Housing needs the Medicare treatment


Prior Australian governments have had the sense to implement universal schemes for both education and healthcare. So why aren't we approaching the biggest social crisis of our time – housing – the same way?

By Senator Lee Rhiannon

One of the most extraordinary policy debates occurred earlier this year. Treasury released modelling showing Labor's negative gearing change would hardly have any impact on house prices. Bowen and Shorten proclaimed victory: “Our policy would make almost no difference!”

Reforming negative gearing is worthwhile, but it's rare to have the proponents of a policy bending over backwards to convince people their policy basically does nothing. Yet what else could Labor do? They were attempting to deal with the obvious tension in the Australian housing debate.

Housing in Australia is all about private ownership of an asset, made popular by the narrative of The Great Australian Dream. As with all assets, current owners want prices to rise. Would-be owners want prices to fall, or at least remain flat.

People trying to buy a home do not need an economics degree to understand that tension. Most people, particularly younger people, recognise the con – in most big housing markets you can't have a meaningful return to affordability without prices falling.

Currently, house prices in Sydney are over 12 times the median income. Up until the mid-1990s it was less than six. In fact, every capital city has seen that ratio almost double since the early 1990s. If we are to return to 1990s affordability, current owners – particularly recent buyers – will be seriously hurt.

How do we resolve that tension?

A shift in attitude

One way to do it is to no longer emphasise exclusive, private ownership of a home as the only means to have stable housing. In addition to having much stronger renters' rights in the private market, many other countries balance the market with a large, vibrant social housing sector. For example, our social housing sector makes up about 4.5 percent of stock. In many progressive European countries it's more like 20-30 percent.

A bigger social housing sector will also go a long way to fulfilling Principle 1 of our Housing Policy: affordable housing is a human right.

Currently that right is not enjoyed by millions of people. About 300,000 people were homeless at some stage last year. About four million people are in households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Millions more are subject to whims of private landlords when it comes to eviction and rents.

How do we guarantee affordable housing as a human right? One clue is how we treat two other rights which are fundamental to wellbeing: health and education. These rights are guaranteed through Medicare and the public school system.

Practically speaking, both Medicare and public schools are open to all and charge what people can afford to pay. If they cannot afford to pay anything it's provided free at the point of use. Both institutions could be improved a lot, but both guarantee decent health and education to all.

What lessons can we learn for housing?

Medicare for the 21st century

Our universal education system is revered along with our universal healthcare system. Imagine if public schools charged fees and 300,000 children were turned away each year because their carers couldn't pay? Would we design some sort of voucher scheme, a means-tested tax break, or set up temporary 'crisis schools'?

No. We recognise education is a human right. We'd make it free, build the schools and train the teachers. We'd do what it took to protect the right to education.

As the alternative to the major parties, the Greens are perfectly placed to campaign for a similar universal approach to housing. We could aim for the same transformative thinking which established the National Health Service in Britain and Medicare in Australia. We could aim for the big thinking that drove the first free, universally accessible public schools.

We could aim for a unifying demand that all housing allies and stakeholders can get behind. The current fragmented system where tiny, discrete programs only serve tiny segments of the community will never garner widespread and united support.

The Greens could put forward a housing plan that provides stable, affordable homes for everyone, no matter their circumstances or their bank balance. Even if not everybody will use it, it's something everyone can get behind.

Universal housing could be the Medicare for the 21st century.

A receptive audience

In the 2017 Queensland state election the Greens led the way. They campaigned for a Queensland Housing Trust to be established. This would finance the construction of one million homes over 30 years. They ran on a bold vision of housing for Queensland that promised:

-       16,000 jobs per year for 10 years;

-       A home for life;

-       Sustainable and energy efficient design; and

-       Democratic housing and tenant management models.

At this election, the Greens won their first state seat of Maiwar with 28 percent of the vote. They nearly won a second seat with a swing of +11.7 percent, gaining 34.4 percent of the primary vote in South Brisbane.

This recent electoral success shows our audience is receptive to initiatives like universal housing, that are not simply attempts to make the market less brutal but which radically redefine what it means for housing to be a human right. 

Taking a cue from overseas

Universal housing is not a new idea, having been successfully rolled out in multiple countries.

Pioneered in Finland, the Housing First model gives everyone facing homelessness unconditional access to secure, independent and stable housing. This is in stark contrast to conditional, means-tested programs in Australia.

The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden all have social housing programs with universal eligibility. As publicly owned housing stock, these programs are able to mandate improved environmental sustainability without having to kowtow to the demands of private developers. 

Is housing rigged?

It's understandable that many think the current system is 'broken'. But we must keep in mind that some people are making a lot of money. In a sense, housing in Australia is not broken, it's rigged.

If you're interested in profit rather than the needs of communities, things are working very well.

Our work on this issue with the Guardian Australia shows how rich individuals are increasingly listing property as their only source of wealth. 'Property developers' on the list have increased their wealth by 56 percent in just three years. It's estimated that about 300,000 properties are being deliberately left vacant. Investors are clearly pleased with potential capital gains.

I have also recently weighed into the ongoing debate that immigration is affecting housing affordability. As you can read here, wealthy investors, big banks, developers, the real estate industry and governments that reap huge profits from stamp duty all contribute to Australia's housing problems. Meanwhile, migrants are being used as scapegoats by organisations and governments that wish to direct attention away from their own complicity.

This shows the current system is no accident or failure. Some people are making a lot of money and will want to keep it that way.

Housing is a human right

Tinkering around the edges of supply and demand, taxes and government funding is not going to be enough to solve the problems the for-profit housing system has created. It will not be enough to meaningfully differentiate us from Labor. Something bigger is required to build the support we need to take on the big banks and speculators who are raking it in with the current system. We need bold, transformative policies and campaigns that centre housing as a human right. Ideally, we would also have a unifying demand that potentially benefits millions of people.

With housing closely following health as the second most important political issue in Australia, is it time we start to seriously consider a national universal housing system to match our universal health and education schemes?

Over the coming months my office will be exploring what a Greens national universal housing system and campaign could look like. If you're interested in getting involved, we'd love to hear from you. 

 Lee Rhiannon is Greens Senator and the Party's spokesperson for housing.