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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Public housing shortage an ‘absolute disgrace’, Canberra Liberals say

Standing outside a $2.6 million Braddon public housing complex that had been empty for five years, Canberra Liberal MLAs said the public housing shortage was “an absolute disgrace” for the ACT Government.

Thousands of Canberrans were waiting years for housing, while more than 400 properties remained unoccupied, they claimed.

“Not acceptable,” Shadow Minister for Housing, Mark Parton said. “Where is the will to say we are in the middle of a housing affordability crisis and let’s do whatever we possibly can to get these places back online?”

“We’re talking about vulnerable families; about women and children; about the Canberrans that are doing it tough already,” Opposition leader Elizabeth Lee said.

“This government needs to front up and take responsibility and explain to the Canberra community why they have allowed this situation to occur in our nation’s capital,” Ms Lee said.

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The 10-apartment complex in Lowanna Street cost $2.6 million, but was only occupied for five years. It was completed in 2012, but the building was deemed a fire risk, and the last tenant was moved out in 2017. Since then, it has remained derelict, fenced off.

The ACT Government has lodged a Development Application to demolish the complex and redevelop the site with 10 Class C adaptable properties, a spokesperson said. The estimated cost of the demolition and rebuild is commercial in confidence, and the Government has yet to select a tenderer.

“It is totally unacceptable for the Government to have this relatively new complex sit empty and in squalor while there is a critical shortage of public housing in the ACT,” Ms Lee said.

“The government has known about this for five years, and has allowed this situation to continue.”

The empty Braddon public housing complex. Picture: Nick Fuller

The ACT has a shortfall of almost 3,000 public housing dwellings. According to March 2021 figures, 953 Canberrans applied for standard housing, and wait on average three and a half years (1,340 days); 1,647 applied for high needs housing, and wait more than two years (867 days); and 183 applied for priority housing, and wait almost nine months (267 days).

Last month, Rebecca Vassarotti, Minister for Homelessness and Housing, stated that waiting lists for public housing could increase this year due to the economic impacts of COVID.

The ACT Government stated that on 6 April, 96% of the ACT’s 10,981 public housing dwellings were occupied (the optimal occupancy rate set by ACT Housing). Of the 406 unoccupied properties, 117 properties would be sold or redeveloped; 224 were being maintained, repaired, or improved; and 65 were ready to be allocated to tenants. This ebb and flow of vacant properties was expected during renewal programs, the Government stated.

Under its Growing and Renewing Public Housing Program, the Government has promised to renew more than 1,000 public houses and build 600 new ones, said Yvette Berry, Minister for Housing and Suburban Development. This year, for instance, 130 dwellings are being built, including 61 in Dickson; 16 homes opened in that suburb in February.

Can the Program supply the almost 3,000 public houses needed? The ACT Government stated it provides the highest rate of public housing in Australia, more than $141 million in rental subsidies to tenants each year, and called its Housing Program one of the largest investments in public housing per capita in Australia. By 2025, the ACT Government said it would have invested more than $1 billion in public housing over the previous decade.

But social housing was the ACT Government’s second-lowest budget priority this year ($225 million, or 4% of budget expenditure), and community and social housing organisations called in February on the ACT Government to do more.

At the time, Andrew Hannan, chairman of the Community Housing Industry Association ACT, said the ACT had the lowest rate of community housing as a proportion of social housing of any jurisdiction.

Mr Parton had support from ACT Shelter, ACTCOSS, and Community Housing Canberra for many of the suggestions for easing housing stress he took to the Legislative Assembly in February – including using more community housing providers, a NSW-style land tax, and a renter supplementation lease like Victoria’s. The Government negatived them all, arguing that the ACT Housing Strategy was already working on similar lines.

“Labor and the Greens just flatly rejected them, because they didn’t want us to have a political win,” Mr Parton said. “This is not about politics. It’s about the day-to-day lives of families and individuals who are struggling to put a roof over their heads.”

Mr Parton said he had “desperate” conversations with single mothers and people with severe mental health issues looking for public housing.

“I do what I can to highlight their situation to the relevant Minister, but it’s really difficult. Often, we can’t get a solution. I feel helpless in my ability to give these people some form of housing security.”

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