Open letter to the Minister for Housing:

Dear Minister Foley,

I don't know whether to congratulate you or commiserate with you that you've been given such a big and intractable portfolio.

After 24 years of an unprecedented boom in minerals, and non stop prosperous growth, well over a million Australians are still living below the poverty line, most of them in inadequate housing.  This is a disgrace that should not be tolerated in an affluent and civilised country.  

The appalling lack of public housing in Victoria has been clear for years.  The Parliament of Victoria Family and Community Development Committee's 2010 report 'Inquiry into the Adequacy and Future Directions of Public Housing in Victoria'  talked of  'decades of under-investment and decreasing stock levels' …….and it's become worse in the last five years! 

This report recommended increasing social housing to 5% of total Victorian housing stock by 2030 and proposes that the government should 'investigate alternative models for funding and promoting non-government investment in social housing.'  What alternative investment models are being investigated at a time of such low interest rates?  Has your government set a target yet?

Another report by the Victorian Auditor General in 2012 'Access to Public Housing'  found that the government was not planning adequately for the future, had no asset management plan and was following an unsustainable model.  What is the current situation in this regard?  Has a management plan been prepared yet? 

State and Federal governments of both persuasions must share the blame for a decade of neglect at a time of unprecedented prosperity. And we hardly need official confirmation that the housing shortage is causing enormous social pressures, with over 100,000 homeless people in Victoria alone.  This will not be remedied until there is a bold change in policy and a bi-partisan method of funding is accepted.

A healthy and sustainable economy requires a broadly balanced residential rental market.  Raising people out of poverty and providing jobs and rental housing they can afford is not just a matter of equity and moral dignity'. 

It's an economic necessity that we house all our citizens properly so they can contribute their labour, pay tax and participate as members of a more prosperous, fairer and more equitable society. 

But the political rhetoric of the Abbott government is all about the free market, small government, service delivery and privatisation, what Mr Hockey describes as the end of the age of entitlement; a manifestly untrue claim when over a million of our fellow Australians are living below the poverty line. The provision of adequate funding for social housing is being totally ignored at the federal level. 

Questions of where, how high and to what density and proportions housing for sale and rental should be built and located also need to be debated, particularly in relation to the Fishermans Bend Redevelopment Area which got off to a bad start with the previous Liberal government.  These are big questions that must be grappled with. 

But there is one equally important area for which your Department should assume clear responsibility and leadership and that is the question of raising housing design standards.

The Department of Planning recently issued, 'Better Apartments', a discussion paper designed to focus on improving the internal planning of apartments.  That the design of many current apartments leave much to be desired is amply revealed by the appallingly bad examples in this report.   

However, one of the problems of surveys like this is that both developers and the general public often have difficulty in appreciating new designs in words and drawings and it's also difficult for local government planners to mandate good design.  

A better solution perhaps would be to build demonstration buildings you can walk through so that the multiple advantages of good design can be really appreciated by everyone, particularly developers.

The stupid thing is that well established design solutions already exist with better internal planning that permit all apartments to have daylight and natural cross ventilation, and to share sunlight and outlook.  For some reason these equal cost solutions are not at all common in Melbourne. Your government has less than four years before the next election to prove the point that apartment buildings don't have to be like those banal high rise buildings at Docklands. 

It is suggested that demonstration buildings could be built as normal development projects by co-operative developers who would adopt your nominated designs, then build and sell the demonstration apartments in the normal way.  In this way there would be no funding required by, or financial risk for the government.  Your costs in developing the right designs for novating to an appropriate developer would be minimal and the political advantages of persuading both developers and the public of the value of a new design approach would be high.

If this suggestion were adopted the demonstration apartments could be furnished by Ikea as a promotion and put on well publicised exhibition to promote public understanding. 

They could also be used in turn as the basis for setting future planning controls.  And if, as I expect, they are financially successful and sell well, developers in general will need little encouragement to build more of these better designed apartments.

Given the dire budget constraints, it's pleasing to see that some provision for social housing was made in your recent budget to reduce the almost 34, 000 people already on the waiting list. One of the demonstration buildings proposed might even be rental housing for low-income families in which case Fishermans Bend would be a highly appropriate location to set design standards for the future.

The housing problem is so formidable that it's easy to despair.  Without financial help from the Federal government, the funding equation is incapable of easy solution, and Commonwealth assistance is unlikely with the current government. 

Important part solutions, such as the abolition of Negative Gearing, are also unfortunately outside your government's control.  And as your government alone will have difficulty providing rental housing for all low income Victorians it's important that you should involve the development industry as they clearly have a vested interest that coincides with your own.

One of the risk free ways of effecting real co-operation is set down in this letter.  I look forward to your response on this vital issue that you have chosen to confront on our behalf.

Yours sincerely,
Don Gazzard LFAIA