The Australian Government is developing a National Housing and Homelessness Plan – a 10-year strategy to inform future housing policy in Australia and the first long-term strategy since 1992. Jesuit Social Services recently contributed a submission to the Plan calling for an increase in social housing – with a focus on public housing – and urging the Government to raise the rate of income support and related payments, among other reforms.

The Plan comes as an unprecedented housing crisis grips Australia.  

The gap between the demand for and supply of public and community housing continues to widen, with tenants in the private rental market facing very low vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents, and home ownership becoming increasingly inaccessible for many people. As a result, more people are slipping through the cracks and facing unstable housing, and homelessness.  

The pressure of these issues is felt disproportionately by households on low incomes or income support payments, people experiencing vulnerability, and people with complex needs, such as disability, mental ill-health, substance misuse and experiences with the justice system.  

Over our decades-long history working alongside people pushed to society’s margins, Jesuit Social Services has witnessed firsthand the profound impact safe and stable housing has on a person’s health, wellbeing and agency. 

Our submission to the Plan emphasises the importance of social housing, with a particular focus on public housing. 

Social housing is an umbrella term for public housing, community housing and State Owned and Managed Indigenous Housing (SOMIH) – it is government-subsidised infrastructure, allocated by need. 

Compared to other forms of social housing, public housing is more affordable and offers more secure long-term tenure. Community housing is necessary, but we have observed that it does not meet the needs of most of our participants, or people with complex needs, people on income support payments, on very low incomes, or those at risk of homelessness. 

Yet data from the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW) shows that Australia’s supply of public housing has been steadily declining. In 2011, public housing represented 81 per cent of all social housing. In 2023, it represents only 67 per cent. This change is mostly due to governments selling and transferring public housing stock to community housing providers, despite a public housing waitlist of 174,000 people in 2022. 

Recently there have been several major announcements by governments regarding housing policy, including the passage of the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023, the outcomes of the National Cabinet meeting in August, and Victoria’s Housing Statement. 

In each of these, governments used the terminology ‘social and affordable housing’ to describe future housing policy and funding commitments. Without making a specific mention of public housing there is no guarantee that any of these changes will result in an increase in public housing. 

Other forms of social housing play an essential role, but we believe a specific commitment to public housing is the cornerstone of a just housing system, and should be a focus. 

In addition to our calls for investment in social housing, and public housing in particular, our submission urges the Government to raise the base rate for income support and other related payments. 

The success of the 2020 Coronavirus Supplement and JobKeeper payments demonstrate that an adequate income support rate can reduce homelessness. Homelessness Australia found that when income support payments were doubled during 2020, homelessness dropped by 5% – only to increase again, up 7% from May 2020, when the payments were ended in May 2021. 

The Plan must also ensure that vulnerable populations receive targeted, specialised and holistic support to prevent them becoming homeless. Our own Perry House and Dillon House programs are examples. These programs provide supported accomodation for young people who’ve been involved in the justice system and are at risk of homelessness – the stable base and support they need to develop independent living skills and rebuild their lives. 

Lastly, with the inevitable impacts of the climate emergency, our submission argues that the Plan must implement specific considerations regarding climate and housing, with particular consideration of place-based disadvantage and the impacts of climate change on more vulnerable populations.  

Our Dropping off the Edge 2021 report revealed the interconnected nature of social and ecological disadvantage, finding that many of the most disadvantaged communities across Australia, based on more than 30 unique indicators, are also more likely to experience climate-related challenges such as heat stress and poor air quality. 

Heatwaves are already a greater cause of death in Australia than other natural disasters or weather events, and are only set to worsen. Studies have shown that Australia actually has higher rates of cold climate-related deaths than countries which experience much more extreme cold temperatures, such as Sweden. 

The Plan must also include strategies for prevention of homelessness and displacement as a result of climate change and natural disasters, as well as strategies for emergency response planning for people who are already experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. 

Given the severity of the current housing crisis, and the longstanding need for more strategic direction, we call for the Plan to deliver short-, medium- and long-term objectives that incorporate increased supply of social housing with the services necessary to support vulnerable population groups.  

It must be backed up by new funding commitments and measurable targets to ensure accountability for sustainable change. 

As Australia’s first long-term housing strategy in several decades, the Plan represents important opportunity for reform.