Housing the new infrastructure

Originally published on ProBono Australia, Thursday 18 July 2019.  

Reserve Bank Governor Phillip Lowe is right. We must use the unique opportunity in this economic cycle of low-interest rates, to invest in the right infrastructure for Australia that will provide a sound long-term economic foundation for our future. This infrastructure is housing. And for all Australians, rich or poor.

If we are to strategically respond to his recent calls for an increase in infrastructure spending to boost the economy, we need to broaden our focus beyond roads and rail to include non-market housing. It also creates a different type of infrastructure and these jobs have a far greater and a more immediate multiplier effect on our economy. But in addition, it results in long-term cost savings to future taxpayers.

The economic health of our cities is at crisis point due to the dire shortage of affordable, social and public housing. Housing for all was seen historically, by visionary governments, as a fundamental requirement in building a prosperous country. Now, it is seen purely as a welfare issue, a view which distorts the central role that stable housing plays in the life of an individual. Without stable housing, the flow-on effects on that person’s ability to contribute economically (or not) to society varies greatly.

Without a stable and safe place to call home, how can an individual form a productive life? How can they work, study or raise a family properly? The shelter is a fundamental human need (not human right) and if it is not provided, we have unintended consequences that have both social and economic impacts.

Studies have shown that homelessness is the catalyst for a raft of issues including physical and mental health problems, interpersonal violence, increased policing and justice requirements and then long-term welfare dependency. It becomes a very expensive economic burden to society as a whole, because by waiting, these costs multiply over the years, and it is actually cheaper to invest in fixing the problem. People need to be housed. Whether they are rich or poor.

Study after study around the world has shown that a “housing first” approach works to reduce homelessness and improve the lives of those living with housing insecurity and it is the lowest cost to the economy and consequently taxpayers.

For every dollar spent on housing people, there is a multiplier effect in terms of reduced future costs for managing the consequential impacts that result from lack of housing and a positive gain in terms of workforce participation.

Analysis by SGS Economics indicates a cost-benefit ratio of 7:1 in respect to the economic benefit to the community of providing public, social and affordable housing in the right locations. What other kind of investment offers a seven-fold return in this era of record-low interest rates?

By understanding the central role that stable housing plays in the productivity of an individual, and recognising it as key economic infrastructure, the business case becomes very clear and compelling. The goal is to ensure everyone has somewhere they can afford to call home. The value proposition is becoming more obvious every day.

We can choose to see this simply as a set of problems, and keep hoping for the right bandaids to be applied where the wounds are most obvious, or we can act bravely and with vision, and recognise this crisis as an opportunity to set a framework for the future by creating new financing instruments, new development and construction approaches that are scalable and replicable nationwide.

As the Lord Mayor of Hobart, Anna Reynolds, has said, by reframing social and affordable housing as the infrastructure we can mobilise the private sector capital needed to really make a difference at scale. The problem is so significant that governments cannot fund it alone. But the private sector needs the appropriate financial settings and frameworks in place to achieve the required returns relative to the risk.

In the USA, there is an entire property sector asset class around social and affordable housing. We need to establish that here.

As well as addressing the long-term economic impact of the housing crisis, the investment will have flow-on benefits in terms of generating jobs in the construction sector, which is the nation’s largest employer. It will also stimulate uptake of innovative approaches such as prefabrication, which in turn creates jobs for the embattled manufacturing sector.

We have everything to gain, and it all starts with changing our perspective and rising to the challenge. There is no time to waste. We need to pull together and ensure that every Australian, no matter what their economic circumstance is, has a place to call home.

Housing All Australians was established to facilitate a private-sector voice, and reposition the discussion, through a commercial lens, and advocate that the provision of housing is fundamental economic infrastructure upon which to build a successful and prosperous economy.

As our Reserve Bank Governor says, the time to act is now. If we aspire to be an innovative, multicultural and inclusive society, we must provide housing for all our people. Whether they are rich or poor. Otherwise, we are leaving future generations with an economic time bomb.


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