The Guardian • Issue #2047

Right to housing

WA Public Forum at Trades Hall

Photo: Sardaka – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On any given night in Western Australia over 9,000 people can be considered homeless, though many more are homeless and not counted as such. How in such a prosperous state as Western Australia and especially its capital city, Perth, does such a situation arise?

On 5th March 2023, Workers Solidarity WA organised a public forum on the right to housing at Trades Hall in Perth, centring on housing as a right. This forum featured local activists that work in the area bringing first-hand knowledge to share with attendees about what is being done currently in WA and also to provide an opportunity to have a conversation about why Australia is failing to provide basic shelter to its people.

Over 30 people attended the forum, and following the main presentation engaged in a lively question and answer session on the housing question. The session was chaired by the the CPA, who strongly advocated for public housing and against the commodification of housing.

John Berger, the Chair of the Western Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (WAAEH) said it was a shortcoming of the way homelessness is dealt with in Western Australia that it costs more to have people live in homelessness than to end homelessness by housing people.

People are considered to be chronically homeless if they haven’t found a permanent home within six months. People can fall into homelessness for a variety of reasons including losing a job, which is the source of income, mental health reasons, and other personal or family reasons.

It was important to deal with the resourcing of housing provision, to have accurate evidence-based information about who was going into homelessness and who is coming out of homelessness. This would help to determine the type and location of homes to be made available to those requiring a home. The persistence of homelessness and the solutions offered in WA or personal failing that a person becomes homeless.

In countries such as Canada and the United States there are also similar initiatives from the non-government sector to identify and deal with homelessness with a goal to end homelessness rather than just apply band-aid or short-term solutions. In WA the WAAEH has also dealt with regional homelessness for instance in Mandurah, Geraldton, Exmouth, and Albany.

It is not a one size fits all approach, as different groups or cohorts of people have different housing needs, and some groups also require proximity to support services. It’s not enough to put put people in renovated shipping containers, apartment blocks, or outer suburban fringe or even as the Lord Mayor of Perth, Basil Zempilas once suggested; to put mattresses in public car parks.

Berger said that that our Western liberal democratic society had lost the notion of housing as a human right and that the profit motive had become paramount.

The second speaker was Sean Kelly of Community Housing Limited whose group provides emergency housing for various groups of people. Sean said that at present much of Perth’s emergency housing was located in the Perth city centre and some of it on the city’s urban fringe.

It is not helpful for people seeking to maintain their housing if they required support services when they have special needs or a further crisis or incident occurs. Well-developed life skills help people to resist homelessness.

Looking after someone’s mental health while they are in community housing helps those people save money as well as those services required when things go off the rails. Sean Kelly said that community housing was provided in remote communities for Aboriginal people in the Western desert close to the South Australian border, to the Kimberley, and to high rise accommodation in Perth.

Housing is managed as an investment proposition rather than a human right like it is in countries such as Finland and Norway. Having property inspections every three months is part of this discourse of managing houses as an investment rather than a sustainable right which all people should have.

In Australia, said Sean Kelly, community housing amounted to only four per cent of the nation’s housing stock and was allocated on the basis of economic need rather than social need.

Today in Australia, state and federal governments share the cost of funding social and community housing, but competitiveness is encouraged in the provision of social/community housing to help drive down the cost, instead of providing a comprehensive needs based service.

At present, high interest rates driving up the servicing costs of purchasing a home, is pushing the dream or expectation of owning your own home out of the reach of an ever increasing number of people. It is also unrealistic to keep pushing the urban fringe ever outwards as this increases the cost of living and uses more public and private resources. Social and community housing is the most desirable goal as it will make housing more affordable for a greater number of people.

To achieve this aim said Berger we needed to have longer term leases (i.e. ten years) on more flexible terms which includes tenants not having such frequent inspections and can also being able to make minor alterations to the home and becoming responsible for minor repairs such as fixing a tap or a door handle.

To solve homelessness concluded Berger we needed to shift the narrative on housing from solely being about profits from investments and tax breaks to one of housing being made available as a right to all to fit everyone’s needs.

Link to the CPA stance on housing:

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