That this bill be now read a second time.
Housing is one of the most important issues facing my electorate of Indi.
A stable, safe, comfortable place to call home should be available to everyone.
Yet we know that too many Australians are struggling to find a home to rent or to buy right now, facing rent increases and high interest rates.
Regional, rural and remote Australians are not immune from this crisis. But we are often ignored in the debate about measures to improve supply. There are multiple policy solutions on offer from the government but not one of them specifically targets the context of rural, regional or remote Australia.
This bill, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Amendment (Unlocking Regional Housing) Bill 2023, would kickstart housing supply in regional Australia. It offers solutions on how to equitably and practically fund more houses in regional, rural and remote areas by addressing a major handbrake that rural communities face when creating new places to live. That handbrake is the infrastructure that supports creating new dwellings before you even get to the front door—sewerage, water, power, pavements.
This is what the housing supply crisis looks like in regional Australia.
National campaign Everybody’s Home found that essential workers in north-east Victoria spend, on average, 44 per cent of their income on rent. The threshold for rental stress is when you spend 30 per cent of your income on rent. In many, many regional towns, rental vacancies are often below one per cent. It’s why we are seeing for the first time dozens of people living in tents in forests and by the rivers.
I’m constantly hearing from businesses in towns about how hard it is to find accommodation for their workers. The workers in our hospitality venues, factories and health services often can’t afford the rental prices. Major employers are scaling back operations because of staff shortages associated with the lack of housing. Even locum doctors to the smaller towns without GPs simply can’t find a house to rent.
It’s clear we must urgently do more to unlock housing supply in regional Australia, and in doing that we need to understand one of the reasons holding back that supply is that, as the people have come, the services that support that growth simply have not kept up. This bill seeks to address that part of the problem.
This bill amends the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Act. The NHFIC, set up under the act, administers the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, the NHIF. The NHIF is a $1 billion fund set up in 2018 to fund housing-enabling infrastructure, like sewerage, water, electricity, and roads.
But the NHIF has fallen significantly short of achieving its aims.
A 2021 statutory review found the NHIF has been ‘difficult to access and was poorly understood’. Not one local council has successfully applied for NHIF funding to deliver housing-enabling infrastructure.
Most importantly, the NHIF has not delivered equitable funding for regional Australia, with annual reports showing an overwhelming majority of projects in the metropolitan areas.
I have raised these issues with NHFIC itself. And I’m grateful to the CEO, Nathan Dal Bon, for accepting my invitation to visit Indi and hear directly from our local governments.
I’ve also taken these issues directly to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing. They’ve started to listen to me by announcing a $500 million Housing Support Program, to connect essential services and amenities for new housing developments. But $500 million is not nearly enough, and none of it is guaranteed for regional Australia.
This bill addresses this gap, so that NHFIC can specifically and equitably distribute its funds to regional, rural and remote Australia.
First, the bill adds an object of NHFIC to provide funding for housing-enabling infrastructure in regional, rural and remote areas.
Second, the bill requires the minister to scrutinise what action needs to be taken so that the NHFIC distributes at least 30 per cent of its funds each year to projects in regional, rural or remote areas.
With almost 30 per cent of the population living outside a major city, regional Australians deserve their fair share of housing funding.
Third, the bill clarifies that local governments and utility providers can receive NHFIC funding, and requires NHFIC to be more proactive in identifying where this funding should go.
Fourth, the bill requires regional housing expertise on the NHFIC board. If decision-makers have specific knowledge about the unique housing needs in regional Australia, there are better outcomes for regional Australia.
Fifth, the bill requires NHFIC to include in their annual reports how NHFIC’s funding was distributed amongst the states and territories, local councils, and regional, rural and remote areas. Right now, we don’t know exactly how NHFIC funding is being spent. NHFIC must be transparent about where NHFIC funding is going, so we know if it’s going to the right places.
I’ve spoken to local councils, community housing providers, not-for-profits, and organisations like the Regional Australia Institute, the Real Estate Institute of Australia and the National Farmers Federation about this bill, and I thank them for their valuable input and their support.
Back in February I supported the government’s Housing Australia Future Fund bills, the government’s signature policy to address the housing crisis. I attempted to amend these bills in a similar way that this bill amends the NHFIC Act today.
But the HAFF bills are at a political stalemate with no guarantee on their future.
I acknowledge the government has made multiple funding announcements for housing supply in recent months, but not one of these is dedicated to regional, rural and remote Australia. There is a blind spot that I am seeking to fix.
We need action now, and that’s why I’m introducing this bill. The housing crisis in regional, rural and remote areas cannot wait any longer, and I urge the government to get behind me and back this bill.
I commend the bill to the House, and I cede the rest of my time to the member for Calare.