Accounts of homelessness in Australia, one of the world's most prosperous nations, give a sense of how wealthy city leaders need to think about housing policy. While national governments can work the economic levers of interest rates and housing subsidies, city leaders must implement more detailed social policies to capture those segments of their communities that fall through the cracks of the national economic plan.
In a recent IPS release, Stephen de Tarczynski makes the point that the reality of homelessness in Australia is very different to most people's preconceptions. He quotes Brett McDonnell of Frontyard Youth Services:
"A lot of Australians associate homelessness with the media stereotype of a middle-aged man with a flagon of wine covered in newspaper on a park bench. We don't have a large, visible street-sleeping population … but we do have a lot of young people that couch surf. But the general population doesn't think of that as being homeless."
De Tarczynski also quotes an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, which cites that of the 105,000 Australians homeless on any given night, the group most highly represented among the homeless are young women between 15 and 19 years old, "with one in every 50 women in this age bracket accessing services such as meals and showers." Some girls "will sleep with a stranger in order to get off the streets," even for a night.
Why does this matter to our city leaders? Isn't this just a problem for community services?
No; this isn't simply a story about social ignominy. Behind it is a story about property prices, rental markets and housing policy.
Many of Australia's housing markets are suffering an affordability crisis. House and apartment prices have been pushed up over recent decades, fuelled by government subsidies, a middle-class obsession for real estate investment, and an ebullient lending sector for whom housing loans make up 40 per cent of their assets. Many families are in the market looking for one, two or three residential properties, buoyed by easy finance, the extra demand they represent creating the price bubble.
The system is propped up by renters, the families and young people who can't afford to enter the homeowner market, and instead must pay higher levels of rent to support the mortgages of their landlords.
Successive governments have convinced Australians that home ownership is one of the keys to happiness, and have instituted policies and home buyers' grants to encourage it. The idea that people could be happy renting for much of their life, as is the case in countries like Switzerland, has been discredited. As a result, Australia's renters have been marginalised in the country's politics, left to suffer in silence.
At the bottom of this pile are a wave of Australian youth increasingly priced out of the rental market. Many can simply stay on with their parents, but some have no choice but to leave. If such youth cannot find formal housing, McDonnell argues, we must count them among the country's homeless.
These are the young women and mothers that de Tarczynski writes about — Geraldine, Erin and Sara — women who resort to couch-surfing and sleeping with strangers indoors rather than sleep on the streets. Geraldine is worried she might one day have to take her baby with her to a refuge; Erin has had to give her daughter away.
These women are at the bleeding edge of the housing affordability crisis in Australia's cities. While most people's attentions are turned to headlines of the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, our city leaders must have their eyes on people like these young women. At this level, housing is not about simple affordability, but survival.
Housing policy is a mutli-tiered problem, with separate policies required for home owners and renters, and with economic levers for the general market, and social policies for those the market cannot cater to in the short term.
In the past decade, housing policy discourse in Australia has rested on endless analysis of interest rates and home owners' grants. Australia also needs comprehensive rental policies, that treat renting not as a halfway point to home ownership, but as a permanent solution for many residents, and an essential element of Australia's domestic life.
The National Rental Affordability Scheme is a step in the right direction, but, being tied to market prices and with its emphasis on subsidising the private housebuilding sector, it is unlikely to alleviate the pressure on renters created by the housing price bubble. And since it is an economic tool, it is not fine-grained enough to help people like Geraldine, Erin and Sara.
Homelessness has distinct social dynamics that make it impossible to treat with economic tools. For example, what happens to women who are chased out of home? What do they do on that first night? Sara wants to see shelters for people "who have nowhere else to go on the exact night that they're looking for housing."
If or when the housing price bubble bursts, we will see a true test for Australia's city leaders. They will need to be ready for a sudden jump in the nation's invisible homeless.