Surfing the Third Wave

arc⁴'s Senior Consultant Colette Manion shares key discoveries from Australia's new approach to social housing in Inside Housing.

Australians are known for their surfing prowess. But just recently the country's social landlords have swapped Bondi for the boardroom as they learn how to surf a new wave of social housing policy. A wave propelled by a stance on welfare reform that is sweeping fast through our social sector too.

Dr Tony Gilmore, CEO of the Australian Housing Action Network, is clear that countries like UK, New Zealand and Australia have now entered a third wave of government support for tenants. The universal provision of the mid-20th Century and the later, more consumer focussed approaches have ebbed and been replaced by a third wave of support, where social housing is required to be ‘step-up’ not a ‘hand-out’.

The new wave is nowhere more evident than in New South Wales (NSW). (The Australian States play the major role in housing policy.) The ‘Future Directions’ housing policy is a real paradigm shift and has been earmarked as pivotal to changing the face of social housing across NSW forever. The state’s housing Minister, Brad Hazzard's aims are not just to build more affordable housing, but make the housing continuum work better, enable transitions to the private market and reduce welfare dependency.

The 23,500 new and replacement homes put English housing policy in an interesting contrast (albeit Future Directions is a ten year strategy.) The intention to transfer up to 35% of social housing stock to community housing providers and create mixed communities sounds more 1980s on British shores. There will also be a 60% increase in the use of support to occupy private rented accommodation. (Maybe news of our ballooning bill for private rent support has not reached Sydney yet.)

However, beneath the shiny spin-doctored headlines lie a chilling distinction. Social tenants are to be divided into a 'safety net group’ whose members will need support in the long term, and the ‘opportunity group’ that can be helped to live an independent life free of welfare subsidies and living in the private market. As Minister Hazzard announced, it will do the children in social housing "good to see their neighbours in private housing going to a job each day”. A sense of the Victorian (and arguably Frank Field's) 'deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor seems to be the ideological driver.

Yes, perhaps a modest 10 percent of Australian social tenants have a reasonable income or might reasonably be expected to progress to work. But the harsh reality is, even in growing Australia, that for many, there are no suitable local jobs and the private rental market will prove just too expensive.

Like the Aussie stereotype, their social landlords sound more entrepreneurial. A trait which the Future Directions strategy emphasises by encouraging new multi-faceted ‘vehicles’ that cater to a range of needs from finance to community support, perhaps a trick we have missed? Adopting the more commercial and somewhat market savvier approach Australian to housing could be the new path for many UK housing associations.

The Australian engagement of Government is different too. Yes, there is a strong market component to what New South Wales is doing. But, there is also an overt commitment to joined up government (and with targets) !

For example, there is a strong focus on education and employment. Improving the educational performance of social tenants is an overt goal. So interesting measures like trialling changed allocation processes so young people and families with children can be placed in dwellings that are close to better educational and employment opportunities are part of this housing strategy.

So, as the third wave breaks over UK’s social landlords, maybe we should drawn on the lessons from the champion social housing surfers Down Under!

During February 2016, Colette was Housing Action Network’s thinker-in-residence, based in New South Wales.

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