Social housing commitment deserves praise

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Some years ago, an inmate at the Fulham prison near Sale was asked on community radio station 3CR what the one thing was he needed to turn his life around once he was free. "A roof over your head," was his immediate answer. "If you haven't got that and you're living house to house and you don't feel safe out there, of course you're going to come back."

Victorians from many different walks of life struggle with mental and physical health issues, domestic violence or an income that is too low for them to live near their place of work. For far too long, they have found that the absence of social housing and affordable housing has kept them "coming back", either to entrenched poverty brought on by housing that consumes the bulk of their income, or to severely stretched support services. For some, it can mean life on the streets or even jail.

Our avowedly progressive state has the lowest proportion of social housing in the country – only 3.2 per cent of housing stock, compared with an already meagre national average of 4.2 per cent.

At the same time, the number of Victorians who need social support to acquire a home has grown with our expanding population, rising rents and house prices, so that in September the number of households on the waiting list was 48,529 – more than 100,000 people.

In this context, the Andrews government's decision to put an unprecedented $5.3 billion into building more than 12,000 homes within four years deserves the applause it has received from many quarters. Economists have advocated construction of social housing both as a fillip for the construction industry and a way of getting thousands of people back into productive lives as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. The Victorian Council of Social Service welcomed the package as a "game changer" and the Property Council said it wanted the program to go ahead as soon as possible. Others hoped the move would encourage the federal government to come to the party.

The Andrews government faces a number of challenges in making sure its commitment is implemented to best effect. One is the classic real estate issue of location, since housing will have to be close to services and jobs rather than in outer suburbs where land may be cheaper. This in turn raises the question of how such housing and its occupants will be integrated into neighbourhoods, which the government has to some extent pre-empted by announcing that it will handle and fast-track planning approvals rather than leaving them in the hands of councils.

For many of those in need of social housing, a roof over their head is essential but means little without what is termed "wrap-around support" – attention to the individual's physical, mental and medical needs aimed at stabilising them in their new lives. Co-ordinating these elements will require a whole-of-government approach.

It has already been indicated that much of the social housing being built will be community housing – run by not-for-profit agencies – and not public housing, which is owned and run by the state. The Renters & Housing Union points out that public housing is cheaper and more secure for tenants who often present particular challenges for any landlord.

For the state to make itself that landlord might prove a daunting prospect for many politicians. But Daniel Andrews, Richard Wynne and Lily D'Ambrosio have already taken a very bold first stride that could lead to historic change for people so often overlooked when we consider this state's prosperity and liveability. We believe that in this they deserve the encouragement and support of every Victorian.

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