Thursday, July 26, 2007

(Affordable) Housing Wars

What's really good is that - despite the Government's obvious cynicism in suddenly becoming a keen supporter of the provision of low-income housing- both sides of politics are now treating affordable housing very seriously.

Today's Labor Summit on Housing Affordability at Parliament House was a magnificent meeting of the minds. I was impressed.

Here's my story for tomorrow's paper:

The 50-year old Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement is dead.

The Families and Community Services Minister Mal Brough yesterday threw open to tender the $1 billion in housing grants the Commonwealth hands to the states and territories each year under the Agreement, inviting the private sector, the not-for-profit sector and major builders to compete for the money if they thought they could use it better.

He said that despite $10 billion in Commonwealth housing grants paid to the states over the last decade there were now fewer public houses in the states and territories than there were ten years ago.

His sentiments were echoed by participants in the Labor Party’s National Housing Affordability Summit underway in Parliament House who described the 50-year old agreement as complex and in need of reform...

The summit discussed new ways of funding affordable housing involving both the private and the public sectors working together to create large scale quality housing developments without the stigma attached to public housing.

Closing the summit the Labor leader Kevin Rudd spoke of the need to streamline the development process saying he had been shocked to discover that one council in Sydney took six months to approve applications and another charged developers an extra $11,000 per new block to fund the provision of library books.

He said that the Commonwealth and the states and local authorities had to work together to synchronise the roll-out of large scale new housing and the associated infrastructure. He would draw up a new agreement with the premiers, chief ministers and the Local Government Association within months of taking office.

He would also appoint Australia’s first Commonwealth Minister for Housing, most probably to be known as the Minister for Housing Affordability and would consider giving that post Cabinet rank. The Minister would be supported by a new National Housing Supply Research Council which would produce an annual state of supply report.

“For too long there has been a problem of declining housing affordability and for too long the debate has been characterised by a blame game,” he said. “It is time we brought that to a stop”.

“The whole purpose of us forming the next government if we are so elected is to do things, not just be there. When it comes to housing affordability it is out intention to make a real difference. It is for us a core part of dealing with the future challenges facing this country. Literally millions of Australians are depending on us.”

The Labor leader listened attentively to every one of the more than 20 speakers at the Summit - among them state ministers, developers, economists and financiers - at times them questions about what they thought he should do if he was in government. He said there would be censorship in what anyone had to say and that he wanted a “walk on the wild side”.

Only one suggestion met with his explicit disapproval. The Managing Director of Meriton Apartments Harry Triguboff suggested that the Reserve Bank impose a two-year moratorium on further interest rate hikes. Mr Rudd said he was “not taken” with the proposal.

The Convenor Australians for Affordable Housing David Imber congratulated Labor for organizing the summit but said afterwards that it was now up to Mr Rudd to deliver concrete proposals before the election.

The Government’s Mal Brough signaled further announcements before the election saying he wanted developers and non-government organisations to present him with proposals for the use of the grants presently allocated to the states by September 28.