Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people on whose lands we meet today, pay my respects to elders past and present, and remind us all that we are coming into a referendum this year to establish a Voice in our Constitution.
Thank you to the Press Club. Thank you to my co-speakers – fantastic to hear from them both. And I so appreciate, as a member of parliament, the extraordinary data that they provide to people like me to help me in navigating legislation and in putting forward evidence-based policy.
In the more than 35 years I have lived in my rural and regional electorate of Indi, in northeast Victoria, I have never seen a situation in housing like we are seeing today. Whether I’m in a small town or a large regional centre, people tell me how hard it is to find a place to live that’s affordable and appropriate to their needs. And they tell me that they are shocked to see people living in tents in our council parks, to learn of the countless people couch-surfing. This used to be a story of the cities. But this is a story of country Australia too. The situation is gut-wrenching – for people who are homeless, would-be homeowners, for the mortgaged homeowners and especially for the renters.
According to national campaign Everybody’s Home:
61.4% of Indi residents are experiencing mortgage stress.
40.6% of renters in Indi are experiencing rental stress.
The combination of rising rental prices, a decline in the supply of affordable housing, and a rise in living costs like groceries, petrol and power, means people are facing desperate situations.
In the worst-case scenario, people are living without a stable roof over their heads at all. According to 2021 Census data, Wangaratta, my home town, it’s homeless population has grown by 67% since 2016.
Let me tell you about a man I’ll call ‘Richard’, who I met at the local shower block in the park. Richard is a fully qualified chef. His personal circumstances hit rock bottom after mental health challenges, struggles with substance abuse and a relationship breakdown. He lost his home and he cannot access something else affordable. He lives in a tent. His car was recently vandalised and rendered unroadworthy. Recently, all of his tools of trade were stolen from his tent. Theoretically, Richard could walk into a job in just about any hospitality venue in northeast Victoria. They are screaming for chefs. But his housing situation has made that completely impossible.
The lack of affordable housing in Indi has consequential flow on economic impacts. Whenever I speak to a business owner, they tell me they’re unable to fill job vacancies because people cannot find anywhere to live. Towns like Beechworth and Bright are struggling to find hospitality workers because there is just no housing available. Many usually bustling cafes who came back after COVID are being forced to let the passing traffic just walk on by because they cannot open every day – they have no because there is nowhere to live. Rural Councils Victoria estimates that if we don’t build the extra homes needed, we could lose up to $1 billion in Gross Regional Product over the next 15 years.1
Once we used to say build it and they will come – well they’ve come and we haven’t built it.
Regional Australia grew by 70,000 in the first year of the pandemic, and this year, regional migration is up 16% on pre-pandemic levels.2
And more people want to come to the regions. Why wouldn’t they? And we need to house them. And we need to house the people who live there as well. And we need to house people in our communities for all of their lives. And I really, really thank Kasy for the point she made about aged care. I am seeing that play out in my communities.
It’s important when we speak about housing issues, to define the issue we are trying to solve. In Australia, especially in the regions, the heart our problem is the desperate lack of housing supply.
The National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation estimates we will have a housing shortfall of 106,300 dwellings in the next 5 years alone.
I am the first to acknowledge that there is no silver bullet to this problem. All three levels of government – federal, state and local – must come together to find a solution. We need to bring non-government sectors to the table – builders, architects, academics, developers, community housing providers, NGOs. The Government’s National Housing Accord is a good start towards recognising that solving this problem is going to take everyone. And at the centre of it, it must be communities as well. Our communities must get onboard.
In regional Australia, I want to see the solutions work across those communities.
Solutions that help those experiencing homelessness, as well as solutions to house our essential workers.
In my electorate of Indi, the largest workforce – over 11,000 people – work in health care and social assistance. We need to grow that workforce into the future. But, again we need to find them somewhere to live.
At the federal level, the Government is proposing a pathway out of this crisis through their Housing Australia Future Fund Bill, the HAFF, which plans to build 30,000 new, long term social housing properties.
I supported this Bill in the lower house because I want to see building start on these homes as soon as possible.
And I want to see these homes built in regional Australia. And I know this is Bill is not perfect. Negotiations in the Senate3 have already seen improvements – there is now a promise to index the maximum payout from the fund and lift rent assistance, but more could still be done.
I want this Bill to pass so I can go back to the Government and say – now what are doing specifically for rural and regional housing?
I successfully secured amendments to ensure that the Housing Supply and Affordability Council could have a regional focus when undertaking its work. It’s amazing that it didn’t, but it does now. I’m proud of that. I’m pleased about it. It’s a great start.
During the last parliament, I spoke with our local councils and asked them directly what they needed in order to unlock more land for housing.
This is what they told me.
Helen, they said, fund critical enabling infrastructure. Infrastructure like a functioning sewerage system, drainage system that communities like Wangaratta and Benalla desperately need to fix.
But local councils with very, very small rural ratepayer bases don’t have the money to do massive investment like this.
Without this infrastructure, it’s going to be hard to fix the crisis in supply.
Let me give you a wonderful example from Wangaratta. The local council own the former technical school site close to the city centre. The council have earmarked this site to deliver a social, affordable and key worker housing precinct, to help meet the critical demand for housing in our region. They have chosen Nestd, a not-for-profit social enterprise, to deliver their vision of 200 safe, quality, energy-efficient, and beautiful houses for young people, pensioners, women at risk of homelessness and essential workers.
But right now, they need funding to clear the site, including asbestos removal. They also need to build water and sewage infrastructure and then get going with the building. But right now, the guidelines of the National Housing Infrastructure Facility don’t allow that money to flow. And I’m so delighted the CEO’s here today. We’re going to talk!
So I’ve put a proposal to the government. I put it to the last government, I talked about it during the election campaign.
This would be a $2 billion fund to unlock investment in new houses by building the basic infrastructure needed for new multi-type developments – private housing, rental housing, social housing, essential worker housing. And it would have the flexibility to fund social infrastructure and provide local government assistance to fast-track planning approvals, because this is a big challenge in the regions. Again, you can’t recruit a planner to a regional town.
My proposal targets the regions, so we can build the roads, the streetlights, the poles, the wires, the community centres, the gardens, the rural landscapes that we need to have beautiful amenity and a fantastic neighbourhood. And this is an opportunity for the federal government to be a national leader where, really, previously it has fallen short.
This policy actually has some synergy with some of the recommendations it made yesterday by the Business Council of Australia.
The policy framework set up in 2018 by the last government, the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, the NHIF, manifestly failed to meaningfully solve this problem of rural housing supply. The NHIF’s purpose is to provide loans and grants to fund critical enabling infrastructure. In the last five years since it was set up, very little of this funding has gone to rural and regional Australia. In fact, just 40 per cent of its allocated funding has been spend. So, I want to see that change. It is clearly not meeting Australia’s hosing demands, particularly in the regions. And I say that with respect and a willingness to work together.
The NHIF has stalled because I believe its mandate is too restrictive – it can’t fund those quality of life amenities that I’ve talked about.
Under the Budget, the manager of the NHIF, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, had their cap increased by $2 billion to finance more social and affordable housing. I really want to focus on this, but I want to see solutions that are specifically targeted, that are place-based and right for rural and regional Australia.
My proposed Regional Housing Infrastructure Fund would offer a flexible mechanism towards building the regional houses, and communities, we desperately need.
Australia has been here before when it comes to housing shortages. Post-World War II Australia faced a lack of materials and skilled labour, leading to a shortage of houses. The Victorian government activated Operation Snail. Anybody heard of that? It’s pretty cute. It’s not about operating at a snail’s pace. It’s about bringing materials on your back. And Operation Snail was to fund pre-fab homes which ended up producing houses at a rate of 40 a week!
With record rises in rent and mortgage stress, and a lack of housing availability like we have never seen before in regional Australia, we’ve got to think creatively. We’ve got to think contextually about what we need to open up housing stock at all levels. We need medium density housing, we need social housing, we need worker housing, we need clever housing.
And we need to bring the community with us.
You know, it’s why I love being an Independent. No matter who is in Government, I am not interested in playing politics. I’m really interested in bringing people together to see results. I really am. And I think we can, if we have well-researched, clever, community-led approaches.
We have emerged from a huge global disruption, and it’s absolutely incumbent upon us now, with that disruption, to disrupt our thinking about the old housing paradigm. Think boldly. Make planning and policy change, and work collectively to solve this issue. And I look forward to our panel discussion now.