Why we formed Housing All Australians

I am over waiting for government. I am over waiting for government to be strategic and govern in the long-term interest of all Australians. I am not talking about climate change, nor am I talking about national electricity prices, or anything to do with the common-sense harmonisation of laws across State boundaries. I am just talking about people having a basic human need satisfied – shelter.

As a former executive of Frasers Property Australia (formally Australand) for over 18 years, I have always involved myself in industry issues around housing and affordability, and have been on a number of boards of industry associations.  Over the 18 years at Frasers, I attended so many Federal and State “round tables”. Each one was with a newly elected and enthusiastic Minister, talking about the same issues that their predecessors wanted to solve – and yet nothing ever happened.

That is why I am over waiting for government. They are just too slow to act, and Ministers are generally never in the same portfolio long enough to make, and see through, any meaningful policy change. It’s like trying to wade through kilometres of very thick treacle, up to your neck, and deciding it’s just not worth it. It’s just too hard. I have therefore come to the view that if any change is going to happen in this country, it will be driven by the private sector.

Imagine this scenario. Imagine that you were the founder of either Uber or Airbnb. You decided to go to government and say “Let’s work together to disrupt the taxi or hotel industry”.  There is absolutely no way that any of this disruption that has taken place, would have happened. This is why we should never expect government to lead. Leadership comes from the private sector.

Just last year, in June 2019, there was a violent death of a homeless woman, Courtney Herron, killed by a homeless man. That was the last straw for me. How many deaths will it take before we take meaningful action and formulate a clear national housing strategy to end homelessness?

Face the facts
We have to face the facts – there is a chronic failure in our society that results in people being out in the cold, being vulnerable and isolated. How many more times do we need to be reminded? And then we read media reports which stereotype those who fall through the housing cracks with issues like substance abuse and poor mental health. As if somehow, Courtney was to blame for her own vulnerability.

This does not help us address the problem and, in some ways, helps us justify (and for some of us subconsciously) an excuse.  I see this time and again. Where are the stories about the talents, the dreams, the possibilities that every person like Courtney has had at a point in their life? But then shit happens. Life is not perfect. We all have issues that challenge us through life. Suddenly finding yourself homeless can happen to anyone. Some of us are fortunate enough to have an extended network of family or friends or safe place to go when living at home is not an option. But some of us don’t.

When an individual faces challenges in their life that tests their purpose of being, without a safe place to gather their thoughts, without people around you that care about your wellbeing, you become lonely and isolated. 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? No one can deny that shelter is fundamental human need and, if it is not provided, the unintended consequences 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 we wait for the costs to multiply over years rather than investing in fixing the problem. People need to be housed. Whether they are rich or poor.

Engage the private sector to make it happen
So, what do we do? Well, I have had enough. I am not waiting for governments anymore. I no longer have any expectations that government will or can adequately address the problem.  So, I decided that if I want change, then I need to get off my butt and engage the private sector to make it happen. That is why we have formed Housing All Australians.

Housing All Australians (HAA) is a private sector for-purpose organisation that believes it is in Australia’s long-term economic interest (as well as social) to provide housing for all its people; rich or poor. It was established to facilitate a private sector voice (and solutions) and to reposition the discussion with an economic lens. It advocates that the provision of housing for all Australians is economic infrastructure, just as the provision of roads, schools and hospitals. There is significant economic payback for society in the prevention of the unintended long-term consequences arising from the lack of availability of affordable, social and public housing. And we are not waiting for government.

We recognise that our country’s chronic shortage of affordable, social and public housing is creating an intergenerational economic and social time bomb for a future society to face.  And the fuse is burning. In Victoria alone, there’s over 40,000 people on the waiting list for social housing.  We have prepared a simple one-page strategy with four pillars representing short, medium, and long-term objectives.

Value aligned companies such as Norton Rose Fulbright, Metricon, PwC, Assemble, Minter Ellison, Chambers & Partners, Stockland, ISPT, APD Projects and Tract are just some of the corporates who are supporting HAA with some of its initiatives, along with architectural schools of architecture at both Melbourne and Monash University. (See our website to download the strategy and learn more about HAA housingallaustralians.org.au).

Working closely with not-for-profit and community organisations
Working closely with not-for-profit and community organisations such as the YWCA, we have already shown the value of some innovative and collaborative approaches we call Pop Up Shelters, with the use of a vacant buildings such as the Lakehouse in Melbourne, as temporary crisis accommodation.

The Lakehouse was an empty aged care facility undergoing a long re-development process. With the goodwill, kindness and generosity of Metricon and their suppliers, the Lakehouse was refurbished on a pro-bono basis, and is now providing a safe, warm and empowering place to call home for women over 55 years of age, 80% of which have experienced family violence. A review after 12 months of operation showed that more than 50 women had been provided shelter over that period. In a building that would have been still empty. See case study at https://tinyurl.com/uk5hcvr.

Women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic of those becoming homeless, and violence against women, including family violence, is a major driver for the growing number of homeless women. This is a disgrace.

The creation of these Pop Up Shelters is not a long-term solution.  It is a private sector response to a country in crisis. Our cities have thousands of similar buildings standing empty, while more and more people are finding themselves on the streets.  Once on the streets, or existing with insecure arrangements such as couch-surfing, women remain vulnerable to further violence, and this in Courtney’s case was fatal.

The private sector needs to lead this country out of this malaise and come together with the general community to develop and find new solutions to ensure that every Australian has a safe, secure place to call home. It’s not only women that need housing.  Its men, women and children. The provision of housing for all Australians is a fundamental economic platform on which to build the future prosperity of our country. If we don’t, we will be leaving an intergenerational timebomb. We need to act and we need to act now. It will take decades to fix the shortfall that currently exists. I really don’t want to read another story about another woman, a child, or a man whose life has tragically ended too early. Enough is enough.

This article was published in Planning News.