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Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Page: 9197

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (13:50): I would like to speak to the Senate today about the latest release of the Rental Affordability Index, which has been produced by National Shelter and Community Sector Banking. As the name indicates, the Rental Affordability Index gives a snapshot of how affordable or otherwise rental housing is across Australia. Not surprisingly, I'll focus on my home state of Queensland. As to the method used in this and previous reports, I will quote from the report:

It is generally accepted that if housing costs exceed 30 per cent of a low income household’s … gross income, the household is experiencing housing stress—

that is, housing is unaffordable and housing costs consume a disproportionately high amount of housing income.

The Rental Affordability Index uses the 30-per-cent-of-income rule as a benchmark in calculating affordability, and that basically equates to a score of 100 for people who spend about 30 per cent of their income on rent. Once it gets down to a score of about 80, you're looking at severely unaffordable. With a score of 50, you are looking at extremely unaffordable, where people are spending 60 per cent or more of their income on housing. That is a very baseline measure. As I will address in a moment, plenty of other factors can be involved that can indicate that people are in a much more difficult financial situation as a result of the high cost of rental housing.

I should say that, with regard to the national trends and the state based trends, there is some good news in my state of Queensland. There has been a slightly positive trend in affordability of rental housing on average across Queensland since the previous report. Obviously, any improvement is to be welcomed. But, as the report makes clear, it's one thing to say that on average there is a slight improvement on affordability of rental accommodation overall; it's another thing when you move beyond the statistics to the human reality of what so many people, so many Queenslanders, are experiencing from the financial stress they're under in trying to keep a roof over their head.

It's particularly the second part of the report that I encourage people to have a full look at, because it doesn't just give a single statistical average benchmark; it looks at what those figures mean, what the reality of housing costs means for groups in community, particularly people who are on income support, who are on pensions, who are carers, who are unemployed, who are part-time workers, who are students and on student payments, or who are in casual or insecure and low-paid work. As we all know, that is a huge proportion of our community, and it is a growing proportion.

Last week I spoke in this chamber about the latest figures on corporate profits and the continuing, massive growth in those compared with the absolute flatlining when it comes to wages growth—and that's just for people who do have a stable, secure job. For so many others who are in insecure or casual jobs where they are earning different amounts of money from week to week or where they are continually unsure about whether or not they will have a job in a few months time, the situation is so much worse.

If we look at the basic statistical measure for Queensland, you could think, 'Well, it doesn't seem quite so bad in Brisbane.' It's just on the 120 mark for Greater Brisbane, which indicates some degree of unaffordability but not at the extreme level. But when you get into particular areas of Brisbane, or particular parts of regional Queensland, that affordability gets much worse. On top of that, if you look at the reality for people in lower income households, the situation is far more dire, particularly if you look at the example on page 21 of the report of people who are single pensioners—often age pensioners but also people with disabilities on pensions. Their rent as a share of their income in Greater Brisbane on average is 67 per cent—two-thirds of their total income just goes on housing. That is before you get to food, to transport and to medical costs. People with disabilities often have significant other costs. If you're a sole parent, you can have issues in regard to children's health costs, child care, transport, all of those other costs, and yet 67 per cent of your income goes on housing. Similarly, for pensioner couples, it's still 44 per cent in Greater Brisbane and 35 per cent for the rest of Queensland. That's just an average-in some areas of Brisbane and some areas of regional Queensland that proportion is much higher. Let's look at a single person on benefits. People talk about wages flatlining but, if you look at people on the unemployment benefit or other pensions, the cutbacks in pensions have pushed people off pensions and onto allowances, which are much lower. The real value of their benefit has gone down—they have not even kept up with the rate of inflation while, as these reports continue to show, housing costs go higher and higher.

The Greens want to emphasise that we need to put much more focus on reducing the cost of housing, and we can do it. In the state election in Queensland the Greens particularly focused on significant government investment in rebuilding housing stock in the public and community housing area. We can pay for it, if we accept that we will need to raise revenue from others who are not paying their fair share at the moment—and in the housing area that is particularly developers. We have the ridiculous situation where people invest money in a house and just let it sit there, hoping it appreciates in value—they make more profit keeping a house vacant than even renting it in many cases. As I have said previously, there are more vacant houses just in the city of Brisbane than there are homeless people across Queensland. So the market has clearly failed in this regard. The developers and those who reap significant profits purely from investing in housing for asset appreciation need to be paying more, they need to be paying their fair share, and that revenue can be invested directly into housing or it can be a requirement that affordable housing be created as a part of developments. It can be done if the political will is there, and I believe there is a great public appetite for this. We all know the inequality is getting greater. We all know about those not paying their fair share—whether it's the large corporations dodging tax, the mining companies getting royalty holidays or the developers getting windfall profits. That revenue can be raised and redistributed and invested in infrastructure that generates jobs and reduces the cost of housing.

Alongside that, we need to look at all of those other cost-of-living pressures. Public transport costs is another area. The Greens have demonstrated you can pay to reduce public transport costs to make it more affordable for people. Instead of spending a billion dollars to add an extra lane for one kilometre of road so you can transfer the traffic jam from one spot to another one a kilometre further down, you can invest that money and massively drop public transport costs, which would reduce traffic pressures on the roads in any case. You can also more directly invest and reduce costs in energy and in child care. It is a political choice if that is not done.

Alongside that, when we're talking about housing affordability for renters, we cannot avoid the corresponding reality that rental law in most states in Australia is tilted very heavily in favour of the property owner. We are talking about people's homes here. The Greens very much welcome the small changes that were made by the Victorian Labor government, such as changing tenancy laws to give people a more immediate right to have a pet—a pretty simple thing. Pet ownership is very widespread in this country, and all the statistics demonstrate the huge health benefits that it gives, particularly for people who are single, older and lower income. And yet those people who rent often have to pay more for a place simply because many places won't allow that basic right to have a pet, or other basic aspects that enable security in the home. That range of policy measures can be implemented if there is the political will to do it. That is something the Greens are committed to doing—redistributing the income from those who are not paying their fair share, and reforming unjust laws so that people who have insecure housing and insecure jobs get the justice they deserve and get security, whether it is the security of employment or the security of somewhere affordable to live.

The PRESIDENT: It being 2 pm, we will move to questions without notice.