Affordable housing plays a critical role in just about every social issue – from education outcomes to prison numbers – and on health, as the article below from Tania King, Emma Baker, and Rebecca Bentley explores.

Yet it’s been pretty much off the agenda in the first year of the Abbott Government, apart from allocating $115 million to keep the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) operational for another year (to June 30, 2015) and axing the National Housing Supply Council as one of its early cost-cutting moves.

Some of the harsher measures of the 2014-15 Federal Budget – not least its draconian conditions on unemployment benefits for young people – will increase housing insecurity for many vulnerable people. But its push against ‘entitlement’ didn’t even raise the question of landlord tax breaks like  negative gearing, much less whether or not it is effective (economist Saul Eslake’s answer: not).

But we can expect a greater focus on housing and homelessness in the coming months, in the lead-up to the Federal Government’s forthcoming White Paper on Federation and/or its promised White Paper on tax reform.

A spokesman for the Treasurer was less than forthcoming to Croakey’s query about specifics and timing, though confirmed:

“The White Paper will consider a wide range of issues, including the role and responsibilities for the Commonwealth and States in housing and homelessness.

An issues paper will be released in due course.”

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews was also not giving much away in his speech to launch Homeless Persons’ Week in Melbourne last month:

“An important piece of the housing puzzle comes down to the simple issue of affordability.

We recognise that adequate growth in the housing market for all Australians is absolutely critical.

To this end the Australian Government is working across the public, private and community sectors to energise the housing construction and leverage investment.

We have set ourselves the goal of cutting $1 billion worth of obsolete and unnecessary regulation through our red-tape reduction programme led by Parliamentary Secretary Josh Freydenberg.

And my colleague Environment Minister Greg Hunt is working to create a ‘one-stop-shop’ process that will streamline the environmental approvals process by reducing duplication between the Commonwealth and the States.

We believe these initiatives will have a positive impact on housing supply in Australia.”

As further background, the National Commission of Audit recommended abolishing the National Affordable Housing Agreement and providing Commonwealth Rent Assistance to public housing tenants instead. Patrick McClure’s review of the welfare system said that rent assistance needed to be increased.

On the need for action, see also this article from The Conversation on  housing “banana-nomics” and ongoing research and analysis from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI)  on affordable housing:

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The winners and losers of housing affordability

Tania King, Emma Baker, Rebecca Bentley write:

Housing affordability is a growing problem in Australia.  But what is often lost in the conversation about housing affordability, is the wider effects of inadequate and unaffordable housing among the most vulnerable groups of our population.

Housing is recognised by the World Health Organisation as an important determinant of health. The direct physical influences of housing on health are widely known and accepted. We know for example, that inadequate heating, damp, or toxic exposure clearly effect health.  What is less understood is the indirect effect of housing on health, particularly housing affordability.

The impacts of unaffordable housing extend beyond the economic stress of meeting rent or mortgage payments. For those of us in comfortable living situations, it is difficult to contemplate the compromises and decisions that must be made by those in unaffordable housing on a daily basis.

Australians with unaffordable housing, by definition are spending a large proportion or their income on housing – usually rent. This means that trade-offs must be made on items that many of us would consider essential.  Medicines and dental health for example, are often sacrificed. Healthy fresh food is often perceived to be expensive, so diet can become a casualty of unaffordable housing. It’s not difficult to imagine a broader cascade of damaging outcomes.

Not only does housing affordability influence your health-promoting or damaging behaviour, it inevitably, also influences where you live. However even the poorest suburbs are becoming unaffordable for low income renters. Furthermore, suburbs or areas offering cheap rent are often distant from employment opportunities.

Our poorest Australians often end up in outer suburbs with little infrastructure and high car dependence. Living in such car-dependent areas may necessitate “forced car ownership” among low-income families because other transport options are absent or unavailable.

It is also true that people living in unaffordable housing may have fewer buffers to shield themselves from misfortune. For some of us, it is difficult to imagine something as innocuous as an appliance breaking down, setting off a cascade of events that might ultimately lead to homelessness. But this is a looming reality for some people in unaffordable housing. The type of stress that this induces has been shown to have measurable consequences for health. Indeed, one of the most significant health effects of low housing affordability appears to be upon mental health, and the evidence base for this is growing.

We know that there are consequences of unaffordable housing for individual health and social wellbeing, but there are also broader effects for wider society. Australia stands to gain on many levels if we assist low income Australians who spend too much of their income on housing.

The benefits of affordable housing extend well beyond housing. So, let’s broaden our national conversation about housing – from housing supply, real estate profits, and renovation – to include a consideration of how housing might be used to improve the lives of vulnerable Australians.

Dr Tania King is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, works.  Her work encompasses aspects of health inequalities including housing affordability, employment, racism and discrimination and physical activity in the built environment. 

Associate Professor Emma Baker is a 2014 Future Fellow at the University of Adelaide. Her research is focused on the role of housing and residential location in improving health and wellbeing.  

Dr Rebecca Bentley is a social epidemiologist currently working in the field of area disadvantage and health. Her work explores health inequalities in Australia; specifically in relation to housing, employment, disability, gender and place.

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