Doorstop Interview – Coffs Harbour – Thursday 29 April 2021


SUBJECTS: Housing crisis on the Mid-North Coast; Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot; need for Government to invest in social housing in the Budget.

JOURNALIST: Jason, we’re here outside Pete’s Place. Why are you here today?

JASON CLARE MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: There’s a housing crisis here in Coffs Harbour and right across the north coast. Over the last few months, rents have gone through the roof and it’s almost impossible to find a place to rent. In the last 12 months, rents have gone up on average by about 20 per cent, and the rental vacancy rates dropped from about three per cent down to now around one point three per cent. In some parts, it’s even lower than that. That means that a lot of people are doing it tough, a lot of people are struggling to pay higher rent bills, a lot of people are just struggling to find a place to rent, a lot more people find themselves on the street, homeless, without a roof over their head.

Today, a report came out from Anglicare, the Rental Affordability Snapshot, and it shows just how dire the situation is right across the country. In particular, here on the Mid-North Coast which shows that we’ve got a rental crisis making it harder and harder for people to find a place to live.

It’s always been hard to find an affordable place to rent if you’re on the pension or if you’re if you’re on JobSeeker. But what this report today shows is that if you’re a mum and dad of two young kids, both with a job working full-time on the minimum wage, the number of homes to live in that are affordable has plummeted here in Coffs Harbour. Last year, there were about 21 per cent of homes that you could afford if you were two parents both working on a minimum wage. That’s now dropped to about 12 per cent. That’s massive. That has a big impact here in the local community. It means that you’ve got to pay more for rent, it means you’ve got less money to put food on the table for the kids and that means more people are struggling.

There’s no simple solution or single thing that governments can do to fix this, but they can start by working together. Federal government, state government, local governments all working together. We’ve got a Federal Budget coming in two weeks’ time in Canberra. One thing the Federal Government should do is put more money into building more social and affordable housing. If they do that, it can put a roof over the head of more people here in Coffs where they’re doing it pretty tough.

JOURNALIST: I read a part of that Anglicare report, I think in the conclusion, it said something like ‘the government working together, they proved they can work together quite well given what happened last year with the pandemic’, but I mentioned before my experience, a lot of people I’ve interviewed just say it’s a local government issue or it’s a state government issue. What’s your comments on that?

CLARE: It’s everyone’s issue. You don’t have a healthy community if everyone doesn’t have a roof over their head or if you’re paying bills that are so high you can’t afford to put food on the table. The Federal Government says it’s the state government’s issue, state governments say it’s the local government’s issue. But the fact is, things are getting worse, not better. That means that we’ve all got to pull together here and if we don’t do that, then things aren’t going to change.

JOURNALIST: We’ve talked about this a lot, I think everyone’s pretty aware of the issues and this report probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a lot of people such as Anna. What’s the answer? What do we need to do?

CLARE: A minute ago you talked about what we did achieve last year in the middle of a pandemic. We were able to scoop up about 40,000 people right across the country who’d been sleeping in parks or living in cars or on trains and put them into empty hotel and motel rooms. The tragedy is that many of those people are now back on the street. We should have used that opportunity last year to find transitional and permanent accommodation for more of those desperate Aussies that need our help. I called for that last year. I said you’ve got National Cabinet dealing with crisis issues here. One of the things that should have been looked at last year is putting a roof over the head of people in the middle of a pandemic. It took the virus to show us that we can do something about this, but as the virus goes, we need to make sure that we provide permanent accommodation for those people. There’s a little bit of that in different states, different programs designed to help, but as I travel around the country, I find that a lot of the people who were living in hotels and motels last year are living on the street this year.

How do you fix it? One of the things the Federal Government should do is invest more in building more housing – providing homes for the homeless, for social housing, more affordable housing. Last year the Government put $100 billion of new money into infrastructure. This is all welcome, but not one extra cent was allocated for social housing. They need to do that in the Federal Budget in two weeks.

JOURNALIST: This is from the report, “we have also found that government actions have not matched the scale of the crisis”. In my experience of local level, I haven’t seen much change or much happen. Would you agree?

CLARE: What you’ve seen change is how much it costs to rent. I heard one story today about a person who’d been paying $600 a week for a place for 10 years, always paying the rent and then told to get out unless they’re prepared to pay $1,000 a week. That’s what’s changing. One of the things that changed over the last 12 months is a lot of people left Sydney and moved to Coffs, or moved to the South Coast or moved to Byron, and that means that there’s more people here and there’s fewer homes to rent.

Politicians have been talking for a long time about how do we get more people to move to the regions. Last year that happened overnight, and the infrastructure and the services, the houses, haven’t kept up with that. I’m not saying you can fix it straight away, but we’ve got a Budget in two weeks’ time. One thing that the Government can do, the Federal Government and the state governments, is build more housing. Because we need it, and we’re going to need it.

JOURNALIST: Homelessness has always been an issue. I think it’s becoming a lot more of a public issue and also hitting people, like you mentioned before. Double income families unable to afford rent.

CLARE: That’s right. The stereotype of a person experiencing homelessness is often the middle aged or older bloke laying on a park bench with a bottle of grog in a brown paper bag. That’s not the reality. The biggest group of homeless people in Australia are mums and kids fleeing domestic violence and last year 10,000 mums and kids fleeing domestic violence, often in the middle of the night, were turned away from refuges because there wasn’t a bed. The fastest growing group of homeless are older women, people in their 50s and 60s, people like our mums and aunties. That’s homelessness in Australia at the moment. One in 10 people sleeping rough in a park tonight in Sydney will be a veteran. Someone who has marched on Anzac Day last week sleeping in the park now.

Australia is getting a better idea about what homelessness looks like. We’ve got a census in August which will measure that again. The last census told us there’s more people who are homeless today than ever before. We should be trying to make sure that if people find themselves homeless, that it’s as short and as brief as possible, and it’s not reoccurring. The only way to do that is not just to have crisis services, that you desperately need and don’t have enough of, but permanent housing and more of it.

We also need the wraparound services. I went to a place called Common Ground in Brisbane last week. It was funded and built by the Rudd Labor Government 10 years ago during the GFC. It provides affordable housing but also housing for chronic long-term homelessness. A lot of people who live there today have been living there for about 10 years. It provides a roof over their head. But it also has a medical centre on the ground floor, and the impact of that has been that the number of psychotic episodes, the number of admissions to hospital, the number of people arrested and gone through the system has dropped. It costs more to do nothing about homelessness than it does to do something to fix it.

JOURNALIST: You’ve come to speak to local stakeholders, people like Anna. What’s come out of the conversations you’ve had so far today?

CLARE: Anna has told me what I expected to hear and that is the things are getting harder here. There are more people that need help than ever before, more people sleeping rough, more people can’t afford to pay the rent, more people being told to pay up or get out. And I’ve heard that story not just here in Coffs Harbour but on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, but on the South Coast of New South Wales as well. They do a fantastic job. I can see it by wandering around and looking at the services that you provide. I was glad to hear that Oz Harvest are here to help as well. I’m sort of part of the extended family, my wife works there, and to be able to see the work that a charity like that does working in concert with you is really important.

The challenge is we need more services like this because the need is still getting bigger. As the population grows, if the housing doesn’t grow with it, and if the services don’t grow with it, then there’s a lot of people who go without. Last year showed that we can come together, we can work together as a country to fix the greatest challenges and homelessness is one of those. Do we want to be the sort of country where we say it’s okay just to let people sleep on the street?

I talked about veterans – one in 10 people sleeping on the street in Sydney is a veteran. We train these people, we send them off to war, we tell them to put their lives at risk, and then when they leave the service, we just wipe our hands of them. That’s not the sort of country we are.

ANNA SCOTT, SERVICE MANAGER OF PETE’S PLACE COFFS HARBOUR: Well said. What I would like to say is thank you. You actually heard what you were trying to say.

JOURNALIST: Jason’s come to speak to you today. What have you been talking about?

SCOTT: We’ve been letting Jason know what we’re seeing on the ground. He has an awareness that we have a housing crisis across our whole country, but that Coffs Harbour is really feeling the brunt of that. So, we’ve been sharing some of the stories, some of the stats that we’ve been seeing, and the impact of the lack of available rentals.

JOURNALIST: The Anglicare (Rental Affordability) Snapshot report. Are you surprised?

SCOTT: Sadly, no. Were you?


SCOTT: Unfortunately, it was sent to me and I said that I’m not even surprised. I think I was saddened, and I think it showed in black and white, the reality of what we’re seeing every day on the ground. There are no affordable rentals, so we cannot move people out the other side of homelessness right now. It’s just not an option. We’re putting people in entrenched poverty and we’re seeing that every day.

JOURNALIST: What are your thoughts? You work with the youth so what are your thoughts in regard to the snapshot?

JOHNSON: I was so upset when I read it. Anna sent it to me this morning, and I’m looking at it and I’m going “oh my god, this is so true”. It really upset me because it’s hard enough for people to get accommodation, but it’s 10 times harder for the youth. I was mentioning before my staff are getting demoralised, because they’re not actually finding that exit places for our young people who are leaving the refuge, to go have their own place, the stability and having their own place, their own roof. Because the minimum even for share-house rooms is going up to $300 a week, which is not affordable on the grounds.

JOURNALIST: Anna, when you have conversations with people like Jason, and when you see these sort of reports coming out that are quite shocking, in a weird way, does it give you comfort that this might mean the start of some major action?

SCOTT: I hope so. We’ve been calling for a long time for more social housing and I was pleased to see Jason can echo that today. He also believes that that’s the route that we need to go down. We can’t have a strong community unless we have a safe stable place for people from which to grow and flourish.