Speech by The Hon Mark Butler MP

Speech delivered at the opening of Evolve Housing’s new headquarters and training centre, Parramatta

Location: Parramatta, NSW

Housing and Homelessness are relatively new portfolio responsibilities for me in a direct sense, but as the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing over the last two or three years, I’ve had a very significant overlap with question of housing supply, and with questions of our response to homelessness. But I am utterly delighted to have had the additional responsibilities given to me by the Prime Minister. Because, in my mind, and I’m sure the minds of everyone here, there is no more fundamental human right than the right to have a roof over our head, the right to have a place to call home. And it should be an ongoing matter of national concern to all members of our community that in the luckiest place on the face of the earth, Australia, still about 100,000 Australians go homeless, go without a home, a place to call home, every single night.

And the census figures that were released last year show that we still have a very significant challenge ahead of us, still a very significant and stubborn rate of homelessness every night – around 100,000 per night. We have made very significant inroads, I’m pleased to say, into the rate of rough sleeping, the rate of people sleeping in parks, and on park benches and the like, which has come down by about 13 or 14 per cent. And we’ve also made very significant inroads into the rate of indigenous homelessness, a rate that accounts for about a quarter of all homeless Australians every night, which, again, is very pleasing.

But our Government, and I’m sure all members of parliament and other levels of Government, see that there is still much to do in this area, and this must remain a matter of national priority. But the question of having a place to call home is not only a question of social justice, although it is fundamentally that as well, it is also a profound driver of economic participation, and economic productivity. Having access to affordable housing, near where you work, is a fundamental question of our nation’s economic productivity. And no one understands that more in a big city like Sydney. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the establishment of public housing commissions in the mid part of the last century; to provide affordable housing close to work for those workers in the new and expanding industries of post-war Australia. That motivation was well-founded and successful.

But today we know that the challenge of social housing is quite a different one to that which was faced by Australian Governments 50, 60, 70 years ago. It is a much more complex picture where the demand for affordable housing far outstrips supply, where the demand comes from a range of people, not just workers needing access to housing close to their work, but also Australians who are on fixed and low incomes, who find it very very hard, and in some cases, frankly, impossible to break into the private rental market.

It is also a complex picture because we don’t just rely on public housing commissions to supply these benefits to Australians. We rely increasingly on social housing organisations, on community housing organisations like Evolve. And as you would know the Australian Housing Ministers, a few years ago, agreed if anything to increase that reliance by aiming for a quota of social housing being taken up and operated to the tune of about 35 per cent by community housing organisations – a mission that I think we still have some way to go before we achieve.

So, these are very very important and complex issues now for Australia, in spite of our very proud history over some decades. As I’ve said, if anything, the supply of social housing, particularly in the public housing space, has, if anything, been dwindling. There are not many jurisdictions in Australia which have been increasing their supply of public housing and the only significant boost to social housing numbers has come through the Social Housing Initiative in the Commonwealth that was initiated after the global financial crisis. Through that initiative, costing almost $6 billion we could see the addition of almost 20,000 additional dwellings across Australia and we’ve seen 80,000 dwellings, through the repairs and maintenance element of that budget, made better and in some cases made habitable where they would not otherwise have been.

We’ve relied very heavily on community housing organisations to do that. And Evolve is a very significant player in that space. More than 250 of those 20,000 additional dwellings were given to Evolve or the predecessor organisations of Evolve, amounting to more than $63 million in Government funding.

But in addition to social housing we know that in the private rental market there is still a significant challenge we have in terms of the supply of affordable rental properties and so for our National Rental Affordability Scheme or NRAS as it’s more affectionately known, again, we are aiming to produce 50,000 additional, affordable rental properties into the market by 2016 or 35,000 by next year.

These new properties must be rented at a rate of at least 20 per cent below prevailing market rates and again, we are relying heavily on Evolve to take up the cudgels on that challenge here in Sydney. Around 440 of the incentives from NRAS, so far, the first four rounds of NRAS have been provided to Evolve and over the 10 year period of those incentives being paid, Evolve will attract about $33 million in funding through that scheme. So it’s wonderful to see Evolve taking up the challenge of social housing and affordable rental housing through these important programs from the Commonwealth.

We also know through recent experience over the years that placing a roof over someone’s head who has not had access to stable housing for some time is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. People often also need a range of support services to sustain their tenancies and to escape the churn in and out of stable housing that has affected far too many Australians for far too long. And Evolve provides that support.

We also know that people getting into stable housing often need some help with some of the incidentals like access to white goods and Evolve provides those services and that assistance. And we also know that people sometimes need a little bit of help in using their new home as a spring board to reconnect with education, with training, with employment and sometimes just reconnect back with a more healthy lifestyle. And again, Evolve provides that service.

Evolve’s work is a wonderful, wonderful collection of services and capital funding arrangements like the ones I’ve described. They’re an incredibly important part of the community housing picture here in New South Wales with well over than 2000 dwellings and a vast range of support services of the type, I’ve talked about. I was really pleased to be invited to be a part of this opening. This is a location obviously replete with history, replete with culture – culture and history of the first peoples of this part of New South Wales, as we’ve heard from so beautifully this morning. But also replete with history from our first fleeters including, obviously Henry Dodd.

So, I’m very pleased to be here to help open this building, to send you the best wishes, whether you are staff, management or members of the residence support group and residents council. You are doing wonderful work here in Sydney and I wish you all the best for your future in your new headquarters. Thank you very much for the invitation.