Government response to COVID-19 impacts on housing system well-coordinated, but more work needed, research finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday November 9, 2020


While governments have been successful in rapidly accommodating some of Australia’s most at-risk groups during the pandemic, governments must address the systemic challenges in the housing system that existed prior to COVID-19, a new report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has found.

In a report released last week, AHURI explored the 98 federal, state and territory government initiatives that were announced between March and June 2020 to support the already strained housing system during the pandemic.

It estimated that more than $4 billion was allocated to support initiatives such as temporary accommodation for rough sleepers, the construction of social housing, and the extension of first home owner grants. The jurisdiction that allocated the most funding to such initiatives was Victoria ($1.039b on 14 initiatives), followed by the commonwealth ($856.9m on seven initiatives), and Western Australia ($662.1m on 17 initiatives).

The research found the government response to pandemic impacts on the housing system were “rapid, large in scale and scope, and generally well-coordinated”.

“Good outcomes were achieved through coordinated action in some key policy areas, which provides broader lessons for how policy makers can address existing challenges in the housing system and respond to future crises with system-level implications,” the paper said.

It outlined a number of key findings across four key housing outcome areas — homelessness, crisis accommodation, social housing and private rental — including that rough sleeping was “briefly eliminated” for the first time, with the majority housed in a combination of hotel and motel accommodation.

Read more: Government investment in housing improvements could stimulate economies and enhance public wellbeing, according to new research

The coordinated response to tackle homelessness in the early stages of the pandemic has been widely perceived as a “successful public health emergency operation”, AHURI noted.

“Direct interventions and an approach that was characterised by close-coordination between the states/territories and frontline SHS [specialist homelessness services] assisted in getting rough sleepers and people at risk of homelessness into safe, if temporary, accommodation and potentially averted a major public health crisis,” it said.

The report argued COVID-19 has provided governments with an opportunity to better understand homeless populations and individuals.

“Support workers no longer needed to locate clients to provide access to services. This has provided an opportunity to use models such as Housing First and rapid housing to break the cycle of homelessness by providing secure housing,” the report said.

“Some jurisdictions have capitalised on this opportunity by expediting or extending funding for social housing to accommodate those temporarily housed.”

The pandemic also demonstrated that in some areas — particularly social housing — declining investment relative to population growth, and a lack of appropriate supply, left Australia “underprepared to meet the increased demand for housing and housing services from diverse cohorts”.

“Policy actors need to address the systemic challenges evident in a housing system that was under strain as the pandemic began,” the report said.

In regards to crisis accommodation, direct interventions provided an “expanded capacity” to help domestic and family violence (DFV) survivors and facilitate prevention through referrals for perpetrators. These interventions included increased federal and state government funding support for DFV programs and increased support for referral services and mental health support.

However, the emergency funding and wider supports for survivors of DFV must be built on and extended since the flow-on effects from the crisis will continue in the coming years, AHURI said.

The report said it was “notable” that there has been no new direct allocation of funding for social housing by the federal government so far, while the response from some states has been “moderate”.

“Direct supports came in the form of improving social housing stock, through upgrades and maintenance programs,” it stated.

“Investments in new supply of social housing stock were announced but were comparatively small in value, targeted in areas where future demand was likely to be and to provide long-term housing to those in temporary accommodation.”

In regards to private rental, COVID-19 has shown that governments can rapidly respond with “stop-gaps” to mitigate the short-term impacts on tenants, the challenges that housing insecurity and homelessness present for public health, as well as reduce the effects of recession on individual and household rental stress.

However, the medium- and long-term impacts are harder to assess, and a sustained downturn will place pressure on the private rental sector, the report said.

Read more: Victorian government failing to provide long-term housing to rough sleepers, audit finds


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