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While government schemes to give aspiring home-owners a leg up into a difficult property market are welcome, precious little is being done for those trapped on the rental roundabout or struggling to access public housing. That’s why a National Housing Strategy is so important.

Week in, week out, thousands of Tasmanians are at risk of slipping into a financial abyss. Juggling a range of cost-of-living pressures including rising grocery and fluctuating petrol prices, they must then decide whether they can afford to visit the GP or cover the cost of a school excursion. But by far the most difficult cost for many to manage is housing.

The recently released Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot makes particularly grim reading. Reviewing 714 properties for lease across Tasmania on a single weekend in March, it showed only one share house was affordable for a person living on Youth Allowance and just four were in the budgetary ballpark for a family where both parents relied on JobSeeker.

It noted the decline in the number of rental properties advertised in southern Tasmania had continued in 2022: “There were 323 properties available this year, 25% less than last year and 75% less than in 2013.”

Hobart’s rental vacancy rate remains super tight, dipping to 0.3 per cent, exacerbated by the fact that many investment property owners have opted to cash in their assets in what has been a white-hot property market. Other long-term rentals have been given over to short-stay accommodation, so it’s not just a matter of affordability but accessibility too.

While Tasmania has made some inroads with its Affordable Housing Strategy, there’s still much more to be done. With builders hamstrung by supply chain issues and rising costs caused by COVID sending some to the wall, houses simply aren’t going up quickly enough.

According to the Communities Tasmania website, there were 4,405 applications for social housing on the Housing Register as at March 2022 – a 10 per cent rise on the previous 12 months. The average time to house priority applicants was 64 weeks, about two months longer than in March 2021.

With State Government solutions falling frustratingly short, it’s high time the Federal Government – whatever it may look like after May 21 – steps up to deliver a workable National Housing Strategy. We need to start viewing safe, secure housing as a basic human right, not simply a vehicle for wealth creation.

Coupled with an increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance, more crisis and supported accommodation, additional social and public housing, a boost in Centrelink payments and reforms to capital gains tax and negative gearing, a national strategy with a firm focus on low-to-moderate income households would go some way towards easing the housing squeeze for good.

It must include greater investment in crisis accommodation because the people most urgently in need of a roof over their head are those in crisis. These are people who, often through no fault of their own, are sleeping in a tent, in their car or, if they are lucky enough in this weather, on a friend’s couch.

We need more public housing and other social housing. A minimum net increase of 20,000 new social housing dwellings each year, as suggested by National Shelter, would be a great start. We also need rent-to-buy public housing.

As I have repeatedly said, Airbnb needs to return to its original purpose of making spare spaces available rather than entire homes. The Hobart City Council’s crackdown on short-stay accommodation is indeed a welcome move. I would add, though, that any reform should only apply to short-stay arrangements established after any changes come into effect.

We also need to do something about negative gearing and capital gains tax but, again, let’s “grandfather” changes to protect historic investment decisions. Tighter restrictions are also required on foreign investment.

And how about a long-overdue increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance and other Centrelink payments? TasCOSS, which is advocating a 50 per cent increase to rent assistance, says this would add an about $67m to the state economy or $1,740 to the average recipient’s household budget.

Anglicare Australia’s executive director Kasy Chambers says while we keep hearing that this election is about living costs, housing is by far the biggest cost facing Australians.

“Voters are desperate for action. Instead, parties are promising more of the same. At best they are offering grants that overheat the market. At worst they ignore the problem, telling struggling renters to buy a house. That’s not good enough.”

She’s right. It’s not good enough. That’s why a National Housing Strategy must become a political priority.

This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury newspaper on 11 May 2022