Wrong solution to right problem

The recent Queensland State budget confirmed the measures announced in July to cut critical housing services.

The Newman Government’s decision to de-fund all Tenancy Advice and Advocacy Services and the Queensland Tenants Union, and to sell off three State owned caravan parks, is akin to dismantling and selling off a fence at the top of a cliff to pay for a portion of a new ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

The shortage of public housing in Queensland matters, but finding relatively small savings through de-funding preventative housing programs is a self-defeating approach.

The Housing Minister has rightly identified that Queensland has a significant lack of public housing. This is a legacy of years of under investment by both sides of politics. Queensland has the lowest level of public housing per head of population of any Australian State, and the recent COAG Reform Council report confirmed that Queensland has the worst housing affordability problem in Australia.

But reducing housing services for the most vulnerable private renters in the State is a counter-productive way of meeting demand. The Tenancy Advice and Advocacy Services (TAAS) support private renters who risk exploitation by unscrupulous landlords, and so keep these people successfully housed in the private market.

Without this service, some TAAS clients would end up in homeless shelters, and many would join public housing waiting lists.

Similarly, the three caravan parks targeted for sale were purchased by the previous State Government to stem the growing demand for public housing.

The savings by axing these services may result in additional public housing. However the housing shortfall in Queensland dwarfs the small benefits possible from these savings. And if the de-funding results in the inevitable increase in demand for public housing, then the interim pain will be pointless. Meanwhile, Queensland’s public housing crisis continues.

The chronic under-investment in public housing in Queensland is of great concern. A 2005 study of new public tenants in Queensland found that public housing may contribute to a reduction in demand on the health system, most likely as a result of fewer stress-related health problems. As one tenant stated, “well, it was like 50 per cent of my income at the time (was being spent on housing) and it just leaves you less for food, clothes, everything else …it’s a hard way to live. It’s very stressful if you’ve got debts that you can’t meet”.

As well, an overwhelming majority of parents interviewed in the same study reported their children performed much better at school after moving into public housing. It seems that once basic survival needs such as food and shelter have been met, we can turn our attention to higher order needs such as health care and schooling.

The Queensland Government needs to tackle this long-standing problem that they have inherited, but the solution will not be found in the pockets of those who are already in fragile housing circumstances.

Peter Young is a lecturer in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University. He is a former director of policy with the Queensland Department of Housing.