With the state government’s announcement this week about tightening the eligibility criteria for public housing you could be forgiven for thinking the real problem is we have wealthy people rorting the system and taking the place of more deserving people.
The headline announcement was that the amount of assets a couple could own and still be eligible would be cut from $616,000. Frankly though, I don’t know the last time – if ever – someone with those assets was allocated public housing. The waiting list is huge. And for years, the only people who have made it to the top are vulnerable, usually with multiple life challenges.
The Productivity Commission reports about 98.9 per cent of South Australian social-housing residents fall into the low-income category. So this announcement actively feeds a misconception about who is getting public housing.
Of equal concern is the decision to tighten the income-test eligibility for public housing. In housing policy there is an affordability benchmark. There is housing stress if people on lower incomes are spending more than 30 per cent of income on housing. So how do the new limits play out against this benchmark?
A couple on $1113 a week will now no longer be eligible for public housing. But they are still in the low-income bracket and would need to find a rental property for less than $333 per week to avoid housing stress. The median rental price for a one-bedroom unit in Adelaide is $395 per week so this seems highly unlikely. For single-person households, the government’s new thresholds are even further from affordability.
People in these circumstances will be left in housing stress unless they are able to access public housing. even when they are eligible for support based on other criteria.
When the public-housing system was being designed it was not simply seen as a welfare measure for the most marginalised. It was provision of an essential service that not only provided housing for ordinary working families, but underpinned the housing market.
It provided construction jobs, helped keep a lid on rental prices, and provided a stable home. But in the past few decades governments have repeatedly sold off and run down the public housing estate – propping up their budgets and sometimes reducing them to ghettos of disadvantage.
The government may say the world has changed. But is housing stress a thing of the past? And homelessness eradicated? Or do we again want public housing to be a market intervention benefiting all?
Rather than using bureaucratic smoke and mirrors to cut waiting lists, our state government should be urgently investing in more public housing.
Ross Womersley is chief executive of the South Australian Council of Social Service. This opinion piece was published in The Advertiser on 5 August 2021.