Affordable housing. The words roll off the tongue so easily, but solutions to a problem which has grown exponentially larger in the past two decades is no simple task.
In Australia, we have grown accustomed to the idea that one day we will own our home or at least be able to rent a property where we want, when we want at a price we’re willing to pay.
But the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a crisis in rental properties across the country – and Echuca Moama is not immune. People wanting to escape the cities have put pressure on regional areas, with rental properties from 2017-20 increasing in cost by 20% in Echuca and 6% in Moama.
Committee for Echuca Moama hosted a Let’s Talk Housing forum at Moama Bowling Club on Thursday night which aimed to start a conversation about what is affordable housing and how, as a community, we can begin to address the problem.
The discussion was fronted by two leaders in their field. The first was Professor Rebecca Bentley, a Social Epidemiologist based at the University of Melbourne. She is Director of the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre for Research Excellence in Healthy Housing and lead of the Victorian Community of Practice of the NHMRC Healthy Environments and Lives Network.
On the night she released a report, Affordable Housing in Echuca Moama: An Intergenerational Vision. The project was funded by Hallmark Initiative Affordable Housing Seed Fund 2021 and the University of Melbourne and undertaken in partnership with C4EM.
The report reveals some sobering facts about housing in the region.
· women over 55 are the age group at the highest risk of homelessness;
· rentals are being lost to the short-term accommodation market, like Airbnb;
· 9% and 7% of residents in Echuca and Moama respectively (aged 15 years or older) are estimated to be at risk of homelessness;
· there are few apartments or flats in the region (<1% in Echuca and 8% in Moama);
· one fifth of Echuca residents and nearly one quarter of Moama residents live with a disability;
· 55-66% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents live in rented accommodation, compared to 23-29% regional averages.
Professor Bentley’s research has also shown that even addressing something as simple as the correct level of heating in a home can prevent a range of health conditions such as high blood pressure, asthma and depression.
The long-term health benefits, as well as economic savings, means as a society we could spend up to $7.6 billion to eradicate cold housing and it would still be cost effective just on health outcomes alone, without factoring in higher levels of productivity, and energy and environmental gains.
Professor Bentley pointed out that housing affordability is a societal problem, not just an individual’s problem.
‘The solutions require leadership, and it must be addressed,’ she said.
She suggested medium density developments, affordable housing initiatives and repurposing buildings for residential use were potential solutions for Echuca Moama.
Robert Pradolin agreed with Prof. Bentley. The residential property developer founded Housing All Australians (HAA), a business-led initiative dedicated to helping address Australia’s chronic shortage of low-income affordable housing. He believes it is in Australia’s long term economic interest to house all Australians, rich or poor.
And the statistics don’t lie.
According to HAA’s Give Me Shelter report, if we continue to do nothing about the affordability housing crisis, it will cost the community $25 billion annually by 2051.
‘It’s not a quick fix. It’s taken decades to get here and it will take decades to get out of it,’ Mr Pradolin said.
But he is optimistic that it can be done.
‘There is goodwill out there and I believe it is unlimited.’
The goal is to make the issue of affordable housing economically sustainable for business enterprises, including superannuation funds, who already invest billions of dollars on affordable housing projects in the United States.
HAA has already overseen the development of several short-term accommodation facilities in empty buildings in capital cities across Australia and Mr Pradolin said the potential to use these buildings was significant.
‘We need to see long-term policy change on both sides of politics before change can happen,’ he said.
Bureaucratic red tape was also hindering efforts to curb homelessness and support the vulnerable.
Mariam Nagawa from Shepparton, who recently gained permanent residency in Australia after waiting four years, said many people she supported at the Salvation Army didn’t even know what Centrelink was, let alone how to apply for Medicare cards or what benefits they were entitled to receive. And without the proper paperwork, finding a home was impossible.
Sally Hillman, who has 29 rooms for temporary accommodation at A Room For U, said because the facility was publicly-owned, she was unable to expand, despite having a waiting list for tenants.
‘Fielding calls and deciding who gets the rooms is the hardest thing, but we can’t expand,’ she said.
Greenham’s abattoirs in Tongala has taken the lack of housing in the town into their own hands by buying the caravan park and housing workers in cabins. The company went through a downturn before the pandemic which saw their workforce drop from 240 to 66, however they were now in the process of upgrading their plant and required another 150 workers on top of their current 160.
To help accommodate workers, many of whom travelled to Australia on temporary visas, Greenham’s have since bought the adjoining block of land at the caravan park and are developing cabins of various sizes to accommodate family groups.
The company’s Darren Maloney said they were mindful of the fact the caravan park remained just that – with local residents and visitors able to book a site for a caravan or a cabin.
They are also in the process of renting and then sub-letting homes to workers.
Mr Maloney’s greatest goal is to see the workers settle in Australia permanently and bring their families here.
Echuca Regional Health (ERH) has also been looking overseas for workers to join their 1000-strong team, but realised offering a level of accommodation that international staff expect was challenging.
ERH’s Executive Director People and Culture Angela Hussey said the hospital also needed affordable accommodation for students because they didn’t get paid while on placement. The hospital has a number of rooms, but they were limited to the number of students they could host.
Mr Pradolin ended the night with a challenge.
‘Start taking risks. Otherwise, we do nothing.’
To read Affordable Housing in Echuca Moama: An Intergenerational Vision, visit https://www.c4em.com.au/_files/ugd/839c0c_ff3df86e97bd46a088fdb97ce5e03df2.pdf
To read the Give Me Shelter report, visit https://www.c4em.com.au/_files/ugd/839c0c_67d81daff7ea4ce9b03870392e60348a.pdf