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Growing up poor in Australia: what has happened to public housing?

A good job, like where you get like heaps of money. I’d be like a decent mum, like a husband with no violence and everything, so it could be a happy family, you know, but like that would never happen…

Public housing never used to be the centre of disadvantage. What changed? Dean Lewins

A good job, like where you get like heaps of money. I’d be like a decent mum, like a husband with no violence and everything, so it could be a happy family, you know, but like that would never happen…

Jessica, a 12-year-old from Claymore in Sydney’s south west, is not optimistic about her future. Monday’s Four Corners documentary Growing Up Poor in Modern Australia asked why more wasn’t being done to break the cycle of disadvantage for the children of Australia’s most disadvantaged suburbs. The report focused on five families from Claymore, in south-west Sydney.

A suburb of 3,300 residents, Claymore was built as a public housing estate by Housing NSW in the 1970s. By 2011, it was one of Australia’s poorest suburbs, with a median household income of $588 per week, around half the national average. It was also one of the youngest, with 40% of residents aged under 15, compared to 19% for Australia. But Claymore is not unique. Concentrations of inter-generational disadvantage have developed in public housing estates in all of Australia’s capital cities.

Where does disadvantage come from?

Australia’s public housing has not always been associated with disadvantage.

The Commonwealth established a Housing Commission in 1943, recommending a national target of 80,000 publicly built dwellings per year. The aspiration was to provide workers’ housing to support Australia’s industrial development.

Most of this housing was initially built in large estates on the edge of our cities. In NSW, large estates were built in the 1960s, such as Mount Druitt with 32,000 people in 8,000 properties. This golden era of mass public housing had come to an end when Claymore was completed in the 1970s. By 1978, the Commonwealth had greatly reduced the amount of funding for building and maintaining public housing. The result of dwindling funds was a shift in the role of public housing, from a mainstream option to marginal sector with a highly disadvantaged tenant base. By 2006, around 90% of tenants were either on welfare benefits or experiencing some other form of social deprivation.

A market solution?

Faced with ageing housing stock, disadvantaged tenants, and growing waiting lists, Australia’s government housing agencies have turned to the private market.

By offering housing vouchers in the form of Commonwealth Rent Assistance, they have looked to private landlords to house many of Australia’s poorest people. And they have looked to private property developers to fund the renewal of their housing estates through policies branded as “social mix”.

Social mix solutions have been pursued since the 1980s in Australia. They can be achieved by selling public housing dwellings to tenants or on the private market, or by building new privately-owned dwellings in the neighbourhood in partnership with a property developer. The latter strategy has been the most popular. As the Four Corners documentary showed, such a project was underway in Claymore, with almost all of the existing public dwellings earmarked for demolition. These would be replaced with 1,300 new dwellings. About 70% of them would be sold to private buyers with the remainder returned to public housing tenants.

Who benefits, at whose cost?

The benefits of these social mix policies - by reducing concentrations of public housing – are said to be wide ranging, delivering improvements in economic, social welfare and health. These include a more vibrant local economy, reduced anti-social behaviour and less stigma. However, the evidence for these claimed benefits is less than convincing.

The economic benefits for government receive less attention, but are arguably much more significant. By getting private property developers to partially fund the redevelopment of their decaying housing stock, housing agencies can get a return on their only real asset – land – and address an overwhelming maintenance backlog.

At Bonnyrigg in Sydney for example, the $733 million redevelopment of the public housing estate by Becton (a private developer) and Housing NSW has replaced 833 public housing dwellings with 2,330 new dwellings. Only 699 of the new dwellings have been retained as public housing. The development has been rebranded as “Newleaf”.

Social mix solutions, while attractive to government, impose costs on the tenants of public housing. In Claymore, only 99 houses have been demolished to date and the project is has now stalled after a change of state government. As reported on Four Corners, “residents now say maintenance on their homes has almost ceased and there are houses all over the suburb boarded up and empty”.

Research has also pointed to unintended negative consequences of social mix policy. Moving residents temporarily or permanently out of their neighbourhood during redevelopment can be disruptive to social networks and children’s schooling. Reducing public housing supply at a time where public housing waiting lists are at record levels (56,000 in NSW and 37,000 in VIC) also comes at a large social cost, with high-needs households pushed into the under-regulated private rental market.

A non-market solution

The stagnation of public housing funding has led to concentrations of some of our most vulnerable people in Australia’s outer-suburbs, as illustrated by the children of Claymore. Social mix policies that break up these concentrations of housing may only relocate this disadvantage, rather than address it.

A non-market alternative is to inject funds into the ailing public housing sector. If public housing numbers were increased through significant investment, the selection criteria could be broadened to allow a much wider base of tenants. This would start to “normalise” public housing, returning it to its original intent as a mainstream affordable option for Australians.

For governments struggling to just maintain existing levels of public housing stock however, harvesting land value by allowing private market development of their assets seems to be the only solution - whatever the cost.

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35 Comments sorted by

  1. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    It is disappointing that this analysis has not considered the large numbers of public housing that is located in up-market areas, including hundreds with Sydney Harbour views.
    When public housing is regarded as a lottery that makes some big winners while leaving without others without anything, perhaps it is more important to consider recycling tenants rather than recycling housing.
    Also not considered was the relative age of public vs private housing in similar areas.

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      How would you go about recycling those public housing tennants Phillip? Something along the lines of composting, or blood & bone fertilizer perhaps?

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    2. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      People who are underpaying rents should be moved out of public housing. Similarly people who damage public property should be moved out.
      It is well-known that many public housing areas have expensive, late model cars owned by tenants.
      http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/national/public-housing-rent-dodgers-to-have-welfare-payments-docked-under-new-state-government-plan/story-fndo2iwh-1226465758159
      The aim should be to maximize the number of people who are assisted, especially families who have fallen on hard times, people looking after children with disabilities, the elderly, the mentally inadequate rather than those who can most effectively abuse the system.

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    3. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      A really trivial attempt to trivialise the issue. Philip is in any case confusing the aim with the exception. I invite Philip to extend this touching concern for high standards of conduct to condemning theft and fraud by, for instance, first home vendor grant claimants.

      Since 2008 the NSW State Revenue Office has reclaimed grants from more than 1100 applicants for failing to meet the eligibility criteria and rejected more than 800 false claims, successfully prosecuted 19 offenders and as at…

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    4. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Your rambling comment is off-topic.

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    5. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Your dismissive non-answer neither adds anything useful to the issue, nor answers my request. If the supposed frauds of one category or resident are an issue, then so are the frauds of another. As it is, the comparatively wealthy are all too often excused and forgiven for behaviour that in the case of less advantaged people would receive harsh criticism.

      I repeat my invitation to you to extend this touching concern for high standards of conduct to condemning theft and fraud by, for instance…

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    6. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      I trust that expressing idiosyncratic views has some cathartic value for you. At least one person reads it. However it is still off-topic.

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    7. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      "Off- topic"? Housing entitlement and housing fraud? - that you raised? There doesn't seem overmuch agitated discussion to be confused by any excursions, "off-topic" or on-topic. I trust that expressing idiosyncratic views has some cathartic value for you. I note your reluctance to discuss any issues following your ad hominem attack on public housing tenants.

      Public housing stock has declined in the past decade, even though demand has been increasing. Indeed, social housing declined from…

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    8. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      In most cases rental payments are already deducted by Centrelink before any moneys are paid to the welfare recipient. This has nothing to do with state governments. There may be some people who have found ways to rort the system in one way or another but that happens with any system where money is involved. I don't want to get into another argument with you Phillip as it is a fruitless exercise but I will try explain how the poverty trap can see welfare recipients driving new cars when they live…

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    9. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      "Over the last generation, social housing has decreased from 9% to just over 4% of the housing market in WA, while home ownership levels have increased." Given that WA has been experiencing a long term boom, I would have been extremely concerned if social housing had NOT experienced this decline.
      I have argued that public housing is appropriate for people who "have complex needs or are entering public housing at a time of significant crisis in their lives." It is not so clear that aggregating…

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    10. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      There are more public housing properties in North Sydney than in Claymore. The Mort Bay Housing Project hardly fits into your model of disadvantage.
      I am well aware of the mechanisms of poverty traps.
      I read and understood Tobacco Road in my callow youth.

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    11. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Entirely fair and useful comment, which example I trust that such as Philip will in time follow.

      We need to end negative gearing, end the capital gains tax subsidy, end for First Home Vendors Grant, and spend ALL the money saved on State public housing. Naturally Big Property would be furious,

      Blaming the "offender" is something of a blood sport, since patterns of behaviour are obviously influenced by one's circumstances. Blaming consumers for bad choices is even more dishonest, since the…

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    12. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Then you acknowledge the reality of poverty traps, which is a start. Why doesn't the Mort Bay Housing Project fits into that model of disadvantage? Sydney Harbour views?

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    13. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Sydney Harbour views as payoff for handing out election flyers. One of the smaller "perks" of office.

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    14. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Only a febrile mind, would consider that I have not expressed concern for poverty traps. My concern is that some want to keep building more and better poverty traps.

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    15. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      To have "high-needs households pushed into the under-regulated private rental market" is exactly the aim of Big Property and the Hard Right governments that it owns. It is exploitative and damging to the renters, but is highly profitable to Big Property.

      Only a febrile mind, would consider that affordable accomodation (public housing) will create a poverty trap whereas unaffordable rentals (private housing) won't. I note Philip's impressively consistent record of hostility to any form of public housing, and Philip's impressively consistent record of denigration of any who support it.

      Government housing policy has for a long time been to subsidise the provision of private rental and owner accommodation rather than fund a meaningful quantity of public housing. On the contrary, the provision of public housing should be a central role. Negative gearing should be abolished, with the savings being spent entirely on public housing.

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    16. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Could you please explain this "Big Property" construct? I am not familiar with the concept.

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    17. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Now why does that not surprise me, Philip?

      One manifestation of Big Property are the industry trolls, who closely monitor discussion forums like this one (and certainly all property-specific discussion forums) to (1) praise the Big Property industry and (2) suppress critics and criticism of it by the methods typically used by denialists (one being to make comments and ask questions that explain nothing and lead nowhere, another being to blame the complainant). They will either be paid hands of…

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    18. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      There's a lot of 'money' to be made and lost in property and there are some big speculators but far more small speculators. They all have one thing in common and that is, they all need to 'finance' those speculations in some way, so when you follow the money, it leads back to the banksters. (suprise, suprise)

      The 'big four' are the major lenders in Australia and they tend to dictate interest rates these days. Our guvmint is loathe to do anything too dramatic that might affect property values as that is one of the major national (and personal) yardsticks we use to measure our economic well-being. So guvmint* is complicit with banks in this housing shortfall and adds further financial stress on the lives of the poor by continuing to do less with more.

      (*when we get a real government (how long Lord?) then I will use the word government but what we have on offer now does not deserve that title)

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    19. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Thank you for your response. It says it all.

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    20. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      A woman of my acquaintance is a social worker employed by Qld Health with an income of over $80k PA. She has been living in public housing for well over 10 years, since she started as a "single mum", with a child of 6. She staged a break-in at her previous residence to have a reason to "jump the queue" (lack of security causing her to be scared) and was in a public 3-bedroom home within 8 months of applying. Some people wait several years. Since moving in she has had the Housing Commission fit full…

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    21. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      When I raised the issue of relatively more substantial First-Home-Vendor fraud, you deemed it "off-topic". A highly self-serving separation.

      You clearly choose not to be aware of the unaffordability of WA housing for middle-class mainstream WA families (not an individual but a two-wage-earner household). They aren't people with particular problems - except unaffordable housing. Aggregating people with such problems into public rental would be an enormously valuable remedy, giving them stability - not having to fear any loss of income, illness, injury, separation, etc.

      I note that you appear deeply opposed to housing being a universal social right rather than an exploitable commodity.

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    22. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to account deleted

      This is a classic case, repeated all too often. The insider, with knowledge of every trick, exploiting the taxpayer while those more needy and/or with more pride are left to fend for themselves.

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    23. Tony P Grant

      Neo-Mort

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Off topic myself but who could forget those Queenslanders and the many "fraudulent claims for disaster relief?

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    24. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Tony P Grant

      Who could forget those Queenslanders and the many genuine "claims for disaster relief? Except the politicians.

      Notwithstanding the semi-official images of mateship, ignoring (sometimes even blaming) the victims of disasters is common, to avoid any inconvenience to our personal convenience and obsession with private property rights. Good temporary accommodation would have been a big big help after such disasters, both financially and psychologically.

      Yet, as crises such as the 2011 floods…

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    25. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      But it takes us nowhere. If you really want massive reward for brazen criminality, become an international banker.

      Could we have a sense of perspective, please.

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  2. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    A long-overdue contribution on an issue being criminally neglected by politicians (owned by Big Property as many are) and the media (making massive money from Property Liftouts as they do).

    Affordable housing and other such issues deserves far more focus than it is getting. A place to call home may not be as titillating as some of the material that appears on The Conversation and The Drum, but is a far more fundamental issue.

    To publicise the VERY BIG ISSUE of the cost of housing is to raise…

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    1. Greg Wood

      Energy Consultant

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      "Obviously they'll want their asset-rich parents to act as guarantor."

      Or they'll become increasingly eager more keen to turn off the life support, or be 'creative' with the geriatric parent's power of attorney, as the time and opportunity arrives.

      Ultimately an overly competitive society will consume itself. Already it's looking well moth-eaten.

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  3. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Lucy

    I suggest your article does a good job at dealing with the subject, but not of the context.

    The questions and issues you raise are but the outcome of the ideological transition in the Australian nation over the past few decades from Social Democracy to Market Liberalism (or Neoliberalism, rational economics, etc.).

    The rise and rise of Social Democracy witnessed a great interest in social equality - however manifest.

    In many respects, as Fukuyama implied, Social Democracy was the…

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  4. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    I am lead to believe that across Sydney the are thousands of unoccupied houses and units etc.
    Whether or not this is so, there is certainly a vast amount of unoccupied commercial space that changes in society have rendered obsolete.

    Unoccupied property, of any sort is a cost to the community regardless of who owns it. Making it simple, the owner of a property empty or idle ought be notified that they have 12 months to have the property productively occupied. At that point the government ought…

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Quite right - but don't expect Big Property to have anything to say on that one!

      Note that the 2006 census found that 10% of all dwellings were unoccupied. Unoccupied dwellings in Victoria increased by 70% between 1981 and 2006. One cause is said to be Asian investors preferring to rely on capital gain rather than be bothered with rental income. Obviously if a dwelling is bought as a safe haven for their money, rather like gold, they are even less likely to use it as a dwelling, for anyone…

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  5. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    Rental domestic properties are always a social burden upon the community as dwellers lack that direct personal fiscal investment within that community.
    The focus should always be upon promoting home ownership. So low cost, low profit government developments with assisted purchasing schemes to get people into dwellings they are contributing to and in greater and greater part they own over time, regardless of their income.
    The focus being to make them part of that community, to create the idea of personal investment, to give them access to some reward over time.
    This reward due to the nature of assistance the government would retain significant control over to ensure those person are not preyed upon by financiers seeking to gain those properties through usury credit schemes.

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      This patronising and simplistic view is neither accurate nor realistic.

      Yet again we see this artificial and unnecessarily divisive partition of society into the upright (the home-buyers) and the untrustworthy (renters). Yet again this capitalist, materialist obsession - people are worthy not according to their moral stature but according to the extent of their commodity-money possessions. Robert concludes with a warning against the natural inclination of capitalists to exploit such people, when that is inevitably exactly the sort of mentality such approaches are designed to create.

      How, pray tell, is the average person to become a homeowner given that the average dwelling in any capital city is unaffordable for them?

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  6. John Kelmar

    Small Business Consultant

    Houses at Bonnyrigg are costing $315,000 each, but if the Government encouraged more development in the country towns, then the cost could be halved.

    In the 1950's in Melbourne, migrants were in Nissan Huts near the Aspro Factory. Whilst these were basic, they provided a roof and some comfort, which enabled the occupants to begin their life in Australia.

    If you just provide the basics, then there is greater incentive to improve one's lot by working harder to earn sufficient money to move into better lodgings. At 22 I had five jobs at the one time - one main day job, two cleaning jobs (morning & evening), a photography job, and I leased a home and sublet it as a boarding house. My wage was three times the basic wage, and gave me a better lifestyle as a result of hard work.

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  7. Chloe Adams

    writer

    Where does disadvantage come from?
    There is the polite and erudite answer, the one that doesn't fully place blame on the government's shoulders and there is the real answer, which involves government incompetence and their need to maintain social divisions. There is no particular government to blame here, it's the system. The same type of disadvantage back then still exists and will continue to exist for as long as we follow a system that exists to maintain the upper social strata.
    I grew up in…

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