By Michael Parris

Updated May 10, 2023 – 5:03pm, first published 1:13pm

You only need walk the streets of inner-city Newcastle to see the public face of homelessness in the Hunter.

But the region’s community housing providers and charities have been saying for years that people sleeping rough are only the tip of the iceberg as thousands more are struggling to find a safe and affordable place to live.

These are the people sleeping in cars, couch-surfing with friends and relatives or trying to find beds in shelters.

The Newcastle Herald reported in January that the waiting list for social housing in the Newcastle local government area had increased my more than a third in the year to June 30, 2022, from 1277 to 1709.

Newcastle house prices rose dramatically during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and have softened only marginally since interest rates started climbing a year ago.

The vacancy rate in the region’s often brutal rental market is hovering around an historically low 1 per cent.

Shelter NSW published a report in February which showed Lake Macquarie, Port Stephens, Cessnock, Maitland and Newcastle were among the state’s 10 local government areas with the highest housing need.

For those desperately seeking to help the growing number of people barely surviving on the fringes in the Hunter and across Australia, Tuesday’s federal budget offered little hope of an immediate improvement.

Home in Place renter Maree Preston in her Newcastle West apartment. Not-for-profit providers have called for more action on addressing housing shortages. Picture by Marina Neil.

The Labor government has identified the shortage of affordable and public housing as a key national priority.

The budget increased rent assistance for some welfare recipients by 15 per cent and offered new tax incentives for build-to-rent developments.

The government’s national Housing Accord and $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund are attempts to start increasing housing stocks from 2024.

The budget upped the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation’s liability cap by $2 billion, to $7.5 billion, to provide more low-cost loans to community providers in a move the government said would support about 7000 more new social and affordable dwellings.

But these programs, for the time being at least, appear focused on “enabling” and “kick-starting” investment by other providers rather than offering the direct funding that most advocates want.

“There is remarkable alignment across advocacy groups in the region that this problem needs direct funding to build the supply of social, affordable and private housing,” Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson said.

“While government clearly recognises the issue, it remains to be seen if these budget measures make any more of a dent on this complex issue than policies in previous budgets.”

Maiy Azize, a spokesperson for the national Everbody’s Home campaign, was more damning in her assessment.

“The federal government has delivered a mediocre budget for one of the biggest crises the nation is facing,” she said.

“Finding a decent, affordable home has never been tougher yet too many people have been pushed into housing stress because they’ve been locked out.”

She said the budget had “no plan” to end the “massive shortfall in social homes”.

“Instead of acting on the biggest living cost facing Australians, it is tinkering around the edges.”

Ms Azize said the changes to Commonwealth Rent Assistance would not make housing more affordable overall and would help only one in three JobSeeker recipients and one in 10 people on Youth Allowance.

“We need action that truly matches the scale of Australia’s housing crisis. That’s what the community expects,” she said.

“Everybody’s Home will continue to push for 25,000 social homes to be built every year, for an end to tax handouts for landlords, and for more support for renters doing it tough.”

Peak body Homelessness Australia said the budget had not addressed the “huge challenge of inadequate supply of social housing and overstretched homelessness services”.

Chief executive Kate Colvin said the $20-a-week increase in the base rate of JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and Austudy was welcome but would be “quickly eclipsed by further rental increases”.

“The truth is the housing crisis and pressure on homelessness services will continue,” Ms Colvin said.

“An opportunity was missed to invest in a rapid rehousing fund to acquire properties that could be almost immediately made available to homeless families.

“While the budget includes a financial surplus, it has left a social deficit of unresolved homelessness that will create hardship for families and financial costs to the community in future years.”

Newcastle-based not-for-profit housing provider Home in Place, formerly Compass Housing, welcomed the future fund’s support for building 30,000 social and affordable homes in its first five years but said more needed to be done.

The organisation’s public affairs and research manager, Martin Kennedy, said the various government housing programs were “heading in the right direction” but promised only relatively minor improvements.

“I guess the issue is that $2 billion sounds like a lot, but it disappears quickly,” he said.

“If we get the same yield out of the Housing Australia Future Fund, that’s another 5000 to 6000 dwellings. It’s not nothing, but there are 170,000 households on waiting lists right now.

“We went through a lean period for a while where the federal government didn’t seem to think funding social and affordable housing was part of its job, and it’s refreshing to see that’s no longer the case.”

The property and building industries were lukewarm about budget measures to address housing supply.

Building approvals were at their lowest level in a decade in the first three months of 2023, and industry groups in the Hunter have complained for years about planning approval delays and road infrastructure backlogs holding up development.

“While necessary, the government’s investment in improving the supply of social and affordable housing will do little to put downward pressure on rental costs and housing affordability in the wider market,” Housing Industry Association director Jocelyn Martin said.

“Housing affordability challenges facing Australian households can only be addressed if the supply of housing can align with demand.

“HIA estimates that Australia needs 1.66 million additional houses by 2030 just to keep up with the demand from population growth.”

Property Council of Australia chief executive Mike Zorbas said the “real story” of the budget was forecast net overseas migration growth of almost 1.5 million by 2027.

“Without proper state housing targets, improved planning systems and well located housing choices for students, retirees and renters we will see the national housing deficit blow out further,” Mr Zorbas said.

He said the tax relief for build-to-rent projects, which have started emerging in the Newcastle market, were a “welcome new asset class” with the potential to deliver 150,000 new homes across Australia.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia predicted this year that with the right planning and investment the Lower Hunter could handle significant population growth and become a major contributor to the country’s economy.