February 14, 2023

I acknowledge the member for Robertson’s contribution just now. There is no argument; of course we need to improve prospects for people who so desperately need social and affordable housing. The number of people who are experiencing homelessness is a concern for every member of this parliament. There is no doubt about that.

The Housing Australia Future Fund Bill, the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Housing Measures No. 1) Bill 2023 together, as a housing legislative package, are some of the most significant housing reforms we have seen in the last decade. The Housing Australia Future Fund Bill will create a $10 billion funding stream to support and increase social and affordable housing and address other acute housing needs for the groups in our society who need it most: Indigenous Australians, women and children experiencing domestic and family violence, older women with low incomes who are at risk of homelessness and many of our veterans.

The National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill sets up an advisory body for the government, to ensure they make well-informed, sensible decisions on how this money is spent. It aims to research the conditions that impact housing affordability and supply by working with all levels of government—including, and importantly, local councils—to find out where housing is needed the most and the barriers to getting it.

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Housing Measures No. 1) Bill will expand the remit of the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation to deliver the government’s social and affordable housing programs. As we’ve heard today—with some mirth, but nevertheless—it will be renamed Housing Australia. It’s easier to say, that’s for sure.

I support these bills. They are the start of much-needed housing reform in this country—an area that has been neglected for far too long and is reaching crisis levels across the country, and, indeed, in my electorate of Indi. We are currently experiencing, in my patch, an unprecedented level of housing demand—something that I have not seen in the long, long time that I’ve lived in the area. From big towns, like Wodonga and Wangaratta, to small towns, like Corryong in the north and Alexandra in the south, people are constantly talking to me about the housing crisis.

Before the pandemic, people on low incomes struggled, actually, to find social and affordable housing in my community. But once the pandemic hit, that increased. One of the reasons was that, after the pandemic hit, there was an influx of people moving to the regions from the cities. And why wouldn’t you? We have so much to offer: a magnificent natural environment and welcoming communities, and we are ripe for opportunity. But what housing stock was available was snapped up. Demand rapidly outstripped supply of new homes. And obtaining a rental lease in my electorate is like winning the lottery. For years, in rural and regional Australia, we’ve said: ‘Build it and they will come.’ Well, they’ve come, and no-one’s built it.

Unfortunately, population increases also mean that house prices and rental payments in regional Victoria have increased significantly. Some towns in Indi have recently seen house prices increase by 34 per cent. A rental report released by Domain this year found that, in the last 12 months, three of the top five local government areas with the highest rent increases in Victoria are in my electorate, in Indi, in the local government areas of Strathbogie, Indigo and Alpine. You can’t get a cheap place to put a roof over your head in regional Victoria anymore—certainly not in Indi.

The lack of affordable housing has massive flow-on impacts, particularly for our workforce. Whenever I speak to a business owner, they tell me they’re unable to fill job vacancies because people cannot find anywhere to live in a town. And the thing about regional Australia, of course, is that you can’t just look in the next suburb. You need to look in the next town, and the next town is not five minutes away. Towns like Beechworth and Bright are struggling to find hospitality workers because there’s no housing available. Essential workers in the area of health can’t find a place to live. If 10 per cent of workplace positions can’t be filled due to housing shortages, this flows on to a $200 million economic loss to our region.

The pressure on the housing market means that the social housing needs have skyrocketed. The previous balance—of low incomes, low housing costs—has been depleted by an overall increase in housing costs. Affordable and social housing needs are no longer large-city or capital-city concerns. They have quickly become a crisis in regional and rural areas.

Across Australia, including in the regions, these reforms will see much-needed affordable rental housing for the most vulnerable groups. As we’ve heard today, older women are the fastest-growing group of people at risk of homelessness in Australia, and they’ve come to me in my office to tell me so. In 2020, 405,000 women aged 45 years and over were estimated to be at risk of homelessness, and I can’t recall a time where we’ve seen this.

For Victorians who are facing violence, are already homeless or need to move for health reasons, the wait time for housing has just blown out. In Indi, there are 1,600 people on the waitlist for social housing, including 782 on the priority list. The total number on the waitlist has gone up 65 per cent since 2014, and the priority list has more than doubled. Around 300 people who leave the Australian Defence Force each year experience homelessness—three times the rate of the Australian general population. I think that’s extraordinary. The Wangaratta RSL recently contacted me about the need for targeted housing for veterans. Again, they were shocked by the need. Veterans, women and children fleeing domestic violence, and older women at risk of homelessness deserve a stable, safe home. I am pleased that this bill is specifically investing to address this.

This is a good bill, but it could be better. I will move amendments to ensure the specific needs of regional, rural and remote Australia are explicitly considered under these bills. I will do this because we have seen that if you don’t explicitly target rural, regional and remote Australia, they can miss out. The previous government promised to spend $1 billion to help us unlock housing supply. Unfortunately, less than 25 per cent of that money was actually spent, and none of it came to my electorate in the last financial year. There was no dedicated, explicit consideration to the dire housing needs in regional Australia. That’s unacceptable. This government has an opportunity to make this explicit, and I call on them to do so.

I have worked with the minister on this to make sure that she considers this. It’s extremely important. I don’t want to see rural areas forgotten. My amendments will ensure that they are not by adding that an object of the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill is to provide a funding mechanism for the acute housing needs of Australians living in regional areas. Any reviews of the act must also consider the extent to which the fund is meeting housing needs in regional Australia, so we know whether the funds are actually going there or not. We need to see that. We need that transparency.

My amendments will also ensure that at least one member of the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council has demonstrated and relevant experience and expertise in housing needs in regional, rural or remote Australia. Under my amendments, one of the council’s functions will be to advise the minister on issues of housing supply and affordability specifically in the regions.

These aren’t outrageous amendments. They’re not controversial at all, I don’t think. They are very simple. They should not be held back by a lack of consideration. In fact, I call on my colleagues across the House to back me in on this—particularly those members from rural, regional and remote Australia. When this government proudly talks about building 30,000 social and affordable homes within five years, the housing needs of regional areas absolutely must not be forgotten. I really urge you all to back me in on this one.

This government has the ambitious goal of building tens of thousands of new homes. They have told us this, and we have heard it in many speeches today. I struggle, though, to see how they are going to fulfil this election promise if they do not specifically invest in critical enabling infrastructure, like a functioning sewerage system. That doesn’t sound very glamourous, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to create new housing. Right now in Wangaratta, you can’t build any more houses because the main sewer line is at capacity and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade that infrastructure. That’s money that a regional council doesn’t have just lying around. I’ve spoken about this before, and I’m going to keep at it. Benalla has a similar problem; it needs $10 million worth of drainage works in the west and north-west of the town, otherwise they simply can’t build any more homes, whether they’re affordable social housing or not. This must sit squarely on the government’s agenda. This is an issue, I am sure, across many other regional electorates.

My amendments will add as an object of the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill the funding of critical enabling infrastructure for social and affordable housing in regional Australia. It will clarify that any references to increasing social and affordable housing includes funding the critical enabling infrastructure to fully realise this goal. Again I say to government: please do this. This will make a real difference. My amendments will also clarify that local governments can receive grants under the Housing Australia Future Fund. Local governments, often partnering with community housing providers, are the key enablers of the critical infrastructure communities need. Those things are not only things like sewerage but also parks, sporting grounds, lighting and drainage. As I’ve said, these are the things that actually create a neighbourhood.

I will also move amendments to the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill 2023 to ensure that one of the council’s research functions is to monitor how critical enabling infrastructure is impacting housing supply and affordability. If we closely monitor this, whether this enormous $10 billion fund is delivering critical infrastructure, we will know if it’s also building the thousands of homes that it says it will, and particularly in the regions.

For a long time we have prioritised giving Australians the opportunity of homeownership, yet we need to value rental homes just as much as homeownership. Homeownership is not in everyone’s reach. We need to create safe, comfortable, affordable, long-term rental houses. To date we haven’t done that. A July 2022 report found that the north-east Victorian region experienced the second highest rent increase in the entire state of Victoria, with rents increasing by an average of 10 per cent. This is despite average wages for workers in the retail, health care and social assistance sectors only increasing by 2.3 per cent over those three years. This shows that tenants in north-east Victoria are at the mercy of the toxic combination of rising rents and stagnating wages. In Indi, we know that the problem with housing affordability is not just rising prices; it’s supply as well, and there are simply not enough houses to rent.

I met with constituents in the town of Wodonga, the biggest town in my electorate, who submitted over 170 rental applications before finding a place. This is why I’m moving amendments which clarify that, when the bill refers to ‘affordable housing’ it means affordable rental housing. I want to make sure this is upfront and centre, absolutely clear, no mistake. The amendment is supported by the not-for-profit group BeyondHousing, who are extraordinary, and I thank them for all the work they do in providing people in Indi with a pathway to a home.

If my amendments pass, they will ensure the specific housing needs of regional Australia are considered. They will ensure enabling infrastructure for housing in regional Australia is specifically considered. But I think we can actually do even more. We need to think a bit differently. We need to think contextually. We need to think about rural and regional Australia and what we need there to open up housing stock. By that I mean housing stock that’s at all levels—not just social and affordable housing. We need something creative. We don’t want to create suburbia in regional towns, but we need medium-density housing and we need social housing. We need clever housing.

I have put a proposal to government to set up a dedicated regional housing infrastructure investment fund. This would be a $2 billion fund to unlock private investment in new houses by building the basic infrastructure needed for new developments, including social infrastructure like community centres. The fund would also provide local government assistance to fast-track planning approvals. They’re held back by that as well. I think my proposal is a simple one. It’s a clear one. It puts rural and regional Australia right there where it needs to be, explicitly in this housing policy.

We all know how great it is to live out in the regions. That’s why we stay, and that’s why people are coming. The last thing I want is our young families moving out of the electorate because they don’t have the means to build in our communities. The last thing I want is our local hospitals, our local schools, our local childcare centres and our local tradies having to say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nowhere for you to live,’ and seeing those people who want to come and take these jobs moving somewhere else. Addressing the housing crisis in regional Australia is the first step to addressing that challenge—the challenge of workforce. This bill is a great start, but we can do better. I urge the government: take up my amendments and work with me to develop these funds.

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