This health crisis must be a galvanising opportunity to change our housing system

Before COVID-19, Australia’s affordable and social housing system was in a perilous state, with rising homelessness, increasing demand for a decreasing number of affordable homes, and housing stress for renters surging.

Now that COVID is upon us, we have all seen the critical importance of having a safe, secure place to call home. To be able to self-isolate, to work from home and to home-school our kids. Our homes have always been important, but they have never been such a fundamentally essential part of our daily existence, and our future, as they are right now.

We know this. But we also know that over 116,000 Australians are homeless every single night and more than 400,000 households are living in rental stress needing an affordable home, but not having one. Many of these households cannot put food on the table and are just a job loss or a health crisis away from homelessness.

And – here we are. This economic and health crisis can be and must be a galvanising opportunity for us, to come together to change our housing system so that we all have a roof over our heads and a more productive future for all Australians.

Our BHC tenants come from a range of backgrounds and life experiences, some have been previously homeless with long term, complex support needs and others are key workers just on very low incomes priced out of home ownership or the private rental market. Home is what these people have found with BHC and it is the most basic of needs – it always has been, but never more so than in a health crisis.

Providing long term rental homes, at a price that people who need them can afford, is not only good for those people who are housed- it is good for the economy and society. It is the type of stimulus measure that is wise for the government to invest in, particularly now, because it ticks both the economic and social imperative box.

Social and affordable housing projects make sense because they:

  1. Are social infrastructure projects– located across all regions and would have an immediate economic impact across Australia.
  2. Are often shovel ready, with limited red tape.
  3. Support employment, with one in ten workers employed in the construction industry.
  4. Address a glaring and long-standing societal inequity – the acute lack of affordable housing for our low-income Australians.

Pleasingly, we have seen many proposals for a post-COVID social housing stimulus come from inside and outside the community housing sector including CHIA’s SHARP, which advocates for the delivery of 30,000 new units. Whilst the case for stimulus is strong, we need more than just this immediate hit to start to make inroads on the 400,000 plus affordable homes that are currently needed.

To make this change, unlocking institutional investment in social and affordable housing, at scale, is a critical part of the solution. We still see the “flight of institutional capital” occur, with so many Australian institutional investment funds putting their capital into infrastructure projects, including affordable housing overseas. We need to get the settings right to capture that investment here for the benefit of our low-income Australians.

To address this, we need a cohesive national housing strategy, with a framework for institutional investment in social and affordable housing. This framework needs to:

  1. Establish this housing as essential infrastructure and create a steady and predictable pipeline of projects.
  2. Address the policy settings that detract from social and affordable housing as an appealing investment prospect – things like taxation implications and risk allocations.
  3. Solve the “yield gap” that affordable and social housing, by nature, will achieve in comparison to some other investments that funds could make. This is an important “nut to crack” and this yield gap could be closed through a shallow state or federal government financial or land contribution.

We do have a rare opportunity now to change the housing system, to commit to solving the blockers that stunt growth, and invest for our collective futures.

The changes we need to make are not necessarily simple to achieve. However, if we have learnt one thing from COVID it must be that what once seemed impossible, can be achieved when there is necessity and the will to do it.

And that time is now.


Rebecca Oelkers
BHC – Chief Executive Officer