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Thursday, 25 October 2018
Page: 11141


Mr CREWTHER (Dunkley) (11:46): The provision of shelter for any human being and their families, whether in Australia or around the world, is a vital part of people being in control of their lives. It brings safety and a sense of belonging. While the provision of housing is very much a state government matter, it is important that we as a federal government do everything we can to put downward pressure on housing affordability and to ensure that this is possible. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill 2017 will help low-income earners avoid the rental arrears spiral. The government's amendments in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability) Bill will make changes to, firstly, the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme and, secondly, the National Rental Affordability Scheme to address issues raised through the Senate committee inquiry and with the states and territories.

The Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme will enable rent and utilities to be deducted from welfare payments for occupants living in social housing. There has been an extensive consultation process with state and territory governments and the social housing sector. The committee's inquiry into the bill received 32 submissions and heard from eight witnesses as part of the public hearing. The Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme will be limited to rent and utilities only. Arrears incurred due to suspension of an income support payment will not be deducted from a single payment when the payment recommences. Ministers from participating jurisdictions will write to the Minister for Families and Social Services outlining the social housing policies in each state and territory. Welfare recipients will have their social housing deductions paid directly to their social housing provider and then receive the remainder of their social security or family assistance payments. Welfare recipients will not be able to change or cancel the deductions without the social housing provider's knowledge, which they are able to be do under the current voluntary Rent Deduction Scheme.

There have been concerns from all levels of government and the community about evictions from social housing due to rental arrears, which can result in homelessness. These changes will help prevent arrears and reduce evictions and property abandonments from social housing in a managed and affordable way. Importantly, it will also help to reduce the incidences of people going into a situation of homelessness. We have seen the impact of homelessness for people not only in my community but across Victoria, where I'm based, and across Australia. Where people fall out of the system, they often end up in a situation of moving from house to house and in other situations can end up on the street as well. We have many organisations in my electorate, such as the Seaford Housing Action Coalition and Community Support Frankston, providing the necessary support to people who may be homeless and may be in need. In particular, it is important through this bill and the actions we are taking to prevent these situations arising in the first place. While a cure is very important—and I've worked locally to re-secure a homeless meals service back in Frankston as well as to secure funding recently for a local hot shower for those who are homeless and those who are in need—it is important that we take further action, such as via this bill, to prevent those situations arising in the first place.

Going further around the content of this amendment bill: social housing lessors in participating states and territories can choose to use the Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme. However, they will be required to submit individual requests for each tenant they intend to use the scheme with. Tenants will only be subject to the scheme when they have entered into an agreement with a lessor authorising such deductions. State and territories estimate that the social housing system is losing more than $30 million each year in unpaid rent and administrative costs. This places an unnecessary and additional burden on the already financially strained social housing system. The Automatic Rent Deduction Scheme will work alongside government funded financial counselling and other financial support services to ensure welfare recipients continue to be housed safely and affordably whilst sustaining their tenancy.

The government amendments to the bill also allow the National Rental Affordability Scheme regulations to empower the secretary of the Department of Social Services to grant dispensation from the '20 per cent less than market rent' rule where a particular charge for rent is higher than the maximum permissible through inadvertence and the tenant has been compensated for the mistake. The department has consulted with National Rental Affordability Scheme stakeholders to identify ways to improve the administration of this system and reduce the regulatory burden on approved participants. Over 30 submissions were received, with a range of suggestions on how the legislative framework for the National Rental Affordability Scheme could be streamlined to support the efficient and effective administration of the system going forward.

The object of this system is to encourage large-scale investment in housing so as to increase the supply of affordable rental dwellings and reduce rental costs for low- and moderate-income households. To accomplish this, the National Rental Affordability Scheme provides approved participants with a financial incentive for a period of 10 years to rent dwellings to eligible tenants—low- to middle-income earners—at a rate of at least 20 per cent below the market rate. The National Rental Affordability Scheme Act requires the regulations under it to prescribe that the rent charged for an approved rental dwelling must be at least 20 per cent less than the market rent at all times during the year. The term 'at all times during the year' has been subject to conflicting interpretations over the years. This bill removes the prescriptive nature of the current vacancy provisions to allow greater flexibility for the National Rental Affordability Scheme regulations to prescribe permitted vacancy periods. The bill also inserts provisions into the National Rental Affordability Scheme Act to provide express legislative authority for the regulations to vary conditions of allocation and to put it beyond doubt that conditions may be varied or imposed after an allocation has been made. These provisions will reduce the risk to the Commonwealth when varying or imposing new conditions on existing allocations to address emerging risks.

The ability to substitute dwellings is crucial to achieving the National Rental Affordability Scheme's objective of increasing the supply of affordable rental dwellings. I am pleased that the Minister for Families and Social Services, the cabinet and others within our government—and I know that this issue is supported across the chamber as well—have worked together to ensure that we are taking action with respect to housing affordability. This bill will help people to avoid homelessness to begin with. I continue to work in my electorate to advocate for people who are homeless and those who are in need. We must take a preventive approach to this, not just an approach once people are already in that situation. Let's continue to work together, along with the states and territories across Australia, to not only further improve the social housing stock across Australia but also take action to assist those who are in need to avoid homelessness in the first place.