WA can and must do better in providing social housing

This opinion piece appeared in The West Australian on Wednesday, 18 November. It is written by Michelle Mackenzie, the CEO of Shelter WA.

The reopening of WA’s border at the weekend brought scenes of joy straight out of a movie, as families that had been separated for endless months finally reunited.

Almost immediately, though, the outbreak in South Australia reminded us that the work continues for all of us.

In Victoria we have our most immediate example. We had all watched as one of the world’s great cities, Melbourne, ground to a halt for week after endless week. We got the messages from friends, family and loved ones confined to their homes, and we knew the pressure was building. And then, as those miraculous zero days finally began to roll out, we watched Victorians emerge out of their homes once more.

12,000 Social Housing Homes

If the test of character is how you respond to a crisis, Victoria led the way with courage, commitment, compassion — and common sense. Now, as it begins to rebuild, Victoria leads again.

At the weekend the Victorian Government said it was generating social and economic opportunity by building 12,000 social housing homes over the next four years.

If we’ve learnt anything this year, it’s the importance of being at home. Without a home there can be no safety. No stable foundation to build a life and raise a family. No secure shelter to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Recently, we’ve read in this newspaper how overcrowding puts pressure and strain on individuals and families that then impacts on their neighbours and the wider community. We’ve seen how homelessness is a pipeline into the justice system, keeping kids out of school and leaving them on the street. And we’ve seen the ultimate cost of not having somewhere safe to raise a family — the funerals, of those taken far, far too soon.

Announcing the social housing decision, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews made clear its significance. “This will change lives,” he said, “giving thousands of Victorians the security and stability of a home, and tens of thousands of Victorians a job.”

Quality jobs, investment and training are essential to our economic recovery from COVID — and social housing nails that triple bottom line. The Australian Bureau of Statistics research shows very dollar spent on housing returns $3 to the economy. And responding to our public housing shortfall would create tens of thousands of jobs in WA. COVID has left us all feeling less stable and secure. We need the WA Government to show the same bold leadership on our housing and homelessness crisis that we saw in its COVID response.

WA Housing Strategy 2020-2030

The newly released WA Housing Strategy 2020-2030 announced a plan to build 260 social houses a year over the next decade. Recent government investment into social housing, while welcome, addresses years of underinvestment. Investment into homelessness services and supported accommodation for people who experience homelessness is critical. But WA needs so much more.

At least 1,000 people sleep on our streets each night, numbers which have doubled in some parts of Perth since the pandemic, and more than 9,000 people are homeless across our State. More than 15,000 households are now on the waitlist for public housing. They’re waiting years, for a home, and it can feel like forever — the strain takes a deadly toll on the health of our most vulnerable.

And with a private rental vacancy rate of less than one per cent in WA, and listings down more than 50 per cent on last year, this will only get worse. The Real Estate Institute of WA is predicting a 20 per cent increase in rent when the moratorium on rental increases and evictions ends in March — and a wave of evictions.

We’ve lost more than 1,000 social houses since the last election. Victoria will build more social homes next year than WA has planned for the next decade. Our State can, and must, do better, as we head towards a March election.

More Social Housing

We are calling on the next government to commit to creating 2,500 new social housing homes each year of their next term — 10,000 in total. We are also calling for 500 homes to be made available each year for our most vulnerable through rental subsidies — not tomorrow, not in 10 years, but right now.

Victoria has shown a crisis can create opportunities to benefit the whole community. It is time WA showed leadership in response to our housing and homelessness crisis so we can rebuild safer, stronger and more secure, and enjoy the returns on our investment together.