Interview with Josh Szeps – ABC Sydney Drive – Wednesday 19 May 2021


SUBJECT: Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund.
JOSH SZEPS, HOST: Do you know anyone who’s looking for a house? Do you know that, you might have heard some news about the Sydney property market, it’s going a bit crazy. But what about housing for people who don’t have $2 million to their name? Could we find a way of making sure that everyone who lives in Sydney regardless of their means, is able to have a decent roof over their head? Well, the Federal Labor Government is proposing to create a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund to build social housing and affordable housing, which they say is going to create jobs and build homes and change lives. To discuss it, I’m joined by Jack de Groot, the CEO of Vincent de Paul Society of New South Wales, and Jason Clare, who’s the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, who’s responsible for this push. Thanks to both of you for being here.


SZEPS: Jack, what’s the state at the moment of housing in Sydney, of social housing?

JACK DE GROOT, CEO OF ST VINCENT DE PAUL NSW: We really have extraordinary crisis here in Sydney and throughout the state, we have 51,000 households in New South Wales, that’s about 103,000 people, on the whitelist for social housing. Some of those people are waiting for up to 10 years. If you’re on a really low income, less than one per cent of the rental stock in New South Wales in Sydney, is affordable too. So, we need a vast investment in social and affordable housing, to actually get people housed, give them an opportunity, give them a sense of home, and so that they can participate in employment, get better health outcomes. The announcement by Federal Labor of this $10 billion fund is actually something we do need. This investment, we need a partnership with Vinnies, with federal government, state government to address the homelessness and housing shortage.

SZEPS: When you say that there’s that shortage that people are waiting for so long for housing to become available, where is that stock coming from when it is becoming available?

DE GROOT: Well, the problem is, it’s not becoming available would be the first thing, Josh.

SZEPS: Put it this way, if I’ve been waiting for eight years, and finally something becomes available, where is that thing coming?

DE GROOT: It’s coming from state government. However, the state government, at times, has made some really creative, innovative investments. One in New South Wales Vinnies is part of is the $1.1 billion Social and Affordable Housing Fact. In the last three years, Vinnies has built 502 brand new units of housing, all now completed on time under budget, and now housing 502 households, and that housing will be available for the next 25 years for people on low or very low incomes. So, what we need is those sorts of investments and partnerships that means it is possible for new housing to come along. One of the things that state government also has a challenge to do is actually replenish and renew the stock. It’s all very well selling off Miller’s Point in by the harbor-side in Sydney, but actually, all the proceeds have to go directly back into public housing provision. Those dollars are very hard to trace. We’ve seen the story on the serious building over the weekend, has all of that money gone into public housing? So, it’s renewal of the current, of what the stock New South Wales Government has, but also adding to it. We’re 50,000 houses short, we need the state government to do 5000 new houses each year for the next decade.

SZEPS: And where geographically is that going to take place? 

DE GROOT: It needs to go across the whole state. Today, Jason Clare and I were in Lilyfield, we’ve been in Merrylands, we have new stock in Dubbo, we have it in Albury, 12 sites across the state. And that’s what state government, in partnership with the feds, need to deliver – a whole off state, whole of nation, solution to the housing crisis we face.

SZEPS: That’s Jack de Groot who runs the St Vincent de Paul Society of New South Wales and Jason Clare is the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness. Jason, thanks for being here. Isn’t this a state responsibility?

CLARE: It’s both. It always has been. Think about those big investments that the Chifley Government made into housing after World War Two. Think about the big investments under Whitlam. Think about the big investments that were made during the GFC building more social housing and repairing social housing. It has always been a partnership between the federal government and state government, but more is needed. If we live in a country now where there’s more people homeless than ever before, and that’s a fact, if we’re living in a country where more people are struggling to pay the rent than ever before, and it’s always been hard to get an affordable place to rent if you’re on the pension or if you’re on unemployment benefits, but now, if you’ve got a mum and dad on the minimum wage with two kids, there is there’s fewer and fewer places to rent, then that should tell us something. The federal government needs to play a bigger role here. We need a bit of national leadership if we’re going to make cities more affordable to live in, and not just cities, Josh. Jack, you mentioned the regions, a lot of people have left Sydney because the COVID and rents are going up at a faster rate in places like Wollongong, the South Coast, Coffs Harbour, Byron, right around the state, than ever before. I’m running into people who are telling me there’s 40 or 50 people lined up to rent one place. This is a story from Coffs Harbour two weeks ago, and the person who ended up getting the place to rent had to pay the rent 12 months in advance and get a personal loan to pay it. That’s what’s happening right now.

SZEPS: It’s easy to throw around big numbers, especially when you’re in Opposition, and say, “if we were in power, we’d be spending this”. What would you be spending the $10 billion on?

CLARE: It’s $10 billion that’s invested and the dividend, or the return, that it makes is invested in building social housing, and building affordable housing, so that’s the key point. Rather than spending $10 billion of taxpayer’s money, what we’re doing is making money, investing it in the future fund and using that return to build more social housing. Jack just mentioned the New South Wales StateGovernment scheme, that’s a billion-dollar fund that makes money and then they build 3400 homes with that. Think about this as doing the same thing, but 10 times as large – a $10 billion fund that allows us, using the returns on that investment, to build 20,000 social housing homes of which we’ve said we’d carve out 4000 for mums and kids fleeing domestic violence. One of the things that happened last year, Josh was that 10,000 mums and kids fleeing violence got turned away from refugees because there wasn’t a bed. Refuges are pretty full at the moment, feedback I get from people in the sector is they haven’t seen that this bad in 30 years, and people are forced to stay longer in refuges because there isn’t the long term housing to go to. So, we’ve got to put more money into those crisis services, like refuges, and that’s what this fund will do, but we also need to put more money into the long term permanent housing for people fleeing violence, and this fund would allow us to fund 4000 of those that’s about 1.6, $1.7 billion worth of housing for mums and kids, getting them out of those violent situations.

SZEPS: Jack, you mentioned the selloff of some of those public housing, which is in expensive locations with the view to be able to put that money to better use in places where housing is more affordable. Is that a strategy that you condone?

DE GROOT: As long as we can trace the dollars, yes. So, the social affordable housing (interrupted)

SZEPS: Can’t you do that on the back of a napkin sort of, metaphorically? You sort of know what the houses nearby have sold for, you can deduce roughly what they got for it.

DE GROOT: We can, but it would be far better for government to be very transparent. 

SZEPS: Transparency in Government? What a cute idea.

DE GROOT: But one of the other ways of doing this, which is the basis of the New South Wales social affordable housing fund, when the poles and wires business was sold off, we with other organisations, lobbied Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian at the time and said, why don’t you put aside a billion dollars for social and affordable housing from the proceeds of the poles and wires. That’s what the government then did. It’s allowed the investment in 3000 new houses. It’s allowed charities to come to the table with government, with land ourselves taking loans, to actually build this and make sure it’s available for the decades ahead. So housing is, for all of us, a multi decade commitment. I think the imagination that was there at that time in the polls and wires, and we just created the Social and Affordable Housing Fund in New South Wales, is something that can be scaled up across the nation. And so, this $10 billion announcement, it really is saying we need to put our shoulder to the wheel on this issue, to meet the housing crisis and shortage throughout the nation.

SZEPS: On the text line, Jack, Clair writes in saying “can your guest please explain the difference between social and affordable housing?”.

DE GROOT: Social housing usually is for people on very low incomes, government support, and they often will have a rental contribution by the Commonwealth Government. Affordable housing are those people who are in jobs, but still on a low income where they’re struggling to afford the general market, and so what we do is limit the payment that they make to 30 per cent of their income, and so that allows them to actually budget more clearly, to hold down their jobs, get on with their own, I suppose economic participation and wellbeing, and that we want to see these people graduate into the private rental market. That’s what we want to see from very low income, very dependent, very needy, members of our community through to social and sustainable housing, then out into the private rental market. So often with social housing, we’re also putting wraparound supports to those tenants. So if they’ve got issues around health, issues around mental health, addictions, domestic violence, as Jason was referring to before, so it’s not just a housing solution alone that we need for people on low incomes, because there’s often a great deal of vulnerability, it’s to actually wraparound support to those tenants.

SZEPS: We’re speaking to Jack de Groot who’s the CEO of the St. Vincent DePaul society here in New South Wales, and Jason Clare who’s the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, because federal Labor has announced a $10 billion commitment to social housing. Also, on the text line, a couple of texts for you, I’ll put them to you, Jack. One person writes “Josh, my daughter has recently divorced with two children under 10 years old, she’s desperately looking to rent. But despite her excellent references, professional job, and meticulous presentation, she can’t get a place to rent. She’s inspected dozens, agents are choosing singles and couples, but not single parents with kids. Help. Advice please,” and another person writes, “Are there programs in place to help people get out of social housing to free them up for people in crisis? There are many instances of generations of families living in housing without the skills to change this”.

DE GROOT: So, this is the nature of the scale and the complexity of the problem. We have a real shortage of housing. That’s why the market affordability is sort of saying you have to pay more. And that means people like that single mum with two kids, still got a good job, but is struggling on a minimum wage to actually get access housing. So, first part, put more housing that is affordable into the community. There are organisations like Vinnies who people can come to and say, “I need help accessing affordable housing”, but we still need a lot more investment. You text writer in regard to how do we graduate people out of social affordable housing makes a really important point. We at Vinnies don’t want people to be with us for the rest of their lives. Some people will be. We’ll have some people with very complex health needs, or disability, with very low incomes, and the opportunity for them to have enough income to afford the private rental market is unlikely. But most of our people actually move through and out into the private rental market. That’s why we put these wraparound support programs that help them deal with the domestic violence, the budget counselling, accessing medical supports, making sure that, not only are they job ready, but be able to assist with employment, and even solve issues of difficulty in the workplace. They do become independent. A housing first program is really important that you actually have the buildings for people to make home, but it’s also that wraparound support, which is what we do here in New South Wales, and I think what Jason’s proposing in the partnership with both state and community organisations, is to actually get a sustainable solution so people move out of the social housing and those who are still in need have their needs met.

SZEPS: Jason Clare, just put your headphones on, if you wouldn’t mind, because I’ve got a call and I think it’s an interesting one. I would say about three quarters of the texts that I’m getting are about the affordability of housing in general for people on low and middle incomes, not just for people who need social and affordable housing, and that’s given us a call from Killara. G’day, Matt.

MATT FROM KILLARA (CALLER): Yeah, g’day. I just wanted to say I think that it’s very valuable to have social and community housing and that sort of thing. But I’d like the debate, also, in addition to what your speaker is saying, to be broadened out to improve the whole rental housing sector, and to really reorient this whole property culture that we have in Sydney, in Australia. In places like the Netherlands, there’s really strong cooperative housing sector and that’s not necessarily impoverished people who are living there. I was just saying to your producer, when I was married, we had a couple of small kids and we were in a flat in Epping and we got kicked out after six months because the owner thought like painting the place or something , and we had the go scrounging around for some other place to move to and move all our stuff. In Europe, they’ve got things like 10-year leases and just a whole different culture around rental. In addition to what your speaker saying, I’d like that to be reoriented.

SZEPS: Matt, thanks for your call. I just want the Shadow Minister to be able to respond to that. I hear this a lot, Jason, as you can imagine, I’m sure you hear it, as well. I’m trying to buy my first house and the market is absolutely brutal, and I don’t know how I can do it, I certainly don’t know how anyone else can do it. It does make you wonder whether or not we just have to have to accept that we’re going to become a renter society and make it possible to have to raise a family and rent for 10 years.

CLARE: You’re right. It’s harder to buy than ever before, it’s also harder to rent than ever before. Matt was talking about different rental laws, they’re different in every state, so some of the problems he was confronting here in Sydney, you wouldn’t confront in Victoria. In other parts of the world, they have what they call build-to-rent schemes where one superannuation fund, for example, owns the whole building and you don’t fear getting kicked out after six months because the owner might want to sell the place or renovate it and you can get those longer term leases. If you’re a family with young kids at the school around the corner or if you’re an older person who wants to live near the doctor, the last thing you want is to have the landlord knock on your door and say you need to get out of here because I’m renovating or I want to sell it. What we could do to boost build-to-rent is something really practical and helpful that might help. The New South Wales Government, we’ve given them credit here today, they’re on the other side of politics to me but credit where it’s due, they’ve done some good stuff on thatSocial and Affordable Housing Fund. They’re also making some inroads on build-to-rent. They’ve said that if you build these types of properties, we’ll cut your land tax in half. That encourages that sort of investment, but there’s things that Commonwealth might be able to do to help there as well. The more of that, the more secure tenancies you can get here in Sydney and right around the country.

SZEPS: Jason and Jack, it’s terrific to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in. 

CLARE: Good on you, thanks Josh.

SZEPS: That’s Jason Clare, who’s the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, and the federal opposition Labor Party and Jack de Groot, who is the CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society of New South Wales.