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Housing Australia Future Fund second reading speech

On 15 Feb 2023, I moved a second reading amendment to the government's Housing Australia Future Fund bill, then gave the following speech.

I move:

That all words after "House" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"notes that:

(1) Australia currently has a shortage of 640,000 social and affordable homes, and that shortage is projected to increase by 75,000 homes over the next five years, which means the government's plan to build 30,000 homes over five years will see the situation get worse;

(2) this bill does nothing to help the millions of renters struggling with skyrocketing rents and record low vacancy rates;

(3) this bill locks in a $500 million per year spending cap on housing, which will see a real term cut in spending every year; and

(4) if the government truly wanted to solve the housing crisis, they could:

(a) help renters by doubling Commonwealth Rent Assistance and putting a plan to freeze rent increases on the National Cabinet agenda;

(b) phase out negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts; and

(c) invest directly in building one million well-designed public homes, enough to not just clear the wait lists, but also provide affordable housing to the teachers, nurses, aged care workers, cleaners and others locked out of the housing market."

Australia is facing one of the worst housing crises in our history. There are 2.7 million people in rental stress. With interest rates rising, the RBA predicts that soon 1.5 million households won't be earning enough to cover their mortgage and pay for essentials. Homelessness is on the rise. We've heard stories of families living in cars and parents losing custody of their children because they can't find a home that they can afford to rent. But even these numbers and stories don't do enough to describe the depth and scale of the housing crisis.

Labor's plan is to invest $10 billion on the stock market via the housing fund and use the returns to invest in housing. Let's be very clear: this is not a $10 billion investment in housing; it's a $10 billion gamble on the stock market where the volatile returns are invested in housing. Indeed, if Labor had established this plan last year, the year the Future Fund lost 1.2 per cent, the housing fund would have actually lost $120 million. This is a plan that gambles with the lives of people who desperately need an affordable, secure roof over their head. This is a plan that gambles housing funding on the same market that broke the housing system in the first place. We would never accept subjecting funding for schools and hospitals to the success or failure of an investment in the stock market, so why is Labor forcing people in desperate need of public and social housing to rely on the chaotic stock market that last year lost 1.2 per cent for the Future Fund?

Even in the very best case scenario, where the fund earns a return, it's not at all clear that Labor's plan will reach their own abysmal targets. They now keep saying 'a potential 30,000 homes' or 'up to 30,000 homes'. That's probably because, with the cost of constructing a social home at around $300,000, $500 million a year for five years could directly fund via capital only 8,000 homes, not 30,000. Labor has still not detailed exactly how the $500 million per year will actually fund the construction of 30,000 homes. Parliament doesn't even have that detail, yet we're expected to vote on this set of bills this week.

Even if the fund somehow reaches this target, we will still see the housing crisis get worse. That is what the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill will does—it will see the housing crisis get worse in five years time. Currently, there is a shortage of 640,000 social and affordable homes, and that figure is set to grow by 75,000 over the next five years. Under this bill, Labor's plan is to build, at most, 30,000 affordable homes over the same five years. That will see a bigger shortage than there is now. That's close to 700,000 households—millions of people—that Labor has abandoned to poverty, housing stress, homelessness and rotting on social housing waiting lists around the country. These people include hundreds of thousands of women and children, many in domestic violence situations, and single parents struggling on low wages, unable to afford to buy a house and paying, sometimes, over 50 per cent of their income on rent.

This bill caps spending on housing at $500 million per year without indexation. It means there will be a real turn cut in housing spend. In fact, over the next 10 years, there will be a cumulative cut of $515 million in real-time spending on housing.

The reality of the scale of the crisis has already been made clear by the government's own National Housing Finance Investment Corporation, which has said that, in order to meet the shortfall of social and affordable homes, over the next 20 years Australia needs to build 891,000 homes. That's 45,000 homes per year. To put that into perspective, Labor's absolute best goal is 6,000 homes a year. In short, Labor's centrepiece housing legislation locks in permanent real term cuts to housing funding, does nothing for renters and will see the shortage of social and affordable housing grow and the housing crisis get worse. That's the reality of this bill as it stands: more homelessness, more people waiting longer for social housing, more renters unable to find an affordable place to live, and less money spent on housing every year.

To blindly support a housing package that will see the housing crisis get worse without scrutiny or negotiation would be an abdication of our responsibility to the millions of people crying out for a good, affordable home. The Greens have made clear a set of negotiating aims, including a minimum of $5 billion invested in social and affordable housing every year, indexed to inflation and removing the $500 million cap; a national plan for renters, including the Prime Minister putting a national rent freeze on the National Cabinet agenda and an immediate doubling of Commonwealth rent assistance; a $1 billion investment in remote Aboriginal housing, not the $200 million over five years that has been proposed by Labor. In fact, a lot of experts, when they talk about the shortage of remote Aboriginal housing, say that in the Northern Territory alone we need $2.8 billion of investment. All housing through the fund should meet minimum inclusive design standards, including the silver standard for accessibility.

All the Greens want to do is work constructively with the government to take a housing package that currently will see the housing crisis get worse and at least turn it into a plan that starts to improve the situation. The Greens want to negotiate on behalf of the millions of Australians screwed over by a housing system that generates massive profits for banks and property developers and higher rents and mortgages and financial stress for everyone else. We just saw the Commonwealth Bank announce a record profit in the same year that millions of Australians are struggling to cover their mortgages and rents. The response to all of these requests and critiques from some Labor MPs in the House is: 'Too bad. We would rather use this as an opportunity to bash the Greens and play some of the lowest common denominator politics you can imagine.'

The federal government has frozen rent increases before, and they can do it again. While Commonwealth rent assistance is a flawed scheme, up to one-third of private renters access Commonwealth rent assistance, so doubling it to a maximum of $400 a fortnight will provide immediate and real relief for 1.5 million rental households. That is money directly into the pockets of renters, and something the federal government could do right now.

To put $5 billion per year in context, next year alone the government will spend $12 billion in tax concessions for the super wealthy property investors via negative gearing and capital gains, while they remain committed to pending a quarter of a trillion dollars on the stage 3 tax cuts that will see every politician in this place receive an extra $9,000 a year. There is money in this budget to spend on an incredibly modest ask of $5 billion a year on social and affordable housing. It's quite breathtaking to watch some Labor MPs so passionately oppose the idea that we should invest even such a modest amount on public, community and affordable housing. How this can be defended, I have absolutely no idea.

When it comes to building public housing, the government claims that it is constrained by a shortage of materials and skills, but it is clear that we are going to see a decline in private construction over the next few years. Indeed, between September 2021 in September 2022 there was an over 20 per cent decline in new construction activity for housing. Approvals for private dwellings have been in sharp decline for the past 12 months, with further declines expected this year. This will leave a surplus of materials and skills that should be put to work building public, community and affordable housing.

While the Greens have made modest proposals for the basis of negotiations, it is beyond frustrating to know that Labor won't even come close to contemplating the structural reforms that we actually need to tackle the housing crisis. Beyond phasing out negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, freezing rent increases and stopping the RBA from imposing unnecessary pain on millions of mortgage holders, now is exactly the time to seize this opportunity to use those excess skills and materials to embark on an ambitious program of building hundreds of thousands of well-designed, affordable public homes to be rented not just to the most vulnerable but to the nurses, teachers, cleaners, aged-care workers, young working families, pensioners—whoever needs a good home. Rather than outsourcing and privatising housing, the federal government could establish a proper federal housing authority that builds and rents housing to workers from all walks of life. A program like this could see medium-density designs with integrated childcare centres, rooftop gardens, and spacious, well-ventilated and well-insulated homes that stay cool in summer and warm in winter. Land could be preserved for public parks and community facilities. With rents capped at 25 per cent of income for low-income households, higher-income households could be charged rents calculated based on the cost of construction, ensuring a steady source of income to be reinvested in more public and affordable housing. In fact, similar models in Austria and the Netherlands have seen internationally renowned housing systems flourish. There is absolutely no reason why we can't do this in Australia as well.

Instead, Labor's response is to revive a housing system almost explicitly designed to generate profit for banks and property developers regardless of the human cost. Indeed, the Treasurer's so-called Housing Accord seems entirely aimed at relaxing planning and zoning laws, when all that will do is make more money for banks and developers. Labor's housing package will see the continuation of this policy.

In fact, what we have seen over the last few decades is a continued decline in social housing as a proportion of total housing stock, and that will continue under this package. Social housing as a proportion of total housing in Australia has already declined from just seven per cent to 3.7 per cent over the past few decades. That's right: only 3.7 per cent of housing in Australia is social housing. Under Labor's plan, this will drop to 3.3 per cent. This is being accelerated by the $157 billion Labor will spend in tax concessions for property investors via negative gearing and capital gains tax, while the so-called Housing Accord aims to hand more power to property developers and banks at precisely the time when we should be taking power out of their hands.

There are broader consequences of this policy as well. A deliberate government policy to outsource the provision of housing and the construction of our cities and towns to property developers and banks has seen the proliferation of destructive urban sprawl on the one hand and unsustainable overdevelopment on the other. Property developers and their political allies in the Labor and Liberal party present us with a false choice between urban sprawl and overdevelopment because it suits their financial interests.

There is, of course, an alternative. In Vienna, a city I have visited, which has a population density 10 times as great as that of some of our major capital cities, the construction of the city is led by a series of design and social principles. There are consistent wide open parks, public spaces and integrated public transport. Building heights are limited to five storeys, and 60 per cent of residents live in some form of rent controlled social housing. Because of this, teachers, lawyers, professors and engineers, as well as low-income residents, live and pay rent in social housing. Because of the income generated by this system, the entire system generates enough revenue that is reinvested back into housing. Rather than rents and mortgages being paid to private investors, banks and property developers, the money is paid directly to the city government and community housing providers. From walking around that city, as I have done, it's entirely clear that something similar could be achieved in Australia.

This is the future the Greens are fighting for. This is what we are pushing for. But we are acutely aware that both Labor and the Liberals would viciously oppose a housing system that has worked wonderfully well around the world, so instead we have come to the table with modest, reasonable negotiating aims that will ensure the housing crisis, at the very least, doesn't get worse.

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