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Homes Amendment Bill 2016 - Second Reading

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Friday, 18 March 2016

Tags: Affordable Housing, Housing Tasmania, Housing

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison) - One of the most fundamental human rights is access to secure and affordable housing. It is the foundation for all of life's opportunities, for all a capacity to succeed as human beings. If we do not have access to secure, affordable housing our lives are precarious. We are likely to miss out on educational training, employment and community connection opportunities.

We have very grave concerns about this legislation. It was dumped in the House late last week. It has been rushed. We were offered a briefing for tomorrow, which had to be brought forward to today and because of my duties in the House I was unable to attend. My head of office and policy assistant had to attend.

As Ms White ably and articulated in her contribution, this bill is the vehicle for privatising public housing assets for which the minister for housing has absolutely no mandate. Over the summer break I went to see my eldest son in London. It is a huge city and is riven not only with economic opportunities for those can tap into it but also enormous social disadvantage. The gap between the rich and poor in London is stark and confronting. It was my first visit to London and my son was taking me for a walk and he was pointing to fantastic housing developments that were once social and affordable housing. Under the Thatcher government this process began in 1980 - a mass sell-off of social and affordable housing across the United Kingdom. Around 1.5 million homes were sold and taken out of the social housing system. Many of them have been put in the hands of slum landlords, people are profiteering from them and the total loss to the social housing system in the United Kingdom was 40 per cent of stock. At the same time as the Tories have been flogging off social housing assets in boroughs and local government areas right across the United Kingdom they areoutlawing homelessness. They are moving desperate people who are sleeping on the streets and you see so many of them in London.

They move them on and if they get too difficult they put them in jail. They have taken away social and affordable housing, they are not investing in homeless facilities and they are outlawing the very people a proper social housing system should be designed to support and funded to support.

The concern here is we are embarking on a reform process that requires, according to the minister, the transfer of title of Housing Tasmania assets with no evidence base that this reform will deliver an increase in the supply of social housing. We are handing over to the community housing sector up to 500 Housing Tasmania homes in exchange for possibly an extra 150 homes. There is absolutely no guarantee the houses that will be sold under this act will continue to be used for social and affordable housing purposes, the real risk is we will see a net loss of social and affordable housing in Tasmania. Better Housing Futures was a reform undertaken by the previous government which facilitated the transfer of management of around 3800 Housing Tasmania properties to the community housing sector. Housing Tasmania's stock shrank to around 8000 homes and I am sure it is somewhat less than that now. There was a new dynamic where we brought new players in, community housing providers, in order to bring renewal and, hopefully, new supply into areas that had been beset by disadvantage for decades. Better Housing Futures started only four years ago and we are yet to see the true benefits for tenants. We are yet to see a significant increase in the supply of social and affordable housing, and we are sure yet to see the evidence base for handing over a public asset in an untested reform.

This point was made by researchers at the University of Tasmania last year who pointed out that the benefits of title transfer from the state to community housing providers are uncertain. The research evidence is that there is a case for title transfer to maximise leverage options but the case for transfer is not well developed, and nor has the case for transfer of title well argued by this minister.

Since the housing strategy was brought down late last year, we have heard nothing. We have heard nothing at all about the expressions-of-interest process for this asset transfer. We have heard nothing from the minister that mounts any kind of argument to legitimise handing over, giving away at least $62 million, by the minister's department's own estimation, of Housing Tasmania assets. We are in this position because conservative governments fail to grasp the vital social and economic importance of providing publicly funded social housing to citizens who cannot afford to live in the private rental market.

In the last term of government, I was so proud to work with the people in Housing Tasmania, drawing on the remaining housing fund moneys that had been deposited by Paul Lennon, the economic stimulus package moneys that had been delivered by Kevin Rudd as prime minister, and the National Rental Affordability Scheme that came through the Labor government. We had this significant momentum to increase the supply of secure, affordable, energy-efficient, highly liveable, universally designed social housing.

We had the funds to make sure that we were bringing diversity into our housing mix. There was an excellence in design. There are some outstanding examples of what the ESP and NRAS and housing fund moneys delivered to Tasmania in the last term of government - in total, 1 500 new homes. We have awesome developments like the Brisbane Street housing complex and Hopkins Street in Moonah. We managed to refurbish Stainforth Court that had been a hotbed of misery, crime and social disadvantage and turn it into a beautiful community where people want to live. People want to live at Queens Walk now. That is because the previous LaborGreens government invested heavily in social and affordable housing. We recognised that this is what provides individuals, families and communities with opportunity. We were determined to create communities and that is whatunderpinned the Better Housing Futures reform; that was the philosophy that the outstanding people in the Housing

Innovations Unit took into renovations like the Stainforth Court renovation, but also the five new homelessness facilities we built around the state - places likeThyne House and Grove House up in Ulverstone. We created communities - the most important factor for people who went to live in a place like Thyne House. Young people from areas of disadvantage, difficult childhoods and restricted opportunities in so many ways, came to Thyne House and they had security.

They knew that would be their home for a very long time. They knew that the supports were there to make sure they were reconnecting with family, education and training, and they were improving their opportunity for employment.

It is a core mission of government to invest in increasing the supply of housing to people who cannot afford to buy their own home or to pay expensive market rents. The only reason we are having this really sad conversation about handing title over to community housing providers to prop up an untested reform agenda is that the Tories in Canberra cut the guts out of the National Rental Affordability Scheme and we have seen no new money come in under the Liberal Government. Half a billion dollars in extra GST revenue is coming into Tasmania in this term of government, but no new money is going into increasing the supply of social and affordable housing. No new money is going into creating communities in Tasmania and into breaking cycles of disadvantage through liveable design and increasing the supply of housing so people feel secure in their homes, their homes are warm, healthy and energy-efficient.

That is another travesty of this government. The previous government delivered 9 500 free energy efficiency upgrades to people on low incomes in Housing Tasmania properties and community housing. We installed it in community organisations and assisted small businesses to make their operations more efficient. In total we spent something like $19 million on this, but what a fantastic investment. What a difference it made to people's lives. Core business of government is to deliver social services, not to flog public assets, not to cut public funding. The risk here is not under this Director of Housing, not under the people who are in Housing Tasmania now. It is never about the people, it is about the law as it stands on any given day. The real risk here is that we will see Housing Tasmania reduced to a shell of its former self. This organisation which has provided incredible opportunities to people I know, who now as adults are successful people in our community - community leaders who grew up in public housing because Housing Tasmania was there for them, because the state government was there for them.

The risk is that we are moving down a path where public housing assets are being given away. Potentially, community housing providers and for-profit organisations move into the space and government can wipe its hands of its responsibility to provide housing for people on low incomes, people who are on Commonwealth support, and also the working poor. There is simply no guarantee in this legislation we are debating today that the transfer of title of Housing Tasmania assets will lead to an increased supply.

There is no guarantee that tenants' rights will be protected. There is no guarantee, none whatsoever, that the banks will not take those houses as security, because the legislation itself says that these houses can be transferred in order to provide security for borrowings.

If there is no risk to this asset, why do the banks want that as security? It is a question that has not been answered by the minister. It is a question that has not been answered by a number of community housing providers who I have spoken to since the minister's Affordable Housing Strategy arrived in Parliament late last year. There is no answer to that because if a community housing provider has a public asset that was transferred to it on its books, and it says to the banks, 'We want to borrow this amount of money in order to do this', the bank says, 'What have you got as security?'. The community housing provider says, 'We have these 200 Housing Tasmania homes that were transferred to us under the Liberal Government'. The banks will go, 'That is great, thanks; we will have that folder'. There is no guarantee. That is the most frightening fact for people who need affordable housing in Tasmania. That is what the Liberals are doing to public housing in Tasmania.

We have a number of questions in the clauses and will certainly be going into Committee. I can tell Ms White feels the same way that we won't be calling for an early minute tonight. we will be scrutinising this bill very thoroughly well into the night if that is what is required.

I still cannot understand the unholy rush with this legislation. The first the Greens heard of it was when it landed in Parliament late last week. If you were serious about building a political and community consensus about a reform, don't you think you would consult a little more widely and a little earlier? This is very significant legislation. I resent the fact that we have been given only a few days to have a look at it, and that the briefing was offered for tomorrow, no doubt on the same day or the day before the original date for debate of this bill was intended. Why the unholy rush?

If the minister is so proud of this reform, why the secrecy? Why do we have to find out about major changes to the antiquated Homes Act 1935 when the legislation lands on the table in Parliament? It is not good enough. Do you know what it says? It says that the Liberals treat this Chamber with contempt. They see it as a rubber stamp. All this debate about the Homes Act in here is just an annoyance to the Liberals. They will let us talk and vent, will let the Greens occasionally scrutinise some of the clauses, and then they will guillotine the debate, because for the opposition parties, what we think, our experience in this area, how we like to contribute to making the bill better, none of it matters because the Liberals in Government treat this place as their plaything, as a rubber stamp. They treat the opposition parties with utter contempt.

We would certainly support this legislation being referred to a Legislative Council committee because it is so profound in what it proposes, enabling the sale, the give-away, of public assets, with no mandate. We know, as Ms White pointed out, this is just a pilot - allegedly. It is a pilot, of course, which has driven changes to the Homes Act 1935, so it is not just a pilot. This is the agenda - to give away, to privatise as much of the burdensome Housing Tasmania properties as is possible.

What is happening with the expressions-of-interest process that began in October last year? How many properties have been slated to be given away, and where? Which community housing providers are in the mix? Are the community housing providers that are bidding registered tier 1 and tier 2 providers? I do not think at the moment there is a requirement that they be such.

Protections of the public asset, funded by taxes paid by the people of Tasmania and Australia, are absent in large part from this bill. It is this theme that has developed in this term of government. We have the Liberals after 16 lonely frustrating years, no doubt, on the opposition benches, now in here staggering and drunk on power. Have a look at the public asset portfolio which now they have at their disposal and which they think is theirs to flog without public consultation, without any transparency.

The only reason we found out that the Minister for State Growth was thinking about flogging TasTAFE and the Hunter Street Art School was because he was sprung in parliament, misleading this House.

The only reason we found out that the Premier and no doubt the Treasurer are thinking of flogging the Treasury Building is that they were sprung in Parliament. Lack of transparency about these public asset disposals is alarming. It is because they think these public assets are theirs to play with.

We have the Office of the Coordinator-General ringing up Crown Lands and saying, what do you have that we can provide to private development interests? Could you please show us the portfolio? We have the minister for Parks who thinks the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is his backyard, a place he can open up to private developers through an incredible opaque expressions-of-interest process, putting lodges in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. This is a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It is a matter of parliamentary and public record that I have a huge amount of personal time for the Minister for Human Services, Jacquie Petrusma. I recognise that Mrs Petrusma is a good person who is motivated by the right ideals, apart from the fact she ran for Family First and ended up stumbling into the Liberal Party. Philosophically and politically, we have differences. I recognise that Mrs Petrusma is motivated by a desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately, in this instance I feel that Mrs Petrusma has been persuaded by community housing providers who have long been wanting to get their hands on this asset.

Persuaded by the fact the budget for increasing the supply of social and affordable housing is running dry. Persuaded by the fact she has had no support from her federal Liberal colleagues to increase funding to deliver publicly funded, social, affordable, energy-efficient housing in Tasmania.

I do not think this legislation comes from a bad place; I think it comes from a misguided place. It comes from a place where the minister and Housing Tasmania have been backed into an awful corner where there is increasing demand for access to affordable housing in Tasmania. We are seeing that through the public housing common waiting list. We are seeing the number of people in category 1 for social and affordable housing in Tasmania go up. That is because there is no extra money to invest in supply.

This is a sad day for Housing Tasmania and the principle of public housing in Tasmania. It is a sad day for Tasmanians who are languishing on the waiting list, living in crowded, expensive private rentals, who can only ever dream of owning their own home. They need to know the government is there for them. If this legislation, in its current form, without being tested by an upper House committee and substantially amended, without an evidence base underpinning it that puts the argument for title transfer, this legislation does disadvantaged Tasmanians a terrible disservice.

When you have a look at the legislation there are things like new section 18AA:

The sale or transfer of land to housing providers –

(1) The Director may, with the approval of the Minister, sell or transfer land to a housing provider for the purpose of enabling the provider to - lease to provide for residential accommodation, or sell to eligible persons. As Ms White pointed out there are real question marks over who is an 'eligible person'. The Director of Housing may do this whether or not other dwelling houses that are or are to be situated on the land or associated land may also be leased or sold to or used to provide residential accommodation to persons who are not eligible persons.

Further, subclause (2) states:

The Director may, with the approval of the Minister, sell or transfer land to a housing provider for the purpose of enabling the land to be used by the provider as security to raise finance to enable the provider to -lease, provide for, or sell to eligible persons, construct, alter, enlarge et cetera, whether or not the funds so raised may also be used to provide other dwelling houses for sale to or for the residential accommodation of persons who are not eligible persons.

The Homes Act 1935 is now being amended to sell former Housing Tasmania assets to people who can well afford to buy in the private market. The whole foundation of the Homes Act to provide housing for low income Tasmanians is being tossed on its head.

Further on in clause 28:

(3) The Director may, with the approval of the Minister, sell or transfer land to a housing provider for the purpose of enabling the land to be sold or leased to any person to provide funds to enable the provider to - lease to eligible persons, provide residential accommodation et cetera, sell to eligible persons, construct, alter, enlarge or repair dwelling houses whether or not the funds so raised may also be used to provide other dwelling houses for sale or for the residential accommodation of persons who are not eligible persons. That means, with the approval of the minister, the Director of Housing can give away Housing Tasmania assets. There is no guarantee that those assets will be dedicated to a social housing purpose, that those assets will not be sold off to a person who can well afford to buy in the private rental market and that these amendments to the Homes Act will deliver positive social outcomes to Tasmanians who need affordable housing.

There is something so Tory about these amendments to the Homes Act 1935. It is the echo in a way of what is happening in London and the UK where governments fail to invest in increasing the supply of social housing.

Mr Green - The new member for Franklin today talked about it. He said, 'You set the policies up and then just get out of the way'.

Ms O'CONNOR - He is the new member for Franklin and it was a great speech in so many ways. It was an inclusive, broad-ranging speech.

Our concerns with this legislation are manifold. We will be taking this into committee. It is really clear that what we will unfortunately rubber stamp through the House of Assembly today will allow housing providers to spend money they make from selling public assets with no requirement that they be invested in social and affordable housing. We cannot support this legislation. Parts of it are sound. The best thing about it is the fact that it does not assume the Director of Housing will always be a male. We will not be supporting this legislation.