The latest data shows the urgent need for more public housing

by Greg Jericho

As approvals for public sector housing hit 2 year lows, the ambition for more public housing needs to be even greater than the government’s 20,000 in 5 years target.

The Albanese government has pledged under its new “Housing Accord” to build one million new well-located homes over five years from 2024.

While the merits of this pledge are debatable given since 2017 there have consistently been at least 1m homes built in 5 years periods, what is clear is that to truly tackle housing affordability public housing needs to play a greater role.

In the 1970s and 1980s, public housing accounted for around 10% of all residential dwellings built. But in the past decade, it has rarely been above 3%. In the October Budget, the government committed $350 million in additional funding to deliver 10,000 affordable homes over five years from 2024. With further commitments from state and territory governments which have agreed to build up to 10,000 new homes as well, the government hopes to deliver up to 20,000 new affordable dwellings in total over the 5-year period.

This however would only return the situation to that of the early 2000s, and well below the 1970s and 1980s when routinely over 50,000 public homes were built in 5 years.

The latest building approvals data released this week demonstrates the need for a quick ramp-up in work. Just 210 public sector houses and apartments were approved for building – the lowest monthly amount since January 2020. To achieve 20,000 homes in 5 years, there needs to be on average 333 homes constructed every month. During the 1970s and 1980s there were regularly more than 1,000 built.

This comes off the back of a wasted opportunity during the pandemic. Rather than stimulating the economy through public-sector housing as we saw successfully done during the GFC, the Morrison government fired up the private sector through its HomeBuilder program. The main result of that policy was to cause house prices to soar and housing affordability to plummet.

And yet while there is still plenty of time before the government’s time period of “from 2024” begins, low-income families are the ones suffering from the decades-long shift from public to private housing.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese has often noted that he grew up in public housing. Yet when he was a child such housing was much more common. To truly tackle housing affordability – especially for those on low incomes – we need more ambition. Twenty thousand public sector homes is a good starting goal, but we should be seeking to return to the place we were before the neo-liberal belief that the private sector is the best suited to cure all social-economic problems. After 30 years of falling public sector housing, the experiment has failed and governments need to get back to delivering more housing for those who need it.

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