Category: Local

Australian housing is too expensive. So why can’t we talk about it?

from The Guardian.

Wages have not kept pace with the increasing cost of housing – but if you’re looking for someone to blame for our housing shortage, look no further than our political class

Housing affordability is one of the most important issue for voters this Australian election. Problem is, the major parties don’t want to talk about it.

According to Auspoll, 84% of Australians believe housing affordability is an important issue, compared with 68% who want cheap high performance broadband. But in spite of voters wishes for greater housing affordability, the issue is kept it off the media agenda. Why? Because the housing shortage was created by our political class.

In 1967, the average annual income was $2,964 and the median house price in Melbourne was $9,400; the income to house price ratio was 3.2 to 1. Contrast this with 2010 where the annual income was $51,610 and the median house price in Melbourne was $555,000; the income to house price ratio was 10.8 to 1. Is it any surprise we’re complaining?

Wages have not kept pace with the increasing cost of housing. We have been in a period of wage stagnation since the 1980s. Real wages under Labor declined by 1.53% from 1983 to 1992. That certainly has not helped affordability for the working classes. Wages turn out to be the thing that buys goods, so if wages decline, the only way to overcome the problem of real demand is to increase the credit economy – as is reflected in the explosion of household debt from 1987.

There is also an intergenerational dimension. Unemployment for those who are aged 15 to 19 and are not in schooling is at 25.1%; there are few unskilled jobs openings. Other segments of Gen Y do not have it any easier. 1 in 5 people aged 15 to 24 in Melbourne’s west are looking for jobs that aren’t there. Furthermore, 24% of undergraduates cannot find jobs after they graduate. The unavailability of entry level jobs makes it difficult for a Gen Y to get a foothold in the housing market. This is the first generation to never have a growth of public housing in their time.

Nor is it easier for those who receive some form of government assistance. Students at universities are expected to pay a ridiculous amount on rent while studying full time. The ANU has allowed a private company, UniLodge, to use its land to build accommodation for 1,500 students, charging them $238 a week in rent. UniLodge was funded through the Labor government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme. Youth Allowance is only $407.50 a fortnight.

finally, there are also more than 105,000 people who are officially homeless in Australia – which is the most extreme measure of the lack of housing.

Government policies of both political parties have left us in this mess. The astronomical housing prices are caused by a lack of supply of housing. We know we had a significantly more affordable housing 40 odd years ago. But how did the shortage appear? And who does the shortage benefit?

You can blame the government for refusing to play an active role in the provision of housing. Between 1996 and 2007, the number of public housing shrank by 32,000 while the population grew by 2.8 million. There are 173,000 people on public housing waiting lists. Only 5% of Australian housing is public, compared to 20% in the UK.

Most the public housing we have was built between 1945 and 1980 when the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement provided Commonwealth funds for returned soldiers, war widows, new migrants and other locals. This kept housing prices around that 3 to 1 income to house price ratio. The agreement ended in 1996 under John Howard.

When governments stopped funding, new social housing prices exploded. This was exacerbated by privatisation of housing stock held by state departments by both Labor and Liberal governments. Both sides of politics have since the 1980s slashed housing budgets and sold off property.

Furthermore, both parties have held off from releasing land, creating a shortage. This decreases supply and increases prices. Those who benefit from the higher real estate prices are the banks that finance mortgages with larger premiums higher interest rates over a longer period of time, and developers who enjoy much larger profits.

The policies which are claimed to make housing more affordable – like the first home buyers grant – do nothing but enter more people into mortgage. The grant shrinks the deposit gap, allowing more people to access mortgage to enter the housing market. This encourages banks to loan to customers who would otherwise not be able to afford a loan greater amounts of money in the bank’s pecuniary interest. This binds workers to a ridiculously high debt.

It is a helpful reminder than the two major parties’ pay masters have a say in the matter of keeping Australians hocked up to their eyes with debt. In 2011-12, banks donated $1,702,536 and property developers $513,113. This is compared to unions at $200,000.

Who do you think has the ear of power?


Government selling off social housing properties

from The Brisbane Times.

The state government is set to dispose of more than 200 properties in its social housing portfolio.

The properties, a mixture of houses and blocks of land, have been put up for sale across the state, and include homes in Logan, Monto, Thursday Island, Morayfield and Stafford.

Currently, 22,000 households are on the waiting list for state housing in Queensland.

The government said the sale was part of a regular assessment of “its stock portfolio and property realignment” and was part of the housing department’s “strategic asset management process”.

The opposition, however, has accused the government of a “cynical cash grab”.

Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk said the government was “constantly attacking working class families” at the same time its ministers and the premier were “lining their pockets with appalling pay increases”.

Building blocks to a gentrified city

Gentrification in Coburg unwittingly on the front page of the Age today.
Who do projects like Better Block ultimately benefit?

Street party in Coburg.

This is the story of the creation of a streetcar from desire. In the Texas city of Dallas, Jason Roberts was looking at ways to reinvigorate his ailing neighbourhood of Oak Cliff. It was, says Roberts, considered a bad part of town.

Oak Cliff used to have a streetcar service, once running over 32 kilometres of track. In 1956, the trolley bells fell silent, and the tracks were covered with asphalt. That, it seemed, was literally the end of the line.

But Roberts, an IT guy by day, saw the potential of what a streetcar service could mean for Oak Cliff. He created a website for the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, with a mission to fire a debate on the return of the streetcar.

Initially, the authority had a membership of one: Roberts. But that’s all it took. The local paper did a story, generously if inaccurately referring to Roberts and his supporters. The power of one soon became many, as people – including a civil engineer and a streetcar specialist – came forward.

A non-profit organisation was formed, followed by a pitch for a grant for federal government funding. The odds of success were slim. Yet the government was looking for projects that reconnected workforce housing to business areas.

It liked the Oak Cliff streetcar idea to the tune of $US23 million ($24.3 million). Work has started, and streetcars will be back on the rails in Oak Cliff next year, for the first time in almost 60 years.

Roberts wanted to start a conversation: ”Why did we take this out? If it was so important to our development, is there a way for us to bring it back?” The answer was a resounding yes.

The streetcar dream is just part of the story for the 39-year-old Roberts. He has long moved on from his IT career and, with co-founder Andrew Howard, leads the Better Block movement, now spreading across the world, including to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.

The Better Block movement is part of a whole new approach to transforming unloved areas that have been neglected by the official channels of government and hamstrung by ordinances and planning processes. In essence, it is a grassroots movement, where locals step up and seek to improve the area where they live.

A driving principle is about ordinary people showing the potential of what could be through temporary projects. Last weekend, two streets in Melbourne and Geelong were transformed by locals as Better Block ”pop-up” demonstrations.

In Coburg, an unloved section of High Street was closed off and became a place of trees, astroturf nature strips and street chess. In Geelong, Little Malop Street was filled with vegie boxes, community-built furniture and art installations. A Better Block is planned for Sydney’s Clovelly in October. It’s about showing what could be, and hopefully, bringing about permanent improvements to an area.

The Better Block idea started getting attention in Australia earlier this year, when Andrew Howard was brought out by the Sustainable Living Festival. He drew enthusiastic crowds on a speaking tour of Melbourne, country Victoria and Sydney. ”We knew there was this great concept emerging in America, and it hadn’t really surfaced in Australia,” says Liz Franzmann, who managed the tour.

Franzmann, who works as a community organiser, has been volunteering with the Better Block movement, and was one of a group of friends behind the Coburg Better Block last weekend. ”Better Block for me is essentially using that notion of a street party, but with a change agenda,” she says.

Roberts was the star attraction at both events last weekend, and was enthused by what he saw. A common theme in both projects – and indeed the wider Better Block movement – is getting people connected. ”You can’t get physical change until you have the community really buzzing, talking again,” he says.

The movement is generating interest in Australia among planners who can see the potential. After speaking in Melbourne this week at a conference on liveable cities, several approached Roberts to learn more about the movement. Roberts also spoke to an inner-city arts group about creating their own Better Block project.

It all began for Roberts back in 2005 in the ”blighted” streets of Oak Cliff. His first project was the dilapidated Texas Theatre, a grand picture palace opened in 1931. The theatre, of course, was best known as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the 1963 shooting of president John F. Kennedy. Police descended after a report that a man had entered the theatre without a ticket.

The history of the Texas Theatre was chequered from that notorious moment. Locals, explains Roberts, tried to run away from that legacy. A non-profit group was trying to raise funds to restore the building, but they needed millions.

Roberts loved history and old buildings. ”I wanted, for selfish reasons, just to see it, get inside and experience the space,” he says. ”But I also wanted others to, too. I wanted something to happen and I knew that I wasn’t a developer with millions of dollars to fix the problem. But what could I do? Well, I could bring people to the equation.

”And that’s where in the end, when cities or developers or anybody is trying to do something, all they are trying to do is to get people to come in. I just leapt past all of the financial concerns and all those other issues. I’ll just create an avenue for people to be involved.”

That avenue was the Art Conspiracy (referencing the ”Who shot JFK?” conspiracies), where 100 artists were brought in and given canvases. The next day, their works were sold at auction for charity.

His aim was to get energy and life into the space, to ”let people see what could be”.

”I think by just doing that act, somebody will shake out from all of this that can help us. That’s really what it was – it was people seeing the potential.”

The idea worked, and almost a decade on, the Texas Theatre is now loved again, a bustling place that shows independent films.

While he was researching the streetcar project, he noticed that cities with streetcars also had a transport system that included many modes, including robust bicycle programs.

Roberts loved the cycling culture – even though he didn’t own a bike.

He organised a bike ride. The theme was less about high-speed recreational cycling, and more about local cycling, riding to your local grocery store. He was expecting 20 people that Sunday morning. As he nervously rode off, he had 150 riders behind him. The man who wasn’t really a cyclist was suddenly their leader.

Roberts says it taught him the need for people to stand up. Those 150 were ”waiting for something like this to occur, and they were waiting for someone to champion these things: we need more of these social bike rides, and we need more of this infrastructure.

”It made me realise that, wow, just by taking a stand, people fell in line behind me and said, ‘All right. We’ve got a leader. Let’s go.’

”You will be surprised at how many times, especially when you’re dealing with these projects like the Better Block, when you bring the community together, and you talk about what’s missing in an area or could be better, we all share a lot of the same ideas.”

Then came the first block project in Oak Cliff, which has become something of a template for the Better Block movement. A vacant, underutilised and unloved block was chosen. Typically, says Roberts, the places around the world he loves are only a block in size.

”It’s kind of like your laneways here,” he says. ”You’ll find this little laneway, and you’re like, this is the perfect little laneway. I don’t need anything more. I’ve got a little cafe, I’ve got a little market. Actually the scale, it doesn’t have to be large. In fact, the smallness always makes it more intimate.”

Roberts and his friends looked at what they needed to create a centre for the community. That included bringing in trees, street side cafes and music. The two-day ”pop-up” block was an outstanding success. The block is now enjoying increased occupancies and new shopfronts. ”Things started happening … it really snowballed.”

Initially, the approach was a form of urban guerilla tactics – go around the planning process and just do it. ”My thing was, how do I bypass that, just to give people the experience of the block I have in my brain, which is that place where people sit down outside, drink a cup of coffee, listen to music, maybe outside,” says Roberts.

These days, cities and planners are hiring Roberts and partner Andrew Howard to work on projects with the community. The old approach involved consulting the public through abstract conversations at town halls, and Photoshop renderings of what is planned.

”Our idea was to take that same energy and time you’re putting into that, and just transfer it onto an area that has a problem,” says Roberts.

Town hall meetings, he says, encourage the emergence of naysayers, who use the platform to say no to anything. ”Often times, it sucks the air out of a room. People are just, well, I guess that’s how the whole community feels because people are saying this.”

What started as an unsanctioned exercise is now getting official backing. Roberts says the role of officials is to ”clear the stage”, cut through the bureaucracy and allow communities to innovate on a temporary basis.

This is what happened in Coburg and Geelong last weekend. Coburg High Street resident Jules Martin, a landscape architect, was one of the instigators. He and his partner moved from a beautiful, nature-stripped Northcote street 3½ years ago to a Coburg street where asphalt covered the strips, and trees struggled to grow through postage-stamp cut-outs.

”I’ve been calling it the poor cousin or the ugly duckling of the neighbourhood,” says Martin. But not last Sunday, when it was a street transformed and brimming with potential. About 300 people came to High Street, some from across town who came to see a Better Block in action.

The top-down element was also there, with Melbourne Water demonstrating and giving away downpipe diverters and the local council invited.

The ultimate aim is bringing about some permanent change. Having shown what’s possible, Martin and his fellow Better Blockers will meet again with council staff. ”It’s not going to happen unless you actually get out there and make it happen,” says Martin, ”and show that we are engaged and interested, and would like to see change.”

HOME campaign comes to Prahran

From the Socialist Party’s Hands Off Melbourne’s Estates (HOME) campaign news:

Prahran Estate

After beating back the governments plans to build private apartments on our open space at Fitzroy and Richmond the campaign has now turned its attention to Prahran where the government has said that that are still going ahead. HOME activists have done some street stalls in Prahran and put up some posters around the estate in the past couple of weeks. So far we have made a few contacts with residents there but we need to get in touch with more. We want to call a meeting in Prahran but we need help with jobs like letterboxing the towers. If you or someone you know lives on the estate, and can help please, let us know or come to our meeting this week.

Committee meeting this Thursday

We will be discussing how to further our work at Prahran as well as elsewhere at the HOME campaign committee meeting this Thursday May 2 at 6pm in the community rooms under 140 Brunswick St in Fitzroy. Anyone who wants to help with our work is invited to attend. If you have any queries feel to email back here or call 96399111.

State Government ban on pollies meeting at housing estates lifted

THE STATE Government has scrapped its ban on political meetings on housing estates after the threat of legal proceedings.

671458-atherton-gardens-flatsLast month the Department of Human Services brought in bans on political meetings in common areas, doorknocking and political messages on noticeboards.

But the DHS spokeswoman Ruth Ward confirmed the guidelines were now being revised.

“In the interim, there is nothing restricting external parties from holding meetings in community facilities on estates,’’ Ms Ward said.

Ms Ward did not specify whether the government would remove bans on doorknocking and messages on notice boards.

The reversal comes after the the Human Rights Law Centre took action on behalf of two tenants of the Fitzroy Housing Estate.

Law centre executive director Hugh de Kretser wrote to the DHS and Housing Minister Wendy Lovell saying the bans unlawfully limited human rights.

“There is a strong case that aspects of the policies breach residents’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly which are protected under Victoria’s Human Rights Charter,’’ Mr de Kretser said in a statement.

Socialist Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly welcomed the revision of the rules, which he said were brought in following a successful community campaign against development of private housing on Richmond and Fitzroy Housing Estates.

“This was an outrageous attempt to stifle political dissent. We need a Minister who will work with tenants to improve public housing, not work against them,’’ Cr Jolly said.

State Labor member for Richmond Richard Wynne has also been a strident critic of the ban.

Ms Lovell has been approached for comment.