Housing on the hill

How can we agree on the way out of the housing crisis when we can’t agree that housing is a public good?

Listening to the lines being delivered by the chief executive of the Property Council of Australia today at the National Press Club, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was calling for the kind of radical overhaul being put by his debating opponent, Greens housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather. “Housing sits at the heart of our social contract,” Mike Zorbas declared, calling for a “grand housing partnership” and an “unprecedented era” of cooperation between governments and private developers. “Let’s give solving the housing crisis a crack together,” he said to conclude. Unfortunately for those suffering through the crisis, Zorbas wasn’t putting forward any revolutionary ideas – although he is calling for the federal government to double its $3.5 billion in incentives in order to meet its target of 1.2 million new homes by 2030. Everyone agrees the nation is in dire straits here – even the Coalition. But how can we expect to solve this crisis with more of the same, and without agreeing that housing is a public good, rather than a way for a few people to make money?

That is the question implicit in the Greens’ major new policy, which Chandler-Mather announced in today’s appearance. Under the proposal, a new federal housing developer would build 360,000 quality homes over the next five years, available for the public to buy and rent at discounted prices: 30 per cent sold at just above the cost of construction, and the rest would be available to rent, with rent capped at a quarter of household income. As Chandler-Mather pointed out in this morning’s media interviews, governments used to be in the business of building homes. This was how we solved our post–World War II housing crisis (this took many years to do), and it’s something other countries still do. The Greens say the policy could be funded by phasing out tax concessions for property investors, arguing that more is spent on tax discounts than on any other housing initiative.

Of course, it wasn’t long before people began questioning the Greens’ figures, not least how the government could afford to build that many houses for that amount of money. As the ABC reports, claims that the policy would lower the price of a home by $260,000 for the average participant were based on an assumption that states and territories would agree to waive stamp duty – despite there being a “significant risk” they would not. Treasurer Jim Chalmers was scathing of the proposal, telling reporters that the Greens “frequently promise tens of billions of dollars for all kinds of causes because they know that they don’t have to make it”. Asked at the Press Club whether he wanted people to view the policy as “something to be legislated”, Chandler-Mather said it was about talking about what was possible. “The point of the announcement today is to prove to the public that the government could go and do this,” he said, noting that the money was there if it chose to do so.

It’s worth noting that the Greens aren’t the only ones calling for a major increase in public builds. A number of experts are calling for something similar, arguing this kind of strategy may be the only way out of our “out-of-control cost spiral”. But the fact that the Greens have suggested this all but guarantees the Albanese government won’t touch it. Everyone agrees housing is a massive issue. But very few seem willing to admit that something radical needs doing, and that the private market is never going to solve a problem that it has a vested interest in maintaining. “Let’s give solving the housing crisis a crack together,” the Property Council chief said vaguely today, calling for that “grand housing partnership”. But until developers agree that profit is not the point, it’s hard to see how that grand partnership will get us out of this crisis, because at the moment no one builds houses unless there’s something in it for them.

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