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Issue #1875      July 3, 2019

Taking Issue – Eileen Whitehead

A disgraceful blight

Are other people as upset as I am at seeing an increasing number of homeless people on our streets? To date there are 115,000 homeless people in Australia, which I personally find unconscionable. I know there are many other problems like climate change, low wages (if you are fortunate enough to be employed), high energy and food prices, the diminishing of our so-called democracy: the list lengthens with every year that the country is ruled by two political parties who are governing for the corporations and not the people. Nothing is being done to provide destitute people with a roof over their heads and it should never have come to this in Australia, the country of the so-called “Fair Go”.

One of the reasons is the fact that many members of our governments are benefitting from property in some way and are quite happy with real estate prices and negative gearing. It is quite obvious they have no social conscience and certainly do not have any interest in providing social housing.

Therefore, for the unemployed, the working poor and those on social welfare the housing crisis is worsening and the churches and charities are inundated. Anglicare has reported that it could find not one single property that was affordable for someone on Youth Allowance payments, and people on the minimum wage would only be able to afford to rent 2.2 percent of properties on the market.

Currently, there are 140,000 people on the social housing waiting lists and our elected representatives are doing nothing about this appalling situation. In the 1950s, housing construction was flat out coping to provide housing for the thousands of displaced persons Australia was welcoming from Europe. The construction of housing, plus the associated infrastructure necessary to service new suburbs, helped make Australia wealthy.

Full employment meant people were buying cars, petrol, houses and had money to spare – to the delight of capitalists. Rents were affordable in relation to wages and the purchase price of a home was between four and five times a man’s annual wage. Today it exceeds 10 times an annual wage. The Reserve Bank is concerned that, in 2019, negative equity i.e. when someone’s loan is higher than the value of their home, is rising rapidly.

The situation today, even when people are working, is that the vicious cuts to workers’ penalty rates and businesses not paying award rates, is making it increasingly difficult for workers to keep abreast of the cost of living. According to Anglicare statistics, a quarter of a million people who are on welfare payments are paying over half their income in rent, with another quarter million paying over 30 percent of their income on rent. This is a definition of rent stress.

Why are rents so high? As always, because of greedy landlords encouraged by present neo-liberal ideologies, whereby everything has to produce massive profits. An interesting statistic would be to know how many of the present homeless would be able to afford to have a roof over their heads if the government were to introduce rent control laws capping rent payments at 30 percent of a tenant’s income.

As it stands now, one third of aged pensioners currently renting are in rent stress, even with their rent assistance supplement. And it is a known fact that the poor are going without food in order to pay bills. It is just one small step to becoming homeless.

So, what is neo-liberal ideology? It preaches laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism encouraging liberalisation policies such as privatisation, austerity, deregulation, and free trade. The government reduces its spending in the hope that the private sector gets more involved in the economy and society. In other words, “trickle down” economics but more like “dog eat dog”. In Australia, since the Hawke government (bless his soul and give him a State Funeral) introduced the Accord and emasculated the unions, we have seen a hardening of attitudes – helped by the Murdoch newspapers. Those people looking for work have been described as “dole bludgers”, work-shy – too lazy to get a job: and when such language becomes a daily diet, people begin to believe it.

What we need to realise – and I’m sure organisations such as Anglicare could back this up – many of those falling through the cracks have been former PM Howard’s “battlers”: such as many elderly who always worked and paid rent but were never able to save much from their wages.

They are now joining the working poor seeking cheap accommodation. We need to start supporting those in our society who have fallen through the cracks. There is now a growing trend of working poor who are falling behind in paying mortgages, especially in WA where the mining boom is ending. Perhaps a few mining millionaires will come to the rescue? I won’t hold my breath! Falling property prices are causing negative equity which, combined with rising unemployment and mortgage defaults, could produce a worsening economic spiral and see more people without a roof.

Meanwhile, ever since the global financial crisis, Australia’s big four banks are consistently making record profits, while ordinary people pay increasing mortgages and rents – and homelessness increases. The shortage of affordable social housing is estimated – probably under-estimated – at over 430,000 nation-wide.

We should be demanding a program of social housing construction and legislation preventing acquisition of property by speculators gambling on the property market. It is a well-known fact that there are hundreds of properties – bought by speculators – standing empty. As in the 1950s, social housing construction would alleviate homelessness and provide a financial boost to the country, as a healthy construction industry enriches the economy.

It might be a good idea for the construction unions to start taking an interest: homelessness is union business.

I’m a member of the Anti-Poverty Network which has small branches all over Australia. We’re small but our determination is real. This year we’re joining hands with all the other organisations who are attempting to stem the neoliberal tide of selfishness and speak up for those who have been broken by this insidious system. Hopefully, this year during anti-poverty week (October 13-19) we are going to see a mass rising of people, supported by the unions, to demand an end to this disgraceful blight on our society.

Of course, as a socialist, I can only see the current situation of such an unfair society resolved by taking banks, energy companies, public transport and construction companies back into public ownership. Only then will the current evils affecting the working class be resolved.

Next article – Porter steps up attacks on working people

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