OPINION | Martin Kennedy, Home in Place Executive Manager of Business and Public Affairs
Across the Hunter rental vacancy rates are at or below 1 per cent. The acute shortage of rental housing is producing staggering rental increases. Median rents across the region have risen by more than 35 per cent over the past three years. In Cessnock, rents have risen by almost 50 per cent from around $370 to more than $550. In Newcastle, median rents have tipped $600 per week. These numbers highlight the extent to which housing stress is now a problem even for people on decent incomes. To put it in context, paying $600 per week without being in housing stress requires an income of $2,000 per week, or $104,000 per year; much more than the average wage.
With rents rising at double digit rates and other cost of living pressures, we are in a housing and homelessness crisis. Demand for social housing has jumped more than 30 per cent in Newcastle between 2021 and 2022. Waiting times are 10 years in many areas.
Masked behind these grim statistics is a silent epidemic of hidden homelessness. A lack of rental properties means housing is not just unaffordable, but unavailable. More families, including many with decent incomes, are being forced to live with relatives, in share-houses, in their cars, or in short-term stays in hotels or motels.
The anxiety and stress caused by a lack of housing security has devastating consequences on almost every indicator of human wellbeing. People who don’t have a stable and affordable place to live struggle to find and maintain a job, their kids struggle at school, and they have poorer mental health.
That’s why it is so important that governments at all levels make housing and homelessness a priority. There was a time when governments in Australia built around 25 per cent of all new homes. These days the share of new homes built by government has fallen to roughly 2 per cent. The period when governments were active in the market coincided with the biggest increase in home ownership in our history. Working families could afford a decent place to live, generally on one income, and there was much less homelessness.
In recent times governments have tended to view building new housing as a form of welfare. It’s time we flipped that script and recognised social and affordable housing as an investment. Given the horrific impact of homelessness on people and our society more broadly, it’s probably the smartest investment they could make.
This article first appeared in the Newcastle Herald 27 May 2023