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CHIA 8th Annual Affordable Housing and Investment Summit

Thanks so much Wendy and to everyone at CHIA for inviting me to be part of your eighth Affordable Housing Development and Investment Summit.

It is a tremendous honour and I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you in person on beautiful Naarm land.

Instead I am coming to you from wet but wonderful Ngunnawal Country and take this opportunity to pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.

First Nations custom, wisdom and welcome is something we need more than ever to embrace so much more of it than we currently do and we can really lean on it in confronting the big challenges we face.

And few of those challenges are bigger than housing, as you all know much better than me.

Nested in the broader cost of living issues, housing is certainly top of mind concern for the vast majority of Australians.

And it’s obviously been a growing problem for some time.  This doesn’t just happen over night.  But I am really worried that it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

And yes, we may be seeing a cooling in house prices, but it’s obviously a small dip off this massive increase.

And just to give you a small local example, a couple of days ago I saw a property in Red Hill, which is admittedly one of Canberra’s more affluent suburbs, listed this week as a knockdown rebuild with a price guide of $1.6 million.

Which I just find pretty extraordinary.

And we’re obviously seeing worrying levels of housing stress across the country now.

Despite these prices coming off the boil a bit, housing stress is on the rise.

And here in the ACT we’ve got the highest rents in the country and these rents are really showing no signs of coming down.

Increasing interest rates on what’s already very high loan-to-value ratio mortgages mean the threat of negative equity is real and I think is obviously of huge concern to a number of Australians.

And with that comes a growing prevalence of mortgage prison.

Just this week we saw new data released showing a record number of Australians and working multiple jobs.

Almost a million people - 900,000 people in the June quarter.

It’s a clear sign that people are struggling.

And the long-running, acute shortages of social and affordable housing means there is no safety net.

There are growing crunch points right along the housing spectrum from ownership to private rental through to public and community housing.

And you know here in the ACT when a woman and her children escaping domestic violence are forced to spend more than three months in “emergency” accommodation which you know is usually only used for a few days or a week, you know the system isn’t just broken but it’s seriously on the verge of collapse.

I know this is a pretty doom and gloom way to kick things off first things off on a Friday morning but the point I wanted to make is that this is serious.

This is obviously not news to you. 

But we have to continue to push this conversation; we have to talk about how serious it actually is and that’s what I’m saying to the government. The situation is serious and it requires a serious response.

And to their credit, the federal government is off to a good start.

The jobs and skills summit was a success, even though housing didn’t feature as prominently as it could have or should have.

Labor has a suite of policies it took to the election that are a step up from what was on offer previously.

But it has to be said that that was starting from a pretty low base.

The Housing Australia Future Fund, when it is established, will be a great piece of public policy.

Building 30,000 new social and affordable properties, on top of the roughly 15,000 state and territory governments have in the works, is undeniably welcome.

But as everyone in the room today knows, it won’t even touch the sides when it comes to addressing the scale of need in front of us.

We need more.

We need greater ambition.

We need this on a larger scale.

For a start the Fund shouldn’t be capped at 30,000.

It needs to be designed in a way that can enable it to be scaled up over time.

And it needs to work alongside a much broader suite of policies that brings on private sector investment in social and affordable housing en masse.  We’ve really got to tackle this crisis.

Like the debate we’ve been having around climate, we have to push the government to actually walk the talk.

They have to be consistent.

Legislating an emissions reductions target while releasing tens of thousands of square kilometres for offshore oil and gas exploration in my mind isn’t consistent with being serious about climate change and at the same time saying you’re serious about housing affordability while making states and territories pay millions in interest on historic housing debts in my mind again is similarly you know contradictory.

I’ve met with Housing Minister Julie Collins and Treasurer Jim Chalmers in recent weeks and I’ve raised this issue with both of them.

Historic housing debts need to be forgiven, as they have been already for Tasmania and South Australia.

For me, as a Senator for the ACT, it seems like sheer madness that over the next decade the ACT Government will pay more than $33 million in interest on this debt.

That money could be going towards the construction of new social and affordable housing.

Housing we know that is so desperately needed here in the ACT and across the country.  As I’ve said earlier, we are the most expensive city in which to rent and the second most expensive in which to buy now and this question of ambition, of really scaling up what we think is possible and what we actually do and also looking at waiving these historical housing debts will be front of mind for me when I’m weighing up my vote on the Future Fund legislation.

If we are really serious about this, we need to see a serious response with ambition from the government.

And the Government has said they want to introduce this legislation before Christmas so it will be coming up soon and obviously consultation will be key in getting the design right and your role in that will be critical so I really look forward to having those conversations once we have a better idea about the legislation.

One of the questions we are thinking a lot about is how the 30,000 properties currently promised under the HAFF will be distributed between the states and territories.

It’s obviously critical that this is done in an equitable way and actually tied to need.

And you know while I acknowledge the good work being done by the NHFIC I also note that virtually none of the $3 billion in loans approved by NHFIC to date have been for projects in the ACT.

We are home to the build-to-rent-to-buy-pilot for vulnerable women out at Ginninderry and I really welcome that but while debt refinancing on a long-term low cost basis as offered by NHFIC is both welcome and important, by itself, it’s not enough.

And that’s why this summit is so important.

It’s bringing the best minds in the business together to find the solutions that we so urgently need.

What are the changes we have to make to bring on private sector investment at the scale that we need?

How can the federal government work better with the states and territories and local governments to increase supply?

And how can they leverage that relationship to drive reform in what is - by any measure - the pretty raw deal that renters are currently getting across the country?

These aren’t new questions but the urgency around finding the answers just keeps increasing.

A recent report by Anglicare showed a couple living on aged care pensions would only be able to afford just 1.4% of the properties advertised.

This is another pretty stark reminder.

As was Grattan Institute Brendan Coates’ recent analysis showing home ownership rates among 25-34 year olds have fallen from 60% in 1981 to 40% today. But you know that’s no surprise, you talk to any young people and housing is front of mind.  Many, I’ve got a younger brother and he’s pretty much given up on being able to buy his own house.

At a local community council meeting here in Canberra this week there was a discussion about urban densification and a 27 year old got up and addressed the predominantly much older crowd and he just said has my generation been condemned to a lifetime of renting and are you OK with that?  It seems like you are.

Are inner city suburbs destined to be out of reach to young people?

And on the current trajectory, you’d have to say it appears, yes, that is the case and I believe that’s why we need to find the political courage to have hard conversations again about housing and about property in Australia.

I know the current government still carries the scars from their 2019 election loss but circumstances change and the views of the community change along with it.

And I would really love to see potential changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax on the table and I don’t believe that they would be the kryptonite they once were.  We should be able to have these conversations.

We should be able to talk about sensible, careful changes and consider their impacts.

Together with Angie Bell and Josh Burns I am co-convening a Parliamentary Friends Group on Housing.

And we’ve already had a great response from other members and senators wanting to join and so I extend the invitation to you to be part of that.

I really want to find ways to keep this conversation going and to be having it with the right people right across our parliament, across political parties.

And I said this at last month’s AHURI breakfast in Canberra, and I’ll keep saying it - we need to stop thinking about housing as an asset class or a tool for wealth creation and view it as a human right.

Governments have to step up and fund public, social and affordable housing.  People want to live in societies that have social nets that are actually looking after people in our communities that need that help and I think we have a massive opportunity to actually embrace policy innovations that enable large scale private sector investment at a time when we hear so much about budgetary constraints can actually help solve this problem.

And talking about budgets, to steal a line from ABC RN’s Patricia Karvelas: budgets are about priorities.

And we know it’s part of the budget that cutting billions of dollars of grants promised by the last government there’s billions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies, we’ve got stage 3 tax cuts coming up which is 243 billion dollars, so I simply don’t buy the argument that we can’t afford to do this.  It is about priorities and the priority for this and subsequent budgets has to be ensuring all Australians have access to safe, accessible and affordable housing.  Australians should be able to have a place that they can call home.

Thank you.  Thank you so much for having me.