Righting Australia’s National Housing Crisis

In a recent Canadian poll, housing affordability came in just behind national security as most the important issue for Canadians.  The Canadian government responded promptly to concerns by releasing a new housing affordability and homelessness plan.  Earlier this year in the French national elections, housing and homelessness became major campaign issues after a cleverly organized campaign around rising homelessness saw people from all levels of French society braving wintry conditions to camp in protest along the Seine. It remains unclear just what needs to be done in this country to get our federal government to take housing issues seriously.  Unfortunately, the government’s dismissive response to a recent UN report which investigates the state of housing in Australia offers little promise that we will start to see a new commitment to making housing more accessible and affordable for all Australians.

The report presented at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 12 June, is based on observations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, during his three week visit to Australia in August last year.  In his report, Kothari describes what he saw as a ‘serious hidden national housing crisis’ that in some parts of the country has resulted in a ‘humanitarian tragedy’.

The report highlights appalling housing conditions for Indigenous people, women (particularly those fleeing family violence), and the large homeless population spread through our cities, towns and in the bush.  The report concludes that Australia has failed to implement its obligation to fulfil the right to adequate housing.  The report also makes a number of specific, practical recommendations, including the establishment of a national housing ministry and increased spending on public housing and crisis accommodation services.  It recommends the amendment of various laws that impact disproportionately on people experiencing homelessness.  It also stresses the need for greater consultation with groups that are most significantly affected by inadequate housing.

That we are in the grip of a housing affordability crisis will come as little surprise to most Australians.  Latest estimates indicate that 35% of low-income households are under ‘housing stress’, meaning that their housing costs are so great that there is not enough left over to meet other basic needs.

But instead of engaging with the substance of the report and tackling the issues in a constructive way, the federal government admonished the UN for dedicating its resources to a country where human rights violations are not ‘serious’, dismissing the report as ‘unbalanced’ and ‘inadequate,’ and as pandering to ‘special interest’ groups.

Such a statement reveal a critical misunderstanding of what the Australian government’s obligations are in relation to the right to adequate housing – that is, to devote the maximum of its available resources to ensure conditions that allow all people to live with basic dignity.  Furthermore, it suggests that adequate housing is low on the government’s priority list.

The government’s response is not just bad news for diplomacy, it is also bad news for the 100,000 people across Australia who experience homelessness on any given night.  It is bad news for those who are regularly refused crisis accommodation because of a desperate lack of resources.  It is bad news for those who, even after 10 years, are still waiting for public housing.  And, it is bad news for those low and middle income Australians who are feeling the pinch of high rent and impossibly high mortgage repayments.

Consider for a moment the response of the Spanish government, which was also criticized for the poor state of housing in some areas of Spain.  While not conceding to all of the issues raised, Spain welcomed the analysis and the practical recommendations for reform and committed itself to addressing low levels of public housing.

One of the primary criticisms contained in the report on Australia is that there appears to be very little political will at a federal level to tackle the issue of affordable, safe and culturally appropriate housing in a long term, holistic way.  Unfortunately the government’s reaction seems only to reaffirm this point.

Let’s hope that the response on 12 June was just hot headed and reactive.  Let’s hope that with a more sober reflection of the report there will come recognition of the fundamental importance that having somewhere safe and secure to live plays in every social, employment, educational, justice and health initiative.  Let’s also hope that the state and territory governments to whom the same human rights obligations apply, step up to the plate and show that these are serious issues, worthy of serious attention.

The Australian Federal Government recently announced a budget surplus – its tenth in eleven years – of $10.6 billion.  With domestic and international pressure mounting, surely it is now time for the government to understand that unless there is long-term, comprehensive investment into addressing the housing crisis and its consequences, those who have been relegated to the footnotes of the government’s economic success story will soon hit the front page.

Kristen Hilton is the Coordinator and Principal Solicitor of the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic in Melbourne.  She was in Geneva for the release of the UN report.