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Senator's Statement: Homes for All

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Sep 2017

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Australia has long recognised the importance of universal access to health care and education. It doesn't matter whether you're struggling to make ends meet or you're relatively well-off. We know that in Australia everyone can see a doctor when they're sick and every child can receive an education at a public school, yet in this country, not everyone has the right to have a roof over their head come night time. Can you imagine people visiting the emergency department being asked for a credit card before lifesaving treatment? Can you imagine children being turned away from classrooms if their parents can't pay? There would be outrage—we know that. People would not accept it. Yet this sort of thing happens every day with housing because housing is now a commodity. What that means is that, if you can't pay your rent or your mortgage, you're on a slippery slope that could land you on the streets. We need to change the way we think about housing and reclaim it as a human right.

According to Launch Housing, a lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 cause of homelessness, closely followed by domestic violence. In the context of the marriage equality debate, the Australian Queer Students Network tells us that young LGBTIQ people who have been kicked out of home for being themselves have resorted to sleeping on the streets or couch surfing and even sleeping in classrooms or on the campus. They have no idea who to turn to or who will accept them. According to the Human Rights Commission, potentially one in four young people experiencing homelessness in New South Wales identifies as gay or lesbian. Without adequate funding for research on LGBTIQ youth homelessness in Australia, we have no national data to confirm what experience tells us is happening in large numbers.

It's not enough for governments to shirk from their duty to help these people and shift the burden onto the private sector. We need to recognise that housing is a human right. Everyone has a right to a home. Communities around the world are fighting back against the extreme marketisation of housing, and there are many lessons we can learn. Article 47 of the Spanish constitution states that all people 'have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing'. The Catalan government have put this into practice by introducing laws which prevent evictions when the eviction will result in the occupants becoming homeless. The Catalan government are also empowered to expropriate housing under certain conditions. If properties are vacant due to their state of repair, the government will restore the property and lease it out as public housing. If vacant dwellings are owned by financial institutions where households are at risk of exclusion, the government will temporarily take them over to put them to use.

In Finland, they've discovered that the problem of homelessness is in some ways not that complex. They're simply providing housing to people who need it, unconditionally and with the additional support people need to maintain their housing. It's called 'Housing First'. This approach has reduced the number of crisis beds to fewer than 60 and has significantly reduced the number of people who are homeless. There is an economic benefit. It costs less to simply provide homes for people than to shunt them between crisis beds and waiting lists.

Turning to Britain, the recent election saw progressive parties make big moves towards public and community housing which serves the interests of people, not profits. The Labour Party pledged to build half a million public homes run by councils. For private renters, they promised to push back on the domination of the market by protecting renters from unreasonable price increases. The Greens promised half a million public homes and they promised that those homes would be zero-carbon dwellings. The Greens in Britain are leading the way. Public housing is good for communities and good for the environment, and they have the policies to match.

Returning to Australia, I warmly congratulate the Queensland Greens. They are giving outstanding leadership on the housing issue, that all parties should take note of. They've just launched a proposal for what they're calling 'the Medicare of the 21st century', a huge public housing program that is open to everyone—that's right, with their new Queensland housing trust, there will be no means testing and no income limits. As is the case with public health and education, everyone will be eligible. Surely that should be what we're aiming for. Australia recognises that housing is a human right. That's what we signed up to. We need to get housing on the same level as education and health.

The Queensland Greens plan to build one million homes by 2050, and half of the allocation each year would be allocated to eliminating the current social housing waiting list. You'd have to say it's a crime that 29,000 people in Queensland are waiting for decent housing. The Greens plan is the way to deal with this inequality. Importantly, rent for households would be calculated at either 25 percent of their income, or market rent, whichever is cheaper. Again, this is affordable. We can achieve this. There are practical ways to do it, and it can be delivered to the community and would immediately reduce homelessness numbers. If people took up the option that the Greens are proposing, they would have a lifetime indefinite tenancy. The Queensland housing trust, proposed by the Greens, would have a mandate to ensure that new dwellings are state-of-the-art when it comes to design and environmental sustainability. This program would also investigate ways to democratise housing, such as bringing forward cooperatives and trusts, and management models that would give people more rights and control over their homes and communities because they would have a real say. Surely that is where we should be expanding our democratic practices.

It's not enough to provide band-aid solutions that don't address the real causes of homelessness and don't recognise that housing should be a right, not a privilege. The private housing market must be tamed with a bigger, more vibrant, public and community housing sector. I particularly emphasise that we need to reclaim the words 'public housing'. Public housing once had dignity, but it's been so relegated by successive state governments that it has been damaged. Public housing is an essential part of how housing should be run in this country. We can build a society that provides homes for all, regardless of people's bank balances. We can build a society in which homes are built to serve the needs of people and communities, rather than big banks, property developers and land speculators. Our priority has to be housing for people, not for profit.

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