Greg Budworth is the chief executive officer of Hunter-based Compass Housing.
Nanjing Night Net

LAST week the Newcastle Herald had a story on the fact that children as young as 11 are among hundreds of homeless youth being turned away from crisis accommodation in the Hunter (‘‘Streets of shame, 6/2’’).

Homelessness of any form is certainly a shame. It is a problem that has been with us on a significant scale for a number of years and the situation is worsening. Homelessness is affecting many more people than just our disadvantaged youth.

The Herald correctly identified that in the case of youth crisis accommodation, there are several contributing reasons for homelessness. A lack of money is not the fundamental reason for the lack of crisis accommodation.

The fundamental reason is a lack of accommodation, more specifically, a lack of housing stock. This applies across all accommodation, crisis or otherwise, for youth as well as for many other citizens. On Friday the Herald reported comments by NSW planning director Andrew Jackson that infrastructure was the main reason behind the Hunter’s housing shortage. We simply have too few new dwellings being created to accommodate the demand for housing.

In our economy the level of housing is mostly driven by supply and demand and partly by government policy and interventions. If demand exceeds supply, prices rise. Rising housing prices means more people opt to rent and so rents rise with the result that working families struggle to make ends meet and more disadvantaged members of our community don’t even get a look in. We have a situation now where working people and families in the Hunter and Central Coast are also living in cars and at friends’ houses. Just build more housing, I hear you say. Higher housing prices should encourage more people to build more houses and then the prices will come down. It is not that simple. The market is constrained by land-release strategies, planning laws and codes, and availability of finance.

Rightly, governments at various levels are intervening in the market, such as directly funding more social and affordable housing, first-home buyers’ schemes, Commonwealth Rental Assistance, as well as tax laws such as negative gearing of investment properties. In the Hunter and Central Coast regions we have benefited from these programs and the situation would be more dire were it not for them.

Last year the state government transferred the title of $150million worth of social housing properties to Compass Housing. This is significant because it is allowing Compass to leverage the equity in those properties to generate a minimum of a further 150 affordable houses over the next 10 years.

Compass also received Commonwealth financial incentives as well as $9.55million in NSW government funding to work with developers to build additional affordable housing in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie under the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS).

These measures are promising but they are not enough to tackle the severity of the problem. According to the State of Supply Report 2011, produced by the federal government’s National Housing Supply Council, the gap between underlying demand for dwellings and supply was 186,800 as at June 2010. The biggest gap was in NSW (73,700) and over the next 20 years, the gap is expected to widen to 640,000.

Unless there are more radical measures to increase the supply of housing and supply constraints reviewed, disadvantage will be exacerbated with more homelessness, crime, unsafe streets, gated communities, greater impact on health, policing and welfare budgets.

Hardly a week goes by without a media article about homelessness yet housing is never a major priority election issue. The housing supply crisis needs to be one of the highest priorities of governments. With the federal government elections coming up in 2013, this policy area should be one that the community demands from the incumbents or contenders alike.

It is up to us to make housing an election issue. Housing should be fundamental, not a privilege in our wealthy society.

Australians for Affordable Housing is a coalition of over 60 national housing, welfare and community sector organisations, highlighting the problem of housing affordability. To see what you can do to help undo our streets of shame visit housingstressed.org.au.