Most people just want a roof overhead and a place to call home

Most people just want a roof overhead and a place to call home


Very grateful. These words often appeared in the 2000 interviews, surveys and online submissions
conducted as part of Victoria’s independent review of our social housing system.

They are eye-catching because they carry a sense of debt owed to others for a safe roof and
place to live. Sadly, they are not surprising.

In Victoria, there are more than 50,000 people and their families waiting for public housing.Credit:Penny Stephens

The numbers also speak loudly.

Our society has allowed the current shortage of secure and affordable housing to worsen to
a point where there are fewer than 100,000 social housing properties across the state and
over 50,000 individuals (and their families) waiting for housing.

There are around 350,000 Victorians living in private rental housing whose incomes are so
low they receive Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

Many renters are on such low incomes that they need government assistance.Credit:iStock

Estimates indicate there are around 25,000 people homeless on any given night – with as
many again living in rooming houses and caravan parks.

With governments unwilling to build the new social housing properties we need, the
response has been to ration access to the homes we have.

To succeed in becoming a social housing tenant these days, you don’t just need to be on a
low income. You have to be experiencing compromised health, mental illness, disability,
addiction, escaping family violence and/or sleeping rough and at risk of harm.

The work of our review has revealed a powerful level of support for the Victorian
government’s Big Housing Build, the largest investment in public and community housing in
living memory. It will drive the creation of almost 10,000 new and refurbished homes with
more to come in the future.

In response to this massive investment, the Victorian assistant Treasurer Danny Pearson
and Minister for Housing Richard Wynne commissioned a three-person panel to review the
rules, processes and governance of our social housing system.

Today we have released our interim report for public comment and discussion. We have recommended that all public and community housing be overseen by a single regulator for the first time.

We have recommended a new set of standards for the new regulator, including minimum
property standards, fire safety, health and cultural safety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander tenants. These standards would also cover tenancy management and the way providers work to sustain people’s housing versus pushing them out and refilling properties.

With a new regulator and new standards, we have recommended the
creation of funded tenancy advocacy services that build people’s capacity and guide people
through issues like maintenance, repairs and complaints.

Complaints would go to a new independent mechanism that aims to resolve issues and
conflict through mediation rather than lawyers.

We have proposed these changes with one overriding intent: to place tenants at the centre
of the social housing system because each social housing property is
someone’s home. This purpose would be enshrined in an amended Housing Act.

If we do this, many other things will start to change for the better.

Simple things, like the language used by providers and the regulator will become more
accessible and easier to understand.

Tenants will be asked what they think before new policies and procedures are introduced.
Properties will be environmentally first class so that power bills eat up less of low-income
households’ weekly budget.

The impact of heat and cold on health and safety will also assume increased importance. If implemented by the Victorian government, this superficially small change may lead to one of the most significant reforms in public and community housing in Australia.

For the first time, tenants, not the house building industry, not property developers, not manufacturing industry, not favoured rural towns, not providers, will be at the centre of the social housing system as it grows.

We hope that, by giving them a louder voice, these reforms will not only lead to tenants
living the lives they want to lead, but with their feelings of gratitude being complemented
by a sense of respect.

David Hayward is chair of the Social Housing Regulation Review and Emeritus Professor of
Public Policy and the Social Economy at RMIT University. The interim report is available at Engage Victoria for public comment until February 28.

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