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Social Housing paper criticised as out of touch

By Kieran Adair

Ending the year with the release of the Social Housing in NSW discussion paper Minister for Family and Community Services,Gabrielle Upton looks like she’ll be heading into an equally contentious 2015. It follows the controversial sell-off of Millers Point public housing and has already come under criticism from those that fear it encourages further privatisation of the state’s social housing.

The paper suggested the private sector may play a greater role in the future provision of social housing, and considers options for moving residents into the private rental market.The Government has argued these measures are necessary to address the growing gap between the demand and availability of public housing, with waiting lists expanding by an additional 3,500 families since they won office in 2011.

“The simple truth is that the system has failed to keep pace with increased demand and changing demographics,” Minister Upton said.

“We must accept that, despite the best of intentions, the current system fails tenants… One of the main objectives of this government is protecting the vulnerable in our community, which is why we are determined to make improvements to the social housing system.”

However, the paper has drawn the ire of critics who point to the Government’s social housing budget cuts, and recent sell-offs of public housing as proof they are not sincere in addressing the growing housing crisis.

Sophie Cotsis the Shadow Minister for Housing, told reporters that these measures have resulted in 6,000 fewer homes throughout the state.

“The Liberals have cut the budget to build new social housing in half since they came to office, and they have sold more social housing than they have built,”  she said.

The paper has been judged by others not so much for what it includes, but for what it omits. Chris Martin, Senior Policy Officer of the Tenants Union of NSW, wrote on the organisation’s blog that the system and its models should be reassessed.

“Much gets said about the failings of the social housing system; not nearly enough about the failings of the private housing system, and private rental in particular… If the NSW State Government really wants to help those on the waiting list, and make ‘transitioning’ out of social housing a realistic prospect, it must discuss reforming the private rental market too.”

With rent in Sydney amongst the highest in the world, it is feared that moves to transition social housing tenants into the private sector could place them at risk of severe financial stress. According to the 2011 Census 78 per cent of low income households reported paying more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. Further research has shown that three out of four of these households face a ‘constant struggle to pay regular bills’.

Greens Councillor for the City of Sydney and public housing advocate, Irene Doutney said getting people in and out of the system quickly was taking the focus away from solving underlying issues and ignoring problems faced by low income, vulnerable people.

“Every new statement or document that comes out of the Liberal State Government is another nail in the coffin of public housing and government for the well-being of all members of society. The very idea that the private sector which is all about making a profit could manage a complex human services system beggars belief but is the mantra of the Upton ministry.”

“[The paper] makes no comment on how people who can’t afford to live in this unaffordable city now are suddenly going to be able to move from subsidised housing to unaffordable market rent.”

With the waiting list for public housing expected to blow out to 86,000 by 2016 though controversial paper it seeks to address an urgent problem.The discussion paper is the first step toward the Liberal party forming a comprehensive social housing policy, though it is unlikely it will be ready before the March election.

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