Opinion By Lyndall Robertshaw March 21 2023

In many areas in the region rental housing isn’t just unaffordable, it’s unavailable.

The housing market is a continuum, not a series of independent sections. What happens in one part of the housing market affects the other parts.

The Committee for the Hunter has recognised this in its Hunter 2023 – A New Energy plan. The need to get housing right is front and centre – not just tackling barriers to unlocking more private housing, but increasing direct government investment in social, affordable and crisis housing.

The piecemeal policies of successive governments at all levels have contributed to an affordability crisis across the housing continuum that is pushing more people into housing stress, and creating more pressure on an already swamped social housing sector.

While things are undoubtedly bad for recent or aspiring home buyers, they’re even worse for those whom home ownership is a pipe dream.

As housing affordability worsens, prospective first home buyers stay in the rental market for longer. Lower income renters find themselves in competition with relatively cashed-up would-be first home buyers.

That’s why we are seeing people offering to pay above advertised rents or pay months of rent in advance just to secure a property.

The housing crisis is not confined to capital cities – in some cases it is worse in regional areas such as the Hunter.

More than 4500 of the 57,000 households on the social housing waitlist in NSW are in the Hunter and, as research from Home in Place has shown, the official waiting list figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

As is the case across the state, many are waiting for 10 years or more.

A big part of the issue is plummeting vacancy rates. In many areas, rental housing isn’t just unaffordable, it’s unavailable.

There are national plans for many things in Australia but, ironically, not for something that affects everyone: housing. 

Hunter rental vacancy rates are below the state average at just one per cent.

Rising interest rates will mean some investors will delay bringing more private housing into the market.

Part of the solution is to increase social and affordable housing, which has been chronically underfunded in NSW for decades.

Real, long-term investment by governments is essential and has worked before to address previous housing crises.

After World War II, state and federal governments built huge numbers of houses in a short time. The only thing preventing a similar program from occurring today is a lack of political will.

The NSW Government has been increasing funding to social and affordable housing, but the problem is now so big it can’t be solved by state governments alone.

Experts agree there is a nationwide shortfall of at least 500,000 social and affordable houses. The only way that is likely to change is with more federal investment. There are national plans for many things in Australia but, ironically, not for something that affects everyone: housing.

State and federal governments must work together on an evidence based national plan addressing all the sometimes conflicting and contradictory levers that influence housing.

Governments can partner with the strong community housing sector in building and managing social and affordable housing. It is a proven model – Home in Place recently partnered with the NSW Government to deliver about 500 properties in the Hunter and Central Coast – it just needs to happen on a larger scale.

Not-for-profit community housing providers also offer other support to tenants to help them with skills and links to other services to maintain their tenancies and participate fully in their community.

As well as helping the growing number of people struggling to put a roof over their head, greater investment in social and affordable housing has significant benefits to the economy and society more broadly. We need to stop viewing social and affordable housing as a cost to government. It is an investment in infrastructure that benefits the entire community.

Having a safe roof over your head should be a fundamental human right.

You can’t focus on working, family, education, your health or tackling other issues if you’re always worried about where you’re going to sleep. More social and affordable housing can help to reduce the burden on tax-payers in other areas such as health, community services and justice.

Building more social and affordable housing will stimulate local economies and create jobs.

Whoever governs NSW after the election must have a proper, funded, plan to confront the housing crisis. Otherwise, we’ll see more people joining social housing waiting lists and either living with family, friends, couch surf – or worse, in tents or cars.

Lyndall Robertshaw is CEO Australia of Home in Place, a not-for-profit community housing provider.