Housing Crisis in an Emergency

This opinion piece appeared in The West Australian on Monday, 17 May. It is written by Michelle Mackenzie, the CEO of Shelter WA.

When bushfires ripped through the Perth Hills in February and homes were lost, there was round-the-clock media coverage and an outpouring of grief and generosity.

When cyclone Seroja destroyed Kalbarri and inland communities we saw the same, and a commitment to rebuild and support those in need.

When natural disaster strikes, WA delivers an emergency response. The WA housing crisis is on the scale of a natural disaster, with thousands facing homelessness. We need to respond accordingly.

A Slow Burn

The WA housing crisis has been a slow burn.

Years of under-investment into social housing has led to more than 16,000 households on the social housing waitlist with families waiting years for a home.

That’s enough people to fill the Perth Arena twice.

The lifting of the COVID moratorium on rents and evictions has left a new swath of the WA community exposed to housing stress.

Rent Increase

Rents have increased 20 per cent since this time last year, an additional $70 per week is unfeasible for families doing it tough. This is forcing many families into enormous debt.

This is not a rental squeeze; this is a housing crisis. A crisis that deprives West Australians of the safety and security of a home, and the economic and social opportunities a home provides.

Desperate people are flooding services in dire need of emergency relief, accommodation and housing.

The physical and mental health impacts are significant not just those on those seeking help but for frontline staff.

Housing Emergency Response Group

Some services are reporting a 500 per cent increase for assistance. Unable to respond to the overwhelming demand or provide housing options for people in desperate need, this stress is taking its toll.

The Housing Emergency Response Group was formed by CEOs of community services and peak bodies to mitigate the impact the ending of the moratorium on rent increases and evictions.

The group has put forward a suite of solutions to government to chart a path forward through the escalating housing crisis.

We need rapid solutions to support people to remain in their rental homes or to ensure that people who have had to leave their homes are not facing homelessness.

This includes immediate accommodation options that provide stability for individuals and families.

We need surety of long-term emergency relief funding to support people facing homelessness, rental stress, and increased hardship so they can keep their head above water and a roof over their head.

Residential Relief Grants Scheme

The Government has put in place good initiatives like the Residential Relief Grants Scheme, and we need to build on these. Ministers Simone McGurk and John Carey have shown that they care deeply about housing and homelessness. We are keen to engage with them, their colleagues and the community sector to discuss how we can implement the housing solutions needed today and into the future.

Social and Affordable Housing

More social and affordable housing is desperately needed.

Social housing numbers have declined by more than 1000 over the past four years, and current government initiatives, while welcome, will only deliver 870 new social homes.

And while we know that new homes being built will come to market this does nothing to alleviate the crisis being faced today, or the projected shortfall in social and affordable rental homes for people on low or moderate incomes. Government can act. The solutions are here.

Red tape is stifling the growth of the community housing sector and investment into new homes.

Policy changes will enable community housing providers to better match homes with tenants and to harness their balance sheets to increase affordable rental supply.

Budget

Government can spot purchase vacant homes and can facilitate social and affordable homes through the planning system. Modular construction can rapidly bring new homes to market delivering housing up to 50 per cent faster and at less cost than traditional construction methods. This technology can release the pressure valve in the current overheated construction market and companies we’ve spoke with can scale up production if there’s a pipeline of work. The My Home Project in North Fremantle, designed by award-winning architect Michelle Blakeley, has used prefabricated construction and vacant government land to deliver beautiful, affordable new homes for older women. This is an example of what can be done.

Our State is wealthy and has a significant Budget surplus. Good leadership has kept us safe and well during the pandemic.

We’ve provided the Government with a blueprint to deliver 18,000 new affordable and social homes over the next four years leveraging land, and Commonwealth, State and institutional investment in partnership with our sector. The next Budget will demonstrate the Government’s values, and we need our Government to value housing and the social and economic security a home provides for all of us. WA has a housing emergency. It’s time to respond accordingly.