Chilly house? Mouldy rooms? Here’s how to improve low-income renters’ access to decent housing



Too many Australians struggle to get their housing maintained and problems fixed.
Trevor Charles Graham/Shutterstock

Edgar Liu, UNSW; Chris Martin, UNSW, and Hazel Easthope, UNSW

People’s quality of life, their health and their comfort can suffer when living in poor-quality housing. It can also impose high ongoing costs of maintenance, repairs, heating and cooling. And these problems are more likely to affect low-income households, as our report for Shelter NSW shows. In it, we review the evidence on housing quality problems and consider ways to resolve these, especially for low-income households.

There is extensive evidence of the impacts of poor-quality housing on physical health, mental wellbeing and comfort. For example, poor design and maintenance can lead to the build-up of mould.




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These negative impacts vary by income groups and tenure. From the recently completed Australian Housing Conditions Dataset we know, for example, that renters on very low incomes (the bottom fifth of households for gross income, about $20,000 a year) are most likely to have unmet repair needs. They also have a harder time staying comfortable during winter and summer, as the table below shows.


Source: Australian Housing Conditions Dataset, Author provided

What are the reasons for poor-quality housing?

There are several underlying reasons for substandard housing.

Properties may enter the rental market after years in owner-occupation with no formal checks on their state of repair.

Another problem is some private renters do not assert – or feel unable to assert – their legal right to habitable premises in a reasonable state of repair and upkeep. This is often because of the insecurity of their leases and lack of affordable alternative housing.




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Another issue is “split incentives” – landlords decline to upgrade properties because they would not receive any benefit themselves.

There are also problems in public housing. Disinvestment by governments has both reduced the supply of housing and caused a backlog of maintenance for much of the remaining stock of dwellings.




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Housing quality is covered by myriad regulatory regimes. Lately, governments have been focused on questions of how best to regulate construction of new buildings. Less attention is given to the ongoing use of existing buildings.

Recent state and national reviews have highlighted problems in the certification of building design and construction, and in the public agencies that oversee the certifiers. Some state governments have begun to respond. The New South Wales government, for instance, is moving to consolidate the regulation of construction practitioners under a new building commissioner.

We spoke to a range of housing sector stakeholders and the theme from the recent reviews that most struck a chord was inadequate policy governance. There was no comprehensive overview or oversight of the issues of housing quality. As a result, some important issues escape policymakers’ attention.

Many stakeholders indicated that the current focus on problems in new buildings is an example of this. Although that’s plainly an issue in need of attention, other problems in existing buildings and more fundamental solutions are being overlooked – such as increasing social and affordable housing supply.




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So what are the solutions?

Empowering tenants and regulators

One way in which the quality of existing housing is regulated is through tenancy laws. This will become more important as rental housing becomes an increasingly common option, particularly for the long term.

Recently, some state governments have amended tenancy laws to specify “minimum standards” for rental housing. Our research participants supported these moves, but said security of tenure also had to be improved to protect renters when they assert their rights. The onus of legal enforcement could also be shifted from tenants to regulators.

Mandating improvements to overcome the split incentive problem

The split incentive problem for housing quality means some landlords are reluctant to pay for upgrades – such as insulation or other energy-efficient features – where tenants are the beneficiaries. As a result, renters, especially those on low incomes, are likely to be living in housing of lower standards or quality.

A potential solution is for governments to take the minimum standards approach and legislate energy efficiency and other improvements as mandatory. This is already commonplace overseas.

One of our workshop participants observed that “energy poverty” was another way of framing the policy issue that had proved compelling in overseas jurisdictions. While this framing had not had the same impact in Australia, this may be changing.

Improving transparency of housing standards

Social housing providers have a role in leading by example. Increased investment in social housing could contribute to improved quality across the housing system.

To this end, social housing landlords – particularly state and territory public housing authorities – need to be more accountable to tenants and the general public. Transparent reporting on property conditions, maintenance and tenant satisfaction, led by the social housing sector, can and should be rolled out as standard practice across the sector.

To do this, however, enough funding must be provided to reverse decades-long underfunding in the sector.

Collectively, these options can deliver more equitable housing outcomes, not only to low-income households but to all. The challenge lies in having the political and industry will to act on them.




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The Conversation


Edgar Liu, Senior Research Fellow at City Futures Research Centre, UNSW; Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Hazel Easthope, Associate Professor, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor to oppose Medicare levy for lower- and middle-income earners


File 20170511 32607 1mpw3vk
Bill Shorten arrives to deliver the budget reply speech.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said Labor will oppose the budget’s increase in the Medicare levy hitting taxpayers on incomes under A$87,000. The Conversation

And he has flagged a Labor government would reimpose the deficit levy on high-income earners, that automatically expires on June 30. “Labor will not support spending $19.4 billion on the wealthiest 2% of Australians,” he said in his budget reply on Thursday night.

Labor says that a combination of the pared back levy rise and the deficit levy would deliver an extra $4.5 billion over ten years “without putting the burden onto families earning modest incomes”.

The combination would mean that, under Labor’s proposal, those on incomes of more than $180,000 would pay a 49.5% marginal tax rate.

After the opposition hedged its position last week, Shorten has confirmed a Labor government would put an extra $22 billion into schools above the amount the government has pledged, going back to the original ALP plan.

In an extensive attack on key budget measures, Shorten said Labor will oppose the government’s cuts to universities, its proposed increase in student fees, and the change in the repayment threshold that “hits women, Indigenous Australians and low-income earnest the hardest”.

In power, it would reverse the government’s new cuts to TAFE.

Labor would also oppose the budget plan to give a tax break for people saving for their first home. Shorten said this was a “cruel hoax”, a joke and an insult, representing just $565 for each first home.

He said the 0.5% boost in the Medicare levy – imposed to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme and to take effect from mid-2019 – would affect every Australian down to an income of $21,000.

It would mean a worker on $55,000 would pay $275 extra a year, while someone on $80,000 would face an extra $400.

“Labor cannot support making people on modest incomes give up even more of their pay packets,” he said. Labor would only support the levy rise for those in the top two tax brackets.

Shorten said the budget “fails the fairness test” and it “fails the generational test”.

It was a “budget of big government, higher tax and more debt” and “devoid of values altogether”.

He dismissed the government’s measures to protect Medicare, saying that Malcolm Turnbull “only discovers his heart when he feels fear in it”.

The opposition leader was at pains to counter the widespread observation in commentary that this was “a Labor budget”.

He confirmed Labor would not oppose the budget’s tax on big banks, which has sparked a furious reaction from the banking sector.

But it was worried that “the weakness of this government will turn $6 billion tax on the banks into a $6 billion charge on every Australian with a bank account or a mortgage”.

The banks knew they could run over the top of this weak prime minister, he said.

“He’s giving them a levy with one hand, a tax cut with the other and a free pass for bad behaviour. I’ll give them a royal commission.”

He said that “if the banks pass on a single dollar of this tax to Australian families then that should be the end of this treasurer, this prime minister and this government”.

Shorten said that since budget night Labor had identified $1 billion in measures it would not support, including the $170 million set aside for a marriage equality plebiscite to which the Senate has refused to agree.

Earlier, in Question Time, the opposition extracted from the government the fact that the cost of its ten-year corporate tax cut – the first part of which is already legislated – would be $65 billion over the upcoming decade, compared with nearly $50 billion over a decade when announced a year ago.

In his budget reply, Shorten said: “This is a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale. It is a threat to Australia’s triple A credit rating – and therefore a threat to every Australian mortgage holder”.

Labor’s plan to close tax loopholes that let big companies shuffle money internationally would deliver $5.4 billion over a decade.

Shorten announced that a Labor government would cap at $3,000 the amount people could deduct for the management of their tax affairs. Although affecting only one in 100 taxpayers, this would save $1.3 billion over the medium term.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann called on Shorten to submit his speech to the Parliamentary Budget Office for costing.

“If Bill Shorten is serious he needs to come clean with the Australian people about how much bigger the deficit would be over the forward estimates period as a result of the announcements that he has made,” Cormann said.

He said Labor’s numbers did not add up and it would put the triple A credit rating at risk.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said that Labor had not outlined enough to fund the NDIS.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.