The Guardian November 17, 1999


Public housing (Part II)

In last week's Guardian, JOHN BENNET spoke to JOE STAATS about 
the Sunshine Rooming House in Sunshine, Victoria, and shift from public 
housing to welfare housing. This week John discusses government "reforms" 
and the need to defend public housing.

Joe: The Victorian Ministry of Housing forced rent increases upon 
Rooming House tenants in October 1993: for existing tenants rent rose from 
20 percent of income to 23 percent and for new tenants from 20 percent to 
25 percent of income. The Sunshine Rooming House did not comply with these 
increases, I believe?

John: These rent increases were introduced last year for all public 
tenants in Victoria, despite the government offering no justification for 
this attack on what is now the poorest section of the population.

There was no political resistance to this attack, which may be because the 
ALP in its policy supports a rent increase (section 6.52).

However, the Sunshine Rooming House Committee has taken a principled stand 
against passing this increase on to our tenants as we believe it to be 
fundamental.

We have made systematic and sustained efforts to form a  united front with 
the other rooming house groups against the rent rise and the other 
disastrous housing reforms of 1998,  which included the loss of public 
tenants' security of tenure and greatly tightened eligibility requirements 
for applicants.

Strangely enough, however, we were unable to gain support on any of these 
important points from any of the other rooming house groups. This is hard 
to understand since most of the other community housing groups profess to 
have left-wing views and concerns for housing justice. 

Certainly in the past five years housing sector workers who have not been 
prepared to do the Ministry of Housing's dirty work have paid for their 
principles with their jobs.

We have called numerous meetings with our tenants, at which we have 
attempted to warn them of the attacks coming their way. But most of our 
tenants have not worked for many years and have no experience of collective 
struggle.

Furthermore they are in an economically powerless position and are 
understandably reluctant to jeopardise the only shelter they can afford by 
taking action against their landlord.

Many attempts have been made during the past 10-15 years to organise public 
tenants in Victoria against the Ministry of Housing, but they seem to be as 
difficult to politically mobilise as are unemployed workers.

Joe: I believe an organisation is being formed now to campaign for 
and highlight the necessity for decent affordable rental accommodation for 
all who need it.

John: Our committee and supporters are committed to continuing the 
struggle to achieve housing justice for the working class.

To achieve this we have established the Western Suburbs Housing Front, 
based in Sunshine. We would welcome the support of any Guardian 
readers out there in the Western Suburbs who want to work with us on the 
basis of our housing program.

Joe: With the emphasis on promoting the private sector by all 
governments in Australia, to shift rental accommodation from the private 
racketeers to affordable publicly owned rental  accommodation certainly 
would be a big task, wouldn't it?

John: Housing is not a peripheral political issue, nor is it a 
welfare issue, despite all the emphasis given to homelessness. Housing is 
an economic matter that is absolutely central to our entire capitalist 
system.

If you consider the amount of Australian capital controlled by  developers, 
banks and the housing industry generally, it is  apparent that it comprises 
a very large part of the total.

Instead of sterile discussions on the "causes of homelessness", we need to 
examine the fabulous profits that have been made by the housing industry 
for many years.

Instead of "ensuring that private rental accommodation is affordable to low 
income tenants" by increasing Rent Assistance to Health Card holders (as in 
the ALP's National Shelter policy), we should clearly analyse how all such 
subsidies inevitably finish in the hands of private landlords.

Some housing commentators who consider themselves left-wing are urging that 
a new imputed rent tax be levied against all owner occupiers, most of whom 
are of course working class people (ALP National Shelter policy again). But 
discussion about who bears the costs of housing should be replaced by 
discussion about why those costs exist in the first place.

The mode of production of Australian housing is extremely inefficient if 
the aim is good, cheap housing. A house is only built if there is a buyer 
who can pay a price which will satisfy the profit requirements of all the 
landowners, builders and sub-contractors involved.

It is not the human need for shelter which matters here.

Unless there is sufficient effective demand (demand backed by money) to 
provide the rate of profit necessary to the private firms involved, capital 
will withdraw from construction and seek better investments to exploit.

So long as housing is produced only as a commodity for  exchange, not as a 
usevalue in response to a need, progress is  impossible. Certainly it is a 
big task to force change in a  sector of the economy so important to 
Australian capital.

Joe: The private home building industry is very profitable for the 
builders, banks, finance corporations, landlords, real estate agents, 
lawyers, etc. It is also one of the least unionised sectors of the building 
industry. Should your campaign also include a publicly owned and operated 
home building establishment?

John: The establishment of a new non-profit government housebuilding 
commission is an essential cornerstone of any serious housing program. It 
would permit the production of housing as shelter rather than as a 
commodity.

If properly funded and publicly accountable, it would make possible the 
building and repair of houses on criteria other than profit maximisation, 
emphasising instead the fulfillment of housing needs and quality standards.

But this is not what we have in Australia. The only part of Public Housing 
that is still truly public in Australia is the landlord function. But even 
this is carried out on private corporate principles, with no mercy shown to 
tenants in rent arrears, and "market rents" constantly rising.

If we are going to fight in defence of Public Housing, let's make it clear 
what we mean by Public Housing!

Joe: Have building unions such as the CFMEU been approached on this 
matter?

John: Yes, some building unions were approached several years ago, 
but that was during the period of the ACTU Accord, when industrial action 
by rank and file workers was discouraged.

A truly socialist housing policy needs to be properly explained to workers 
at site meetings called by the union. Only then would it be possible for 
them to comprehend such a radically different approach to their work, and 
to see how much they stand to gain by it.

The implementation of a socialist housing programme offers a better deal 
for building workers. A National Housing Authority could offer them 
permanent unionised employment, proper training and equipment, and a loud 
voice in how the authority was run.

Most importantly, the new Authority would set the pace in  health and 
safety standards for the entire building industry.

Such a system of rational planning and organisation of housing  production 
is not going to spontaneously appear, since the  current system of profit 
maximisation serves the purposes of  capital nicely.

It will only come about through adequate political pressure, which is why 
we are once again attempting to interest the leadership of building unions 
in it.

Perhaps the Accord mentality has been replaced by one which acknowledges 
that meaningful change for workers can only be achieved through struggle.

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