Social housing back to the dark ages

Housing Minister Mick de Brenni’s proposal to exclude not-for-profits from the social housing sector, takes Queensland’s public housing, and with it, unfortunately, its tenants, back to the dark ages, and runs counter to the modernising trends in Labor and good economic sense.

Minister de Brenni must have missed the memo from federal leader Bill Shorten that the socialist objective is “as useful as a 100-year-old street directory”, and been absent from cabinet when Deputy Premier Jackie Trad was hatching her plan to privatise huge swathes of government landholdings.

And he’s forgotten the parlous position of state finances, with debt on an upward trajectory, and the state owned electricity assets that were supposed to be paying it back generating more red ink than profitable electrons.

What’s more it appears to be contrary to his own Department’s Working together for better housing and sustainable communities a three month consultation started in March, which now, seven months later, has yet to report.

A government-owned and managed housing sector may have made sense in 1945 when the Queensland Housing Commission was first set up to deal with a housing shortage caused by World War II, but it makes little sense now.

For years the system has been failing its tenants and society under government stewardship.

The sector has always been plagued by long waiting lists (currently around 15,000), high costs, poor maintenance and a lack of innovation.

To eliminate the waiting list would cost upwards of $5bn, money that the state simply does not have, and if it did, it would put it into other infrastructure.

It has led to too much of our asset base being tied-up, looking after only a fraction of the people who need help, while other, more efficient and effective means are neglected.

The best thing that could be done is for most of the public housing sector to be sold-off to its tenants – that was an approach adopted by Robert Menzies and Margaret Thatcher, and implicit in the rental subsidy policies adopted by federal Labor when Brian Howe was the minister.

The second best is that management and ownership be transferred to entities, like not-for-profit Community Housing Providers, that can manage and maintain the stock, advance the well-being of the residents, raise the capital, and provide more innovative and flexible solutions.

This is the path favoured by the overwhelming number of those organisations who made written submissions to the department’s consultation.

There were 89 submissions, and a survey shows that 55% addressed the issue of the involvement of the private and not-for-profit sectors in social housing, and 100% of those were in favour of it in some form.

The Logan Renewal Initiative, which the minister has canned for “ideological reasons”, is a text book case of what private and non-for-profit involvement can do.

It would have returned $1bn worth of assets (including $400m from the federal government) for an all-up state investment of around $300m.

The 4,900 housing commission houses in Woodridge would have been maintained and up-graded, and another 1,565 added to the stock – sufficient to meet the projected welfare needs in the area for the next 20 years.

In addition affordable houses would be produced and sold off, and the commission houses integrated into the community, rather than staying in standalone precincts, as they are today.

So the current tenants are better off, with a landlord that actually maintains their dwellings. Future tenants are taken off the waiting list and housed. Other Queenslanders get a house they can afford, and never go near the government sector at all.

And all this happens without the state government having to put its hand in its pocket to see what loose change may still be there, having escaped the ravages of Curtis Pitt.

Economist Deirdre McCloskey makes the point that the major reason that free markets work better than the alternative is not that they are more efficient, but that they are more innovative.

Anyone with an eye for real estate can walk down the streets of Brisbane and easily spot the dead Stalinist hand of public housing architecture, from the identical three-bedders on quarter acre blocks in Inala or Carina through to the red brick six packs in tin and timber inner suburbs.

They are nothing like some of the ideas that come up from the private sector in the department’s own consultation, which often use existing housing stock, integrating tenants into vibrant communities.

For example the submission from LJ Hooker details a number of housing solutions making use of unused bedrooms in existing larger properties, inserting granny flats into backyards, or building blocks of units with shared facilities but individual ensuited bedrooms and living areas for multiple tenants.

By excluding the private and not-for-profit sector from the ownership and management of social housing de Brenni is guaranteeing the perpetuation of one-size-fits-all, cold-as-charity, inadequate collectivist solutions that might have made sense in the aftermath of war but have failed us in the 70 years since.

And to whose benefit? Certainly not those of the tenants, or the taxpayers. And it appears that his own department does not even agree with him.