Victoria criticised for $2bn prison spend while neglecting social housing

State has about 80,000 people on the public housing waiting list, including 25,000 children

In Melbourne, there is a palpable sense that the city is growing – and fast.

But as apartments are put up and rents rise, there is also increased attention on whether the vulnerable are becoming the collateral damage of the city’s economic boom.

Victoria spends about half the national average per person on social housing. There are about 80,000 people on the public housing waiting list, including 25,000 children. A report last week found homelessness was being increasingly concentrated in Australia’s capital cities, including Melbourne, a change driven by rising rents.

So it was little wonder when the Victorian treasurer, Tim Pallas, was selling his new budget to social service groups last week that he stressed there was more social housing to come. Even before next year’s budget.

“I don’t want to give much of the time frame away,” Pallas said, “but there will be more in this financial year.”

The government was already facing criticism over its priorities. The Victorian Council of Social Service chief executive, Emma King, said the budget “blows almost $2bn on a mega prison”.

“For $2bn, we could have built tens of thousands of social housing units to fight homelessness,” she said.

The budget did contain a commitment to build 1,000 public housing units over three years, making good on an election pledge. That is well short of the 3,000 a year the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP) says are needed “just to house those on the priority waitlist”.

“Research has identified that Victoria has a shortfall of 102,800 social housing properties,” the CHP chief executive, Jenny Smith, said.

Labor also continued funding for a program that helps about 4,000 victim-survivors of family violence find a home in the private market and created a grants program to help fight homelessness among LGBTI people.

But Smith added that despite the increased funding in the budget, social housing would represent a reduced proportion of overall housing: from 3.44% in 2018-19 to 3.42% in 2019-20.

The death of 25-year-old Courtney Herron, who was sleeping rough when she was killed, has also put housing and homelessness in the spotlight.

The premier, Daniel Andrews, was forced to defend that the budget only committed to build 1,000 new public units.

“That’s the number we committed to at the election last year,” Andrews told ABC radio. “We will build the housing units we can afford to build.”

The vigil for Courtney Herron at Royal Park in Melbourne. Her death has put a renewed focus on housing and homelessness in Victoria
The vigil for Courtney Herron at Royal Park in Melbourne. Her death has put a renewed focus on housing and homelessness in Victoria. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

Libby Porter is an RMIT academic who is unimpressed by the government’s record. “It’s just laughable they think 1,000 units is anywhere near close to what we need,” Porter said.

She noted that ABS figures released last week showed only 66 public housing dwellings were approved in Victoria in the first quarter of 2019.

A few days after the budget, Porter released a report on the government’s $185m Public Housing Renewal Project, which was opposed by the Coalition and the Greens.

While the government will build 1,000 new public housing units, it also plans to sell 11 public housing estates to developers on the condition they redevelop the properties and provide a 10% net increase in social housing.

While public housing is owned and managed by the government, social housing is a broader term that includes properties run by not-for-profits.

Porter’s analysis suggests that, of the first three inner-city housing estates where the government has struck a deal with a developer, the result will be additional social housing units but fewer bedrooms. None so far will be “public units”.

It means the redeveloped community housing units will end up serving fewer low-income Victorians.

Defending the plan, the Victorian housing minister, Richard Wynne, said the government was seeking to “match demand to supply because times have changed”.

“These days 80% of need is for one or two bedroom properties, while most of our older housing stock is three bedroom properties,” he said.

Porter acknowledged the “need for one bedroom units”, but said the way families registered on the housing waiting list often lead to a “mismatch between the stock available and the person presenting”.

Like social service groups, the Greens have questioned the government’s priorities. “This budget is spending almost 10 times more on new prisons than it is on new public housing,” the Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, told parliament last week.

The $1.8bn will fund a new jail at Lara, near Geelong, and upgrade other correctional facilities. The 1,000 new public housing units will cost $200m. There are 160 homes funded for the 2019-20 financial year, according to the budget papers.

Pallas suggested the investment in new prisons was unfortunate but necessary. “Nobody gets more upset than the treasurer [about] actually having to put more money into building prisons,” he said.

Asked why successive Victorian governments had not build enough public homes, he told the Vcoss breakfast it was a “daunting task”.

“I think somewhere in the 1970s we dropped the ball as a state,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.

“The fact that we put a little over $200m into providing more social and public housing in this budget is really a start but there’s a lot more to do.”


Luke Henriques-Gomes

The GuardianTramp

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