More Public Housing Desperately Needed in NSW

We need urgent funding to ensure the 60,000 people sitting on the waiting list for public housing in NSW can be placed in homes. 


Ms JENNY LEONG ( Newtown ) ( 12:20 :41 ): On behalf of The Greens I make a contribution to debate on the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. The bill amends the Housing Act 2001 and the Community Housing Providers (Adoption of National Law) Act 2012. The amendments will provide for the NSW Land and Housing Corporation to enter into concurrent leases with registered community housing providers for properties owned by the corporation. This effectively allows the management of the tenancies within designated public housing properties to shift from the government to the community sector. Due to this change, tenants will no longer be eligible for a rental rebate under the Act but may instead be eligible for Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

The amendments will also create a local system of registration, monitoring and regulation of entities that provide community housing but are unable to be registered under the Community Housing Providers National Law, which must be consistent with the national scheme as far as is reasonably practicable. This change was announced by the Minister for Social Housing when he declared the transfer of 18,000 properties from NSW Housing managed public housing to the community sector. The properties are in four areas across the State: Shoalhaven, northern Sydney, the mid North Coast and Hunter New England—excluding Newcastle and the Lake Macquarie local government areas. The process is expected to commence in 2017.

There are already more than 28,000 properties managed by some 82 community housing providers across New South Wales. The bill does nothing to increase housing stock in New South Wales. That must be made clear, especially given the comments of members opposite. Yes, close to 60,000 people are sitting on the waiting list for public housing and, yes, this is a concern and a problem. But the bill does nothing to increase the housing stock or to reduce the waiting list. We know that tenants in public housing face many issues and challenges. We know that community housing providers—many of whom are incredible organisations that provide amazing support and services to people who access community housing—are very strong and good at what they do. But we know also that there can be challenges within the community housing sector, just as there are in any other sector.

The reality is that the issues we have faced with public housing are worse in the public housing area than in the community housing area because community housing somehow does it better, and we must consider why that is. It is because for years, under successive governments, investment in maintenance and the supply of public housing stock in New South Wales have been underfunded. The Government will say that 16 years of Labor government caused the maintenance backlog that it is trying to reduce. I say that after close to six years of the Baird Coalition Government it is no longer an excuse to blame the former Labor Government for the nearly 60,000 applicants on the waiting list. The Greens believe both sides are to blame for this failure. We need investment in public housing—increased public housing and community housing stock—not simply the introduction of another bill that will not address this serious issue.

The Greens do not oppose the bill because we recognise that the community housing sector does amazing work in supporting tenants who need community housing. But this bill will not meet the massive housing affordability challenge or address the public housing crisis in this State. We need a huge increase in investment. We must recognise that housing is a human right and that, as with schools, health care and hospitals, this State should be investing in public housing. At present there is inadequate investment and people wonder why the system is not working and is failing tenants. Last week the Social and Affordable Housing Fund was introduced, which will provide 3,000 new dwellings. But there are currently 59,000 applications for public housing in New South Wales. The legislation before the House will again attempt to address that situation but it will not provide additional stock.

I listened to members opposite say how tough it is to live in public housing and to hear from people who are on the waiting list. But the reality is this bill will not solve that problem. We need a serious shift, and that will not happen with small incremental changes such as this bill. We need a massive overhaul of public housing. We must recognise that people will no longer be able to afford to live in our cities if we do not address some pressing issues. Public housing has gone from accommodation for people on low incomes in our inner-city areas to, in many case, crisis accommodation. We know that those who are the most desperate are eligible for public housing and that puts enormous pressures on communities. But before we bag out those communities too much, I must say that I have not seen a stronger, more resilient and more active community than those tenants who live in public housing in the inner city, ably supported by housing workers and local community services.

We must ask whether the bill addresses the problem of the 59,000 public housing applications. More than 100,000 people are currently waiting for what we consider to be a basic human right: access to safe, secure, affordable housing. While the Daily Telegraph may claim that my electorate of Newtown is full of latte- and chardonnay-sipping socialists, the reality is that there is an incredible amount of public housing in our area—in Redfern, Surry Hills and the communities at Northcott and around Poet's Corner. The majority of constituents who come to our office daily for help are public housing tenants who desperately need assistance. While community housing providers do an incredible job offering support, the reality is that the bill will not solve the problem. We need more public housing stock. [Extension of time]

I will now address some of the specific details in the bill and seek clarification from the Minister as to how it will work and how we will ensure that this is not a slippery slope to putting public housing into private hands. I am sure that all members have made representations to the Minister on behalf of public housing tenants in their electorates. The question is: What is their recourse? How will tenants within the community housing sector raise concerns about community housing providers? I ask the Minister to clarify that point in his reply. Another consideration is the transfer arrangements and Commonwealth Rent Assistance. I recognise that a number of people in the public housing sector have raised concerns about how tenants will be informed about the transfer; they will not have a choice. How will they be supported in the Commonwealth Rent Assistance transfer? How will we ensure that they do not see a massive increase on paper that causes them much stress and anxiety but which, in reality, they do not have to cover? I seek the Minister's assurance regarding how support will be provided.

It is important to note that the housing offices in each area will be closed down in these areas so those communities will not be an access point to the Government. That will mean community housing providers will be the experts in that area. Therefore it is important that community housing providers are given a seat at the table to feed in the local knowledge on what is happening in those areas and to ensure the Government responds to those support services across the whole area, as those areas will no longer have access to a Family and Community Services [FACS] housing office.

The closure of offices will affect in the order of 170 to 190 staff. The Public Service Association has raised concerns about the transfer and management of these properties because it means the closure of FACS housing offices. Many services are offered by those local FACS housing offices; they offer more than just direct housing support. Any member who goes to a public housing area would acknowledge that they provide other support. They connect to community development and other things so it is important to ensure that this connection with the Government, which is accountable and responsible for providing housing, is not lost in that mix.

Also of concern is the real risk of a transfer of public housing into private hands. Last week in this place we raised concern about Serco expressing an interest in public and social housing in New South Wales and Australia. We acknowledge that currently there is nothing to prevent the private-for-profit sector getting its hands on the management and running of housing in New South Wales. I recognise that previously there were restrictions around who could tender for what. It was restricted to the not-for-profit sector. There has now been a shift to the not-for-profit provider, plus it can also involve private-for-profit companies.

We need assurances that the establishment of a local registration scheme is not an attempt to water down access to for-profit providers being able to get their dirty hands on public housing in New South Wales. If that is not the intention, I ask the Minister to put on the public record that there is no intention to allow Serco and other private providers access to the management of tenancies or access to the public, and social and community housing sector in this State because people are worried; there are serious concerns.

While it is said that the local scheme is set up to allow Aboriginal land councils and Aboriginal land bodies to engage with this scheme, which is a welcome change, if that is the only purpose, I feel confident that the legislation or regulations can be written in such a way as to reassure the community, as strong advocates of public housing, that community and public housing providers maintain their sole purpose to serve the interests of the community to have the right to housing rather than to lining their own pockets with public money for private profit. If that is not the intention then I see no problem with the Minister ruling that out and for the regulations strongly making it clear that that is not an option.

We also must ensure we do not set ourselves up to fail if the Commonwealth Rent Assistance scheme is cancelled. Currently there is no requirement for that scheme to continue and there is a big risk that if we were to rely on providing public housing and community social housing to people in New South Wales based solely on a funding model that sits at the behest of the Commonwealth Rent Assistance scheme we might find ourselves in serious trouble down the track. It is a challenge for this Government, the community housing sector and us all to recognise that it is out of our control and could fall over. In conclusion, despite the challenges of the public housing sector, around maintenance and waiting lists, some of the most impressive, active, engaged and community-minded people I have met in the electorate of Newtown live and work in public housing.

We must not lose the value of public housing. We must continue to talk up the benefits of public housing and ensure that in our desire to move to a model of social, affordable and community housing we do not lose the inherent value of the Government funding, maintaining and managing public housing because public housing is there to protect the interests of vulnerable and low-income workers so that our city can remain a place where everybody can afford to live, not just those who are uber wealthy. That is something The Greens are committed to and I will continue to advocate for them in this place because public housing must be invested in and maintained.


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