Speech to AHURI

31 May 2018

By definition AHURI’s work lends itself to technical discussions about housing policy.


It’s an extremely valuable body for us policy makers and a regular reference point for the ACT Government as we finalise a new housing strategy this year.


By the same token this field of work is heavily influenced by the values of governments and decision makers.


Housing policy is a contested area and I have some different beliefs to some of the people presenting today.


I believe in more public housing, not less.


I believe that where a market fails to provide for people on low incomes or facing disadvantage it’s on those of us who are more fortunate to intervene.


And this has been the ACT Government’s belief for many years.


But I know full well the limits of what values and beliefs alone can achieve.


Over more than a decade the ACT Government has pulled the policy levers we have to respond to homelessness and maximise housing affordability:

  • we’ve maintained by some margin the highest ratio of public housing in the country
  • the tax reform program replacing stamp duty with a broad-based land tax has moderated house price growth and helped avoid the mayhem of Sydney or Melbourne
  • and we’ve invested heavily in specialist homelessness services to do their amazing work with people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.


On the last point, the recent census data showed the ACT bucking a national trend to reduce our homelessness numbers (by 8.2%) and I take my hat off to the legends who do this work.


But you have to be smart. We know our limits.


In any jurisdiction, particularly a small one like Canberra, the community’s housing experience is subject to things beyond our control:

  • federal tax and immigration policies
  • income trends
  • borrowing and lending practices
  • investment from elsewhere.


So there’s no point burning up every resource we have just to swim a bit longer against the tide.


That’s why in shaping a new housing strategy for the ACT the government is evaluating ten years’ experience and bringing together the learnings from a year-long consultation process, to get the mix right.


(Not that I will stop banging on about the need for federal tax reform to lessen the incentives on investors squeezing out homebuyers anytime soon…)


Towards a new strategy

Those of you in our local housing and homelessness sectors might know that a new housing strategy was a commitment made by ACT Labor at the 2016 election.


At that time I had been housing minister for nearly two years and there was clearly a view in the community to take stock and renew our efforts on homelessness and affordability.


So I’ve set out through this process to explore the many things which affect outcomes in housing and create a framework to address them – giving people choice wherever they are on the housing spectrum and trying to help broaden their horizons.


One thing you get reminded of every time you look at this policy area is how much sits beyond the housing portfolio:

  • tax settings under the Treasurer
  • rental law under the Attorney-General (one of the biggest factors for stable and affordable renting)
  • built form under the Planning Minister.


Luckily in our case all three are tops.


Some of you might also know about the Affordable Housing Action Plan – a policy which has served the ACT well over the last 10 years.


This plan achieved success through acceleration of land release, the introduction of land rent, tax reforms, the provision of sites for public and community housing, and the provision of homelessness support services.


But there are still significant pressures on lower 40% of income earners where Canberra’s higher than average wages can hide and exacerbate the disadvantage they experience.


A new housing strategy will work to bridge those gaps.


It will focus on some key goals:

  • further reducing homelessness
  • strengthening social housing assistance
  • increasing affordable rental housing, and
  • increasing affordable home ownership.


The road to the strategy has been one of the largest community conversations we’ve seen in the ACT. Working with the Affordable Housing Advisory Group, there were 26 different community workshops involving more than 125 organisations and over 340 individuals. 


This led to the Housing and Homelessness Summit in October last year and brought together a wide range of industry, community and government representatives, as well as people with lived experience of homelessness.


And although I’m copping some flack for not having put out a glossy strategy document yet, we have some early initiatives up and running.


The ACT Government now sets annual targets of dedicated affordable, public and community housing to be released from both our infill and greenfield land release program.


Including the housing targets as part of the land release program provides clarity about how many dwellings will be delivered in which areas, providing certainty for developers and for the community.


This requirement is now legislated and I hope that governments long into the future hold themselves to account in this way.


In broader terms the ACT Government continues to release residential land to meet or exceed projected population demand.


And in unit supply we have seen pretty good results.


Prices have been stable for a decade now and, in some cases, are now within affordable purchase price thresholds.


Under the previous Affordable Housing Action Plan, the government had a policy of delivering 20% affordable housing in greenfield areas. While this was effective, it could mean affordable housing was pushed towards the outer urban edge.


The new targets are improving the spread and diversity of affordable housing by ensuring it is embedded in the renewal of existing suburbs as well as the development of new ones.


We have some fine minds advising us on these targets.


Each year’s numbers have to be geared to the capacity of the housing sector to deliver, not least in public and community housing, and our hope is to see growth on both fronts.


At the same time the government has tightened the settings around dedicated affordable homes to make sure houses are purchased by people who need them most.


This has been done through the creation of an Affordable Home Purchase Database.


When we ask the Canberra community to contribute to better housing outcomes by subsidising the sale of public land, I take my responsibility very seriously in making sure there is no profiteering and that the right people benefit.


The other new initiative already up and running is a $1 million innovation fund to support new ways of getting more affordable housing through simpler ways – getting more out of housing design and the way we use the stock we have.


The first year of funding focuses on bringing innovative housing projects seen across the country to Canberra. These include an affordable rental real estate model, similar to HomeGround, a sharing model, similar to HomeShare and a low-profit development model like Nightingale Housing.


I am hopeful that the first year’s projects will make a measurable difference to providing more affordable housing options for the community and that they show themselves to be viable longer term.


Public housing

Before I wrap up I do want to come full circle and assure everyone that public housing and a well-supported specialist homelessness service sector will always be at the heart of my priorities as a minister.


Some people in our community fall into the trap of assuming things about someone who is homeless or who is poor.


They’re offended by someone sleeping in a public space.


Some of my political opponents are offended by the idea of public housing in their neighbourhood.


Luckily our homelessness services don’t judge.


Nor do the amazing people at Housing ACT and in our community housing providers.


The great majority of the community doesn’t.


Anyone who’s chatted to these people knows that each one has their own story.


Usually a couple of life events have tipped them into homelessness and things can snowball from there.


Helping these people fund their own way back into housing and a fair crack at happiness is what will drive our government to keep investing in public housing.


We’re in the home straight of a major renewal program replacing 11% of public housing stock.


The ACT Government maintains the highest proportion of public and community housing stock in Australia – with about 27 dwellings per 1,000 people against a national average of 17.


It’s great to be able to tell you that next week’s ACT Budget will fund the construction of a second dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Older Persons complex.


Following on from the success of the first project in Kambah, it will be culturally appropriate and help tenants age in place.


The government keeps doing these things because of a value set which says they are the right things to do.


But as I said, it’s contested ground… we often have to fight for them.


So I’d urge all of you to keep being champions in your communities for projects like these.


For all of us who have lived in social housing and enjoyed the security that comes a roof over your head today, we know just how important public housing can be to a more equal society.



One of the other statistics of note about public housing in the ACT is that housing is targeted incredibly accurately to the people who need it most.


Last year more than 98% of all new allocations were made to households in greatest need, compared to 74% nationally.


This is seen as ‘efficient’.


But the truth is I’d love nothing more than to see this number go down.


Why? Because it would mean either less people in urgent need of housing or that our social housing stock had grown enough to return to housing people with less acute needs.


There are so many factors which affect someone’s housing experience – plenty of them beyond anyone in this room’s control.


I very much hope that between us we can make sure the chance is there for everyone to get a stable home and a chance at the health and happiness which flows from it.


Thank you again for having me.