National Rental Affordability Scheme

Ms WELLS (Lilley) (12:40): Over the past five months, since being elected, I have listened to countless Lilley constituents who are struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living continues to skyrocket. With stagnant wages, increasing rates of unstable employment, higher energy bills and growing housing stress, many Australians are looking to us for help to keep their heads above water.

In 2008 the then Labor government introduced the National Rental Affordability Scheme, with the vision of constructing 50,000 new residential buildings to increase the supply of affordable rental dwellings and reduce rental costs for low- and middle-income households. The scheme attracted private investment of approximately $12.9 billion and delivered 37,000 affordable rental dwellings to Australians in need of a hand up.

Labor welcome the amendment before us and recognise the need for improvements to protect tenants and investors participating in the NRAS. We also commend the government for agreeing to amend the National Rental Affordability Scheme Amendment Bill 2019 to allow the departmental secretary to allocate new funding in the future. However, the government should hold off on patting themselves on the back for a job half done. There is a severe shortage of affordable housing in Australia and too many families are struggling to find and keep a roof over their heads. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has estimated that there is a shortfall of more than 525,000 affordable rental properties in Australia and an additional 727,000 social dwellings will need to be constructed over the next 20 years in order to meet our emerging needs.

Despite this warning, the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have axed and capped initiatives like the NRAS. Under this third-term government, the NRAS has not received any funding since the number of dwellings was capped back in 2014—that's five long years for these people. There have been five years and five budgets without funding, and there is no plan to resume funding in the future. This decision has been rightfully and widely criticised by housing sector stakeholders, including the Property Council of Australia, the Housing Industry Association, the Urban Development Institute, Homelessness Australia, National Shelter, Mission Australia, ACOSS, the Federation of Housing Associations, Anglicare and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Without further NRAS funding, 10,229 households in my home state of Queensland will be cut off from receiving NRAS support in the next six years, forcing private investors to sell their properties or increase their rent to the full market value, and slashing the supply of affordable rental housing. The Grattan Institute has found that rapid growth in house prices has lowered homeownership rates among younger and poorer households, has contributed to widening wealth inequality and has left the economy more vulnerable to economic shocks. With so many Australians locked out of homeownership, decreasing the supply of affordable housing will only widen inequality and increase the gap between rich and poor.

Australians who rely on the NRAS for assistance—and they have been promised that, if they have a go, they will get a go—are currently at risk of being forced out of the private market and into social housing or, worse, homelessness. The short-sighted decision to stop the NRAS funding without any feasible substitute is just another example of this government's willingness to turn a blind eye to struggling Australians. A budget surplus means nothing to the 116,000 Australians who are worried about how to keep a roof over their head. In June 2019, 12.71 per cent of renters on the north side of Brisbane reported difficulty keeping up with their rent each week. This equates to approximately 56,513 people whose household budget has strained to pay their rent while keeping up with other basic necessities like food, utilities, child care and school expenses.

More broadly, across Queensland, there are 190,000 households that are currently suffering rental stress, which means more than 30 per cent of their income is spent on housing. Low-income households, young people and pensioners are particularly at risk of falling into this toxic cycle of rental stress. We must increase the supply of affordable housing and reduce the unacceptable level of rental stress to prevent vulnerable Australians from entering poverty or continuing to be impoverished.

ABS data shows that one in six young Australians aged between 15 and 24 are living in poverty and that the rate of homelessness of people aged between 19 and 24 increased by 22 per cent between 2017 and 2018. While the cause of poverty and homelessness is a complex issue, it must be noted that unemployment also significantly affects young people. Youth unemployment is at around double the national average and is as high as 25 per cent in regional Queensland.

I recently met with a team from Youth Housing Project, which is a crisis accommodation program and specialist homelessness service on the north side of Brisbane. Alison Cole and her dedicated team see firsthand what happens when there are not enough affordable housing options for young people.

I heard the stories of two young Brisbane mums who, for different reasons, had to reach out in desperation to the Youth Housing Project to keep a roof over their head. One mum was sharing a house with her child and a friend, and the friend moved out without notice. Although the young mum worked part-time, she couldn't find a rental property that she could afford on her own or one that a real-estate agency would approve her income for.

The other young Brisbane mum had to reach out to the Youth Housing Project after experiencing the breakdown of a relationship through domestic violence. She was left to pay private rent on her own after her ex-partner moved out. This eventually became too much for her to bear on her own, and she ended up owing her landlord rent and finally getting a notice to leave. She then had to contact the Youth Housing Project, who helped her get back on her feet and into accommodation.

Unfortunately this isn't an isolated or even rare experience, as women aged 25 to 34 with a child are the most likely demographic to seek homelessness services in Australia. Vulnerable Australians like this Brisbane mum who are facing the loss of NRAS support over the next six years will be forced onto the social housing waiting list, or they will become homeless.

Homeless and emergency housing services, like the Youth Housing Project, will bear the brunt of the NRAS ending. But these services cannot afford to support a mass influx of those in need, as there are approximately 20,000 Queenslanders on the waiting list for social housing. With 15 per cent less being spent federally on housing and homelessness than was spent in 2013 and 2014, rental properties that are both affordable and available to women and children attempting to leave unsafe domestic situations are crucial and increasingly rare.

Pensioners are also more likely to suffer because of a lack of affordable housing. Queensland pensioners who rent in the private market are at the greatest risk of living in poverty in comparison to other seniors. A single older person reliant on the pension survives on an annual income of approximately $24,000, and a couple survives on approximately $36,000. An income this low, without the ability to work, almost guarantees that pensioners will remain in poverty and be forced to trade off basic needs. Single women over 60 are particularly vulnerable, with 34 per cent of single women living in poverty by their 60th birthday. They deserve better. Australians deserve better than trying to keep their heads above water.

Housing policy experts are unanimous that bridging the NRAS funding gap is essential to improving housing affordability and securing better housing outcomes for all Australians. Failure to address the growing need for affordable housing now will only result in economic, social and infrastructure challenges in our future. On behalf of my constituents in Lilley and the two women on the north side of Brisbane who I've spoken about today in particular, I call on the government to stop taking their victory lap, to look up, to listen, to hear the urgency of these needs and to do more to improve housing affordability and secure better housing outcomes for all hardworking Australians.