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Opening address, Powerhousing Australia Conference, Melbourne, Vic

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Mark Butler


Speech by The Hon Mark Butler MP

Opening address, Powerhousing Australia Conference, Melbourne, Vic 10 May 2013

Location: Melbourne

Thanks everyone for inviting me to be with you today. It’s a really great opportunity to talk to

you, the members of PowerHousing, about the future of housing policy and particularly the

role of the community housing sector. I’ve already, in a relatively short time as Minister for

Housing and Homelessness, had a chance to meet a number of members of this organisation.

I’ve really appreciated the openness with which you’ve welcomed me and talked to me about

your product and what’s working really well and some things that perhaps do need some

tweaking to make sure that we get the most out of our community housing and social housing


It’s a real pleasure to spend a little bit of time talking about our views around the future of

housing, because I think increasingly people are coming to recognise that there’s probably no

other area of policy or politics more central to the health of our society than housing. It is

perhaps the most fundamental of human rights - beyond water and food - the right to have a

roof over your head, to have a place to call home. And for a country that aims, always, to be a

fairer, more egalitarian society, housing policy will obviously always be a central element of

the national policy discussion.

Recently, there has been a much needed shift to a philosophy nationally of housing first,

including the decision some years ago to lift homelessness to be an issue of national priority,

an issue of national focus, not just a secondary issue for national politics. But we also know

that in addition to being a fundamental human right, housing or access to good affordable

housing that is secure is a profound driver of economic participation and economic

productivity. Workers having access to affordable housing near their work, or at the very

least near transport hubs, is absolutely essential to growing the economic productivity and the

economic prosperity of the nation. And as we know, that really was the main motivator

behind the decisions in the mid part of the last century - earlier in some states - to establish

public housing commissions, to provide affordable housing to working families.

Today, though, we know that the social housing challenge is far more complex than the

challenges that were being faced by state governments in the mid-part of the last century. We

know too well that demand is rising very, very quickly for social housing. This is being

impacted by a number of factors, largely in the private economy. We know that housing

affordability, whether it’s houses for purchase or houses for rent within the private rental

market, housing affordability has been under pressure now for at least a decade. I’m very

pleased that over the last eight quarters we’ve seen the HIA-CBA Housing Affordability

Index improve eight quarters in a row. That is still off a very high base of affordability

conditions that go back to a whole range of very difficult economic challenges around the

housing bubble, which has impacted every rich economy in the world since 2000 or 2001.

Although we’re making ground in this area, there is very strong pressure, in a demand sense

on social housing because of the conditions out in the private housing market, no matter how

they’ve improved over the last several quarters.

There are also demand pressures because of demographic changes, particularly in the area

that I have a particular interest in; the ageing of the population. As people start to go into

retirement with lower rates of homeownership, we’re seeing the pressure on the social

housing market starting to increase. With the retirement of the baby boomer generation and

the trends we’re seeing in home ownership rates of the generation aged 55 and up, I think

we’re going to see continuing increases in the pressure on the social housing market just

through the ageing of the population.

We also know that while demand has been rising for some time, supply has been declining

for many years. The traditional supply of social housing through public housing commissions

has been in steady decline for some time. That has largely been masked in the last three or

four years through the social housing stimulus which I will address later. However, there is

no indication at the moment that State Governments will reverse that decline in public

housing stock anytime soon.

We also know that social housing needs to respond to the requirements of an increasingly

diverse cohort of the Australian population than was the case during the mid-part of the last

century when the State Governments were setting up the commissions for working families.

We know that this is a diverse population that increasingly require a range of supports

beyond just a roof over their head. They also need supports that really have little to do with

housing such as mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, facilitating connections with

employment, education and training and the like.

The conference themes of partnership and sustainability are really timely, given that very

challenging backdrop. I wanted to talk in particular about the partnership theme because I

know it’s a very strong ethos of your organisation. I think it’s fair to say that given the

historical picture of social housing, which has been dominated by the Public Housing

Commission at the state level, that partnership has not been a strong feature in the past. It

particularly has not been a strong feature of public housing. Traditionally, the public housing

model has largely been something that the State Government provides, unilaterally. There

have been tenancy associations and such like in public housing systems, but they have not

been anything like what I’ve seen in the community housing sector. We do need more

partnership because of the complexity that I’ve discussed today. You know better than me

that the community housing sector or the non-government social housing sector is very well

placed to drive those partnerships on different levels, a few of which I want to discuss next.

Being a politician and a minister, the most obvious level of partnership is between your sector

and the Government; not just the Commonwealth Government but state governments and

local councils as well. There is the capacity for your member organisations to partner with

other organisations including not-for-profit and commercial companies to achieve many

goals. Your organisations’ capacity to find ways of leveraging capital to explore expansion

opportunities through pooling different areas of expertise is immense. Against the backdrop

of complexity I’ve talked about, your existing and potential tenants have a range of diverse

needs. The opportunities you discover and take advantage of to partner with organisations

that have different areas of expertise to meet the diverse needs of your tenants, I think is a

particularly strong feature of the community housing sector. What it allows you to do is not

just to deliver better service, but also for the capital leveraging opportunities to deliver more

services. We’ve seen that as your Chair indicated through the expansion in your sector over

recent years in addition to those traditional housing organisations or commercial

organisations that work in this sector.

What we’ve also seen in community housing is partnership with quite different service

organisations. As I’ve said we know that a roof over the head, a place to call home, is a most

fundamental human right. Although it’s essential, we also know now it is often not adequate

or sufficient in and of itself. People in social housing increasingly do require tenancy support

services; they do require some help connecting to employment, education and training. They

need help connecting their children, if tenants are families, to local schooling arrangements.

They often, as I said earlier, need help connecting to mental health services, to drug and

alcohol services and the like. I think this is something the community housing sector has a

particular skill at delivering.

I know a number of your members provide these services in-house. For those who don’t, or

provide some of those services in house, you are showing a particular skill at connecting with

service providers who can deliver them. We’re trying to facilitate those partnerships through

programs like Partners in Recovery, for example, to bring those relationships together more

and more, and to provide funding streams that operate on the basis of those relationships


The last partnership, but certainly not the least important I think marks community housing

out from public housing is partnering with tenants themselves. I think this has not been a

strong feature of public housing which has tended to operate on a one-way relationship basis

where the Government provides you with housing. But it is an important element of our

ambition, not just to provide a roof over the head, but to provide a home. I know that’s a

strong theme of your organisation and your members.

For example, the sort of conversations that I saw happening with Evolve when I visited their

new headquarters in Parramatta and I met with a number of members of their Tenants

Council is something you just don’t see in the public housing sector, and I think something

that really adds value to the bricks and mortar and the range of other support services that

you’re able to provide. By giving that sense of dignity to tenants; that sense of ownership of

the space to make it more than a house, to make it a home, I think that’s something your

sector should be particularly proud of.

I do want to say a few things about your partnership with the Commonwealth Government

over recent years because it really has been highly effective against a backdrop of very

significant investment on our part. As you know, our housing agenda has been an active one.

It’s been an assertive one, and it has been one backed with very significant amounts of


In the area of homelessness pre-GFC, we decided to lift the Commonwealth’s effort in this

area to make it a national priority policy. Not only to expand services in the way that we

have, but also to provide significant capital funding, largely through the Place to Call Home

Program. This has allowed your organisations and a range of others to come up with really

innovative models; the Common Ground model, the Ladder project and a whole range of

others which really do lift the bar in what we’ve commonly understood as accommodation

arrangements for people moving out of homelessness. So I’ve very proud of these

achievements; it’s been through partnerships with organisations like yours that we’ve been

able to achieve a lot of those ambitions.

Obviously the biggest expansion of social housing in our history has been through the Social

Housing Initiative as part of the stimulus package, a very strong feature of our partnership.

As you know we’ve built almost 20,000 new units and we’ve remediated about 80,000

additional units, many of which were largely uninhabitable before the repairs and

maintenance element of that program. What has been particularly notable about that initiative

is that we’ve achieved, very easily frankly, our ambition for 75 per cent of those new

dwellings to be managed by community housing organisations. Many of the States and

Territories are telling us they’ll not only meet that target of 75% but they’ll exceed it. Your

Chair talked about the increase in asset base that your members have been able to experience

over recent years. A lot of that is through our ambition to ensure that three quarters of that

went to the community housing sector.

That operates against a backdrop of course of the Housing Ministers agreeing some years ago

now to aim for 35 per cent of the social housing stock to be owned by the community housing

sector by the middle of next year. That has been a more mixed picture although we’ve seen

some really encouraging indications particularly from the New South Wales Government

recently about stock transfers which involve some of your members as well.

I think the Queensland Government’s announcements stand in some contrast to the New

South Wales Government which is talking about a genuine stock transfer. Whereas it seems,

although we need to read this a little bit more closely, that the Queensland Government is

talking a bit more about retaining the asset while outsourcing the management of that asset,

which really doesn’t give the sort of leveraging opportunities that we had in mind when we

came to that agreement some years ago.

But, where we’re at is still far short of that 35 per cent figure. When that decision was taken,

less than 10 per cent of the social housing stock was owned by the community housing

sector. We’re now up to around 16 per cent, which as you will see, is well short of 35 per

cent. However, it is heading in the right direction and I think the more encouragement we can

give to governments like New South Wales, who I think are doing the right thing, the better

for all of us.

The last area of partnership I quickly wanted to talk about, which is a little bit topical at the

moment, is NRAS - the National Rental Affordability Scheme. As you know, the community

housing sector has been very active in this area in terms of this program. One of the great

things I’ve been able to see is the innovation coming from a lot of your members to develop

mixed use arrangements that connect some of the social housing capital with some of the

NRAS capital, and really think innovatively about how you could do this with mixed tenancy,

sometimes also including some private for purchase arrangements in the same setting. NRAS

obviously meets a particular challenge that we have in the private rental market, but it is

again adding value to what we’re doing more directly than the social housing space, to allow

innovation and to allow your organisations to expand your portfolios.

As you know we’ve got a couple of things now open. The shovel-ready round that I

announced a few weeks ago after the Ministerial Council is still open. A thousand incentives

are out in the market to be delivered by middle of next year, which is pretty ambitious. But

there’s been a very significant level of interest there from governments, from the housing

industry, and also from community housing providers.

Partly, in the broader market sense partly because some parts of Australia, for example in my

own state of South Australia, are experiencing softness in housing construction. Yesterday,

Haven, one of your member organisations, was good enough to host me down in Geelong

officially to open Round 5 yesterday which, as you know, is open for about three months in

August. The arrangements for those applications are on the website. We’ve been working

pretty hard to streamline some of those arrangements to allow them to be done electronically

rather than through paper. There has been an extraordinary amount of interest, having read

the property press over the last several weeks, an extraordinary level of interest from some

quite different areas which have been a bit tentative about NRAS in the past but are now

quite interested in the scheme. We suspect this Round will be significantly oversubscribed as

Round 4 was.

Can I say in closing just a couple of things about the sector in general? One of the real

strengths of community housing is its diversity. You’ve got 750 organisations that are in

control of a little more than 60,000 dwellings, and the sector is about as diverse as you can

imagine. As you know there are very small organisations, and there are very large

organisations, many of them represented in this room.

There are very local organisations that really just work in a part of a capital city, or in a

particular region, and there are national organisations, again many of them represented in this

room. Being able to continue to support that diversity is a real strength, and something I think

the Government would like to see continue.

There is no question that this organisation is incredibly important. The collective of this

organisation, in a domestic sense, is incredibly important from the Government’s point of

view. Your 27 organisations which hold, as your Chair said, more than half of the total stock

held by 750 organisations, provide real ballast - provide real critical mass in this area to be

able to innovate, to be able to expand, to be able to work across the country rather than just in

one small part of the country.

I want to congratulate the people who drove the idea of bringing together an organisation like

PowerHousing. I also want to congratulate you in developing the international relationships

that you have, because there are some good ideas overseas as well that we can learn from.

As your Chair said, that balance, that capacity for innovation, that capacity to leverage new

ideas and new capital means that you really have been at the forefront of the expansion in

community housing. Your assets have increased by almost 60 per cent - just in your 27

member organisations, in the last couple of years. I think that gives you a fantastic platform

to be able to continue to respond to some of the challenges I’ve tried to outline; such as the

complexity, the rising demand, the continual decline in the supply in the traditional Public

Housing Commission.

I really hope that over the next couple of days you get the opportunity to talk about some of

those things that you’re doing well, learn from other organisations and be able to show off a

bit of what you’re doing very well as well. It’s been a great pleasure to open your conference.

Thank you very much.