never leave school funding or hospital funding to a gamble on the stock market, so why on earth would we do it with housing? The big risks associated with the fund are not matched by the rewards—even if the fund were to make a big return, spending on housing is capped at $500 million per year with no indexation. There is no floor and spending with this plan—literally nothing could be invested in social and affordable housing in a given year under this plan. And that cap of $500 million is not even a drop in the ocean. The recent National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation review estimated that an investment of $14.7 billion per year is needed to meet the shortfall of social and affordable housing. This legislation aims to finance the construction of a mere 30,000 social and affordable homes over five years. The benefits of Labor's signature housing policy will be easily outstripped by the growth of a social and affordable homes shortage. Under Labor's plan, we will have a bigger shortage of social and affordable housing in five years time than we do now. That says it all, really. The problem will get worse under this plan.

There is a clear, better and more obvious way to solve the housing crisis, and the Greens are calling for the government to invest $5 billion directly in social and affordable housing. If the federal government invested $5 billion each year in partnership with the states, 110,000 public and affordable homes could be built in the next five years—that's four times the amount that Labor is touting. By retaining ownership of the homes, the government could earn money from rental returns over the next decade, and that could be reinvested in building more homes.

A number of witnesses to the inquiry into this legislation supported the Greens' view that the government's model of gambling away $10 billion in the Future Fund is deeply flawed. There should be direct investment into social and affordable housing. Doctor John Quiggin, Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland, said that the policy was risky and that capping housing funding at the amount generated by fund returns is 'not a good way to fund public expenditure of any kind and particularly not … social housing'. The Antipoverty Centre described the fund as 'intentionally designed to sound more significant that it is', and called for the provision of social and affordable housing to be directly funded by the government.

But if Labor don't want to believe us or the experts, they can listen to what the community has to say. The Greens are a grassroots movement and we have been doorknocking, with hundreds of volunteers across the country, to ask the people about Labor's sham of a housing policy. We have knocked on thousands of doors and spoken to so many people who are copping massive rent and mortgage hikes, asking them what they think about the plan. The message that we got back was crystal clear—people are thoroughly disappointed with Labor's plan. They get it. A vast majority want a more ambitious plan. They want more action. They want real action to tackle the housing crisis that includes direct investment in public and affordable housing and national rent caps. They want us to fight for something better, and we will be doing that. We will be fighting for something better.

The Greens want action on housing, not a dud of a policy. We are pushing the government to improve it, and we will be moving several amendments, but it is up to the government to come to the table. People want Labor to go back to the drawing board and come back with a housing plan that actually tackles the housing and rental crisis that we are facing. We want $5 billion in direct investment, as I said earlier. To put this into perspective, $5 billion per year is a drop in the ocean compared to what the government is giving as stage 3 tax cuts to the billionaires or what they are spending on dangerous war machines. It's two per cent of the stage 3 tax cuts. It's about one per cent of what the nuclear subs are going to cost. Safe, secure, affordable and accessible housing is a human right, but decades of neoliberal policy has made speculative assets of what should be homes. The basic human right to shelter now takes a back seat to the market. That is an absolute shame. It is woeful and it is pathetic.

The reality is that we do have the money to fix the housing crisis in this country, just as we have the money to lift everyone out of poverty. It is purely a matter of political will. Labor's plan and this bill will make the housing and rental crisis worse. But Labor is really the only obstacle standing in the way of solving the housing crisis. We won't stop fighting on behalf of the millions of people who are in housing stress and who are being left behind. We will not stop fighting, and I hope that Labor can see sense, can come to the table and come up with a plan that actually helps people, not one that puts them into more distress.


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