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Empowering residents: address, Association to Resource Co-operative Housing (ARCH), Annual General Meeting, NSW, 25 October 2000

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Empowering Residents Anthony Albanese - Parliamentary Secretary for Housing

Address - Association To Resource Co-operative Housing (ARCH), Annual General Meeting - NSW - 25 October 2000

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Check Against Delivery

I am delighted to be speaking today at ARCH's Annual General Meeting. Anyone interested in social housing provision cannot help but be drawn to the co-operative housing model. Co-operative housing in many circumstances provides what is often so elusive for other social housing providers - secure affordable housing in an environment where tenants feel empowered.

However elusive, the mix achieved by many housing co-ops should be the ultimate aim of housing policy makers. Indeed, there are many lessons that these policy makers are already learning from the community and co-operative housing sector. Lessons that not only make social housing more attractive for tenants but also allow for a more sensitive and co-ordinated approach between government and community housing providers within the social housing sector.

So what are the challenges facing social housing provision in Australia?

Since becoming Labor's Parliamentary Secretary for Housing, I have travelled around Australia speaking to community housing groups, peak non-government housing bodies, state government housing departments and so on.

What struck me about this process was the realisation that across the states, the problems faced by the social housing sector are pretty similar. Of course in some states, such as Victoria under Jeff Kennett, the problems were only made worse by the policies of draconian right wing governments. However, across the board I heard pretty similar stories about the issues facing the provision of social housing in Australia.

Issues such as how to remedy the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s, when public housing meant matchbox style skyscrapers, with no open space or privacy. State Housing departments are also facing the legacy of many years of under-funding for maintenance and a lack of new housing stock. As social housing has become increasingly targeted, governments have had to deal with the concept of "welfare" housing and the concentration of extreme poverty and disadvantage in one area.

A lot of these problems are caused at their core by a chronic lack of funding. The brutal cuts the Howard government has made to the CSHA, have not helped matters at all.

Labor in its National Platform has therefore pledged its support for the continued existence of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement.

These agreements will develop "Commonwealth State Housing Agreements which ensure

funds are available to increase social housing stock and upgrade social housing which has fallen below acceptable standards, through direct funds for construction and for rental subsidies to ensure housing is affordable for low income private and social housing."

The Platform pledges "growth in public and community housing based on a national assessment of need," and to "expand the range and supply of secure, affordable and appropriate housing."

It is a Platform very much committed to the social housing sector and to continued and expanded public funding of that sector.

However, as you know, it is not just about extra funding. It is also about finding ways for residents to have some control over their housing choices, and the environment in which they live.

This is how you move from the mere provision of housing infrastructure to the creation of independently functioning and self driven communities.

Labor's emphasis throughout its Housing Platform is on community empowerment, giving ordinary people more control over their lives and circumstances. Whether this is to empower the community against abuse by large owners of private capital or against the alienation often caused by large, unwieldy bureaucracies, Labor is committed to providing programs that restore some autonomy and control to local communities.

Some of the most exciting developments I have seen recently was when my colleague Mark Latham organised for me to visit both the Argyle Community Housing project in Claymore, and the Hill Project team in Minto.

Claymore, as I am sure you aware, is a community housing project in Sydney's south west that has undergone a near miraculous transformation since the Department of Housing first transferred a small number of properties to Argyle Community Housing to trial manage in October 1995.

Argyle staff moved into one of the vacant properties in the street and set up a permanent on-site management office. Brian Murnane, who heads up the project, believes this was a crucial decision as it meant regular contact was made with tenants, and minor repairs and maintenance issues could be dealt with within 24 hours of the initial complaint. This established a trust between Argyle staff and residents.

Most importantly however, tenants were encouraged to get actively involved in their neighbourhood. What started as regular clean ups of the street, evolved into regular social activities and the transformation of the Reserve behind the houses into a community garden. The Reserve is now safe and accessible for children and managed by the resident controlled Reserve Management Committee.

The Department of Housing acknowledged the progress of Argyle Housing and has instituted similar practices in a number of public housing estates around the state. I visited the Hill Project in Minto, and was again enormously impressed by the success of the intensive tenancy management program being run there.

The Management office, again located in one of the spare houses, has become akin to a community centre with residents dropping by often just for a cup of tea and a gossip.

Residents have undertaken a Mural Project, which had the multiple aims of removing unsightly graffiti, providing local children with a fun and supervised after-school activity and beautifying a public pathway. A working co-operative in lawns and cleaning is being established as is a furniture recycling co-operative which is run in conjunction with the Franciscan friars and the Housing Communities Assistance program.

Like Claymore, the changes in the physical appearance of this Minto neighbourhood and the morale of its residents are close to miraculous.

At the crux of these 'community renewal' initiatives is a belief in resident involvement and participation. People only care about their local community once they feel they have a genuine stake in it. Once they feel that their opinions matter and will be listened to.

Local tenants at both Claymore and Minto were interviewed and found to be more than happy with the new ethos. They said and I quote:

We are the ones who have made the difference." ●

"Proctor Way used to be the worst street, now it is the best street. People help each other out. ●

"It feels like a neighbourhood. This is our home." ●

"We actually know our neighbours now. The whole street is beautiful and everyone is looking after their home. ●

What I find interesting is that the comments from residents of both Claymore and Minto are very similar to the comments residents of housing co-operatives make about their immediate communities. On ARCH's website is a great quote from Mark Stephen of Haven Co-Housing, a co-operative for members of the community with a physical disability. Mr Stephen says:

I am a third generation recipient of social housing. I am the first one in my family where the housing has been built to meet my needs, not just provide me with a roof over my head. This was done through involvement in the design and now in the self-management of the housing.


What is really exciting about the community renewal initiatives currently coming from the NSW Department of Housing, is that there are now resources being provided for projects that recognise the reality that those in the community and co-operative housing sector have known for years. That good social housing policy acknowledges that people need to have some sense of control and autonomy over their own lives.

Labor believes in policies that provide Australian families with more choice about how and where they live, not less. Importantly however, more choice and more autonomy does not mean Labor believes Australian families can do it on their own.

Unlike the Government, who believe in divisive "survival of the fittest" policies, Labor believes communities need public infrastructure and capital support. Labor wants to involve people in decision making about their communities, but does not believe that parks, roads, public transport and neighbourhood centres are built by community spirit alone.

Government support combined with local involvement - this is the cornerstone of Labor's notion of community empowerment.

There is no such thing as housing policy in a vacuum. Housing policy has to be seen as part of a much broader social justice strategy.

This means linking housing initiatives to employment initiatives. Ensuring that with any new housing development comes investment in infrastructure, in transport, in accessible community facilities.

In recognition of these points the Platform supports "facilitating employment opportunities for tenants in public housing estates through TAFE training, maintenance work and management." It also stresses the importance of "integrating community family services programs into public housing policies."

However, as strongly as Labor believes in the public provision of affordable housing, it also recognises that public housing is not the be all and end all of progressive housing policy.

For the first time in decades, home ownership in Australia has fallen below 70%, and public housing levels still only number between 5 and 6% of the housing market.

Changes to family structures and patterns, changes in the nature of the labour market and changes to savings, with growth in superannuation in particular, are just some of the factors which have meant that Australia has changed a lot since the Menzies era where the quarter acre block was every Australian's dream.

An increasing number of Australians are renting privately as public housing waiting lists lengthen and the Australian goal of owning your own home becomes increasingly illusory. For more and more people, the private rental market is not just a "stop-gap" measure between leaving home and buying your own home, it is a permanent life-long proposition.

At the National Conference I moved a resolution for the establishment of "a committee of inquiry to examine the emerging problems in financing the supply of affordable housing in the home ownership, private rental and public and community housing sectors. On the basis of its findings the committee will recommend appropriate measures to Government that would improve access to affordable housing for Australian households."

Labor will monitor the effectiveness of rent assistance in addressing housing affordability. It will "evaluate the contribution of relevant housing assistance and taxation policies in improving housing outcomes for low income consumers" and it will especially monitor "the impact of the GST on rents in the private rental market, making appropriate modifications to housing assistance policies to adequately compensate private tenants for losses incurred as a result of the tax."

The rising numbers of private renters means that more than ever, tough national tenancy legislation is required. The Platform pledges that Labor will, as a condition of funding under the CSHA, force state and territory governments to comply with national tenancy standards designed to protect tenants' rights. These standards will ensure that tenants' rights are protected in relation to matters such as eviction, unfair rents, repairs and maintenance, quality of rental accommodation, appeals and bond security.

These amendments to the Platform are an important victory for private tenants in Australia.

The Platform supports the development and implementation of a National Indigenous Housing Strategy. It is important that this strategy recognise the needs of indigenous housing policy, taking into account employment needs and the need for cultural compatibility.

The actions of the NSW State Government in establishing the Aboriginal Housing Office provides a model for other governments to follow.

The Platform has, for the first time, added a section specifically on Youth Homelessness. Labor supports the implementation of a National Youth Housing Strategy, similar to that commissioned under the previous Federal Labor Government.

Labor is committed to providing proper pathways for homeless people to move out of supported accommodation and into permanent housing. Labor will ensure that housing programs have clear and planned links with the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program. We also want to explore housing programs that have the flexibility to offer a range of housing options suited to those at imminent risk or chronic risk of homelessness.

Labor will also review the allocation of Rent Assistance payments to young people in receipt of youth allowance, as part of its commitment to improving rental subsidies for young people.

Those who work at the "coal face" of the sector know intimately the impact that various Government funding decisions and programs have on the communities they serve. It is this intimate knowledge that is needed to properly direct housing policy in this country. Your input into the Labor Party's policy making process is therefore vital and very much appreciated.

We are facing many hurdles - public housing that is increasingly welfare housing, private renters with no genuine protection from unscrupulous landlords, and fewer and fewer Australians being able to buy their own home and thus take out insurance against poverty in their old age. However, all of these hurdles can be ameliorated with the right policies and a genuine commitment to change.

The current government has shown no interest in developing housing policy. This is exemplified by its failure to mention housing in successive budgets and its dismissal of housing as almost a footnote in the Welfare Review. This could be seen as an astonishing oversight if it wasn't for the fact that such an omission is entirely consistent with the government's overall attitude to issues of social justice.

It would appear that the only growth in housing this government is committed to is capital funding to build detention centres for refugees. At a time when state governments are crying out for money to meet the maintenance costs of their public housing stock, Australia's most famous public housing tenant, who has houses at both Kirribilli and the Lodge, has spent over $1.5 million on restoration work for the two mansions.

This Prime Minister would do well if he was able to extend this public spending philosophy to some of the less well off public housing tenants in Australia. But he is not interested.

Labor believes that peak housing sector groups have an enormous contribution to make to the debate surrounding housing policy in Australia. Our National Platform committed Labor

to ensuring that peak bodies are properly resourced.

Labor continues to be committed to the creation of a more equal society, one where every Australian can live decently, in affordable, permanent and good quality housing, as part of a cohesive community. I believe the philosophy of co-operatives is in accordance with that vision.

Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.