A new book by Australia’s leading housing academics provides a big picture overview of the nation’s housing system and a guide to fixing its structural problems.
In it, readers will find in one place all the relevant information on Australian housing policy that can otherwise take years to acquire from disparate sources. This includes a near-comprehensive explanation of why housing is so unaffordable and what governments can do about it. The first half of the book is dedicated to unpacking the key challenges and trends over the last 25 years across the three main tenures of homeownership, private rental and social housing. The second half then delves into specialist areas of policy such as Indigenous housing, affordable housing and land use planning.
What constitutes housing policy?
Throughout the book, the authors explore structural issues and policy levers through the themes of fragmented governance, international comparisons and increasing financialisation. In doing so, they broaden readers’ perceptions of what exactly constitutes housing policy and build the case for the system-wide reform agenda that they present in the final chapter.
Overall, the text is easy to read with its clear writing style, a balance of views and strong organisation of the material. While the complexity of some topics requires focused reading in parts, the authors use plain English and visual aids to explain key ideas. This is especially valuable when it comes to contentious and evolving areas of policy such as social housing transfers, affordable housing finance and inclusionary zoning. Elsewhere, it handles policy debates with appropriate nuance as when it contrasts arguments in favour of the efficiency of rent assistance with the effectiveness of rental supply programs.
Six principles for a national housing strategy
Ultimately, the authors do take positions on policy that would extend the role of government beyond enabling the market. However, they do so by providing readers with the relevant evidence and equipping them with useful questions to analyse specific options for policy.
The most practical chapter for policy-makers and advocates in this sense is the final one which proposes six principles for a national housing strategy. The policy-oriented principles here include taking a system-wide perspective, addressing the drivers of unaffordability and ensuring tenure equity and housing choice. Politically-focused principles include providing national leadership, building institutional capacity and phasing in changes.
Such a plan would naturally require a high level of cooperation between governments so the chapter goes on to point out ‘low-hanging fruit’ where there are precedents for independent action. These include tenancy law reform (VIC), inclusionary zoning (NSW/SA) and land tax (ACT) among others.
The authors contend that pursuing these lower-cost options first might then generate support for wider-reaching reforms. The structural repairs will begin, they argue, when taxes are reformed to discourage speculation, programs are funded to increase housing diversity and new agencies and ministerial portfolios are created to oversee these changes.
Economically and socially unsustainable
A better housing system might not come cheap. But given that high housing costs are pushing over one million Australians into poverty and putting downward pressure on national productivity, the authors make a powerful case that the one we have is both economically and socially unsustainable.
This book is essential reading for anyone who wants the necessary knowledge and guidance to change that unnecessary fact. National Shelter and its state-based counterparts have long advocated for the reforms it promotes and we welcome the new momentum that it will generate.