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Speech: housing is a human right

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 2 Sep 2020

Safe, secure, affordable housing is a human right, but decades of neoliberal policy in housing and homelessness has made speculative assets of what should be homes. Federal governments have worsened inequality by being more concerned with preserving tax breaks for investors than ensuring that people have somewhere to live. The basic human right to shelter takes a back seat to the market. Australia's housing system has weak rental protection laws. It has years-long social housing waiting lists. There is widespread rent and mortgage stress, and immense intergenerational inequality in wealth and homeownership. In the 2018-19 financial year, more than 290,000 people sought assistance from specialist homelessness services in Australia. On the last census night, over 110,000 people had nowhere to call home. The COVID-19 crisis has thrown the flaws, power imbalances and inequalities in our broken housing system into sharp relief.

Today, the situation looks even worse than it did before the pandemic hit. Unemployment has hit 7.5 per cent, and it's expected to reach 10 per cent by the end of the year. With underemployment included, the real figure will be much higher. The JobKeeper wage subsidy and increased JobSeeker payments are the only things keeping millions out of crushing poverty and serious risk of homelessness. Yesterday, Anglicare Australia released an update to their annual Rental Affordability Snapshot, and the results are grim. Rental affordability has actually declined for people on JobKeeper, JobSeeker and the minimum wage since March. Across Australia, less than two per cent of rental properties are affordable for someone on the minimum wage, and only 808 rentals are affordable for someone on JobSeeker. As people lose their incomes, there will be more and more who won't be able to afford rent. Anglicare's research suggests that rents at the bottom of the private market have not reduced since their last snapshot in March.

Much was made of the government's encouragement of renters to negotiate rent reductions with their landlords, but surveys of renters conducted throughout the pandemic indicate that many tenants have either been ignored or knocked back when they've approached their landlord asking for help, or were too anxious and frightened to even broach the topic with their landlord in the first place. A key driver of homelessness is unaffordable rents. Without urgent action to ensure housing security, implement debt relief and protect at-risk renters, and with the federal government's planned cuts to JobSeeker and JobKeeper due to start this month, we are staring down the barrel of a disaster.

At a time when people are being told to stay at home for the good of the community, governments should be doing everything they can to ensure that everyone actually has a safe, secure, affordable place to call home. The Victorian government has extended its eviction ban to December, but other states and territories are lagging behind. The national cabinet must agree to extend eviction bans across the country and ensure their enforcement. The Morrison government needs to show leadership and step in to support renters, people experiencing and at risk of homelessness, and people in mortgage stress. Instead of dud ideas like the HomeBuilder scheme, the federal government should be directing funds towards addressing the backlog of social housing repairs and the huge shortfall in social housing stock. We could build hundreds of thousands of public homes right now and not only would it slash public housing waiting lists, help those suffering from rental stress and enable affordable living but it would also create thousands of jobs and thousands of apprenticeships around the country.

We must permanently increase and expand income support and increase funding for crisis and transitional accommodation, and we must create a national homelessness strategy. Together with strong national renters' rights standards and the removal of tax rorts, we could have a system that works for people, not profit. This crisis we are all in is an opportunity to fix the mess that is our housing system, to make it work for all people, not corporations and private investors. Inequality, poverty and homelessness are not inevitable; they are the active, despicable choice of governments like this one right there on that side of the chamber.


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