The solution to our housing crisis is deceptively simple – we need to build more houses

Houses and apartment buildings in Brisbane

 ‘We can find policy solutions that have the potential to inspire hope and trust in our system once more.’ Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Times are tough. People are having trouble finding secure work, the housing crisis is reaching new heights and the realities of climate change are starting to be felt across the country. Most concerningly, trust in our political system is at an all-time low, as voters feel increasingly disconnected and let down by the people who are supposed to give them hope.

We need to look back to the Great Depression to find a time when the Australian public faced challenges of this scale – and also to find policy solutions that have the potential to inspire hope and trust in our system once more.

There is one important idea that might hold the key to solving our current problems: the nation-building project.

We often throw the term around when discussing the big infrastructure investments. But it is not just infrastructure spending that defines a nation-building project. While these large-scale developments are essential, the other two criteria that fall under this category are job creation and a solution to a policy problem.

Most notably, the Snowy Hydro scheme is often touted as the quintessential nation-building project. Breaking ground in 1949, this forward-looking project encompassed seven power stations, 16 major dams, 145km of interconnected tunnels and 80km of aqueducts.

It was a domestic infrastructure project on an unprecedented scale in our country’s history and has been awarded heritage status as a marvel of modern civil engineering. When it was completed in 1974, the project had employed an estimated 100,000 people and had cost approximately $820m – which equates to approximately $6.77bn in today’s money.

Not only did Snowy Hydro provide much needed water relief in times of drought and a new era of electricity generation, but it was an integral part of the postwar commitment to full employment.

This link between employment, infrastructure and social policy was integral to success of the Snowy Hydro scheme. But while it is the most famous example in our history there have been other more recent attempts to create projects that tick the three nation-building boxes.

Take Inland Rail, for example. This project has been discussed for generations yet it wasn’t until 2017 that the government committed $9.3bn over 10 years to build the additional 600km of freight rail tracks needed to connect the 1,700km Brisbane-to-Melbourne commercial railway line.

But where the Snowy Hydro provided electricity and drought relief as well as jobs for 100,000 workers, Inland Rail will largely provide logistical efficiencies to companies in the resource, defence and agriculture industries and will create only an estimated 16,000 jobs.

Another attempt at a nation-building project was the controversial national broadband network scheme, or NBN as it is more commonly known. Proposed by the incoming Rudd government in 2007, it was changed by the Abbott government when Malcolm Turnbull was communications minister to deliver fibre-to-the-node internet.

It’s estimated to have cost about $30bn so far and created 16,000 jobs.

Given that there are about 822,500 jobseekers in Australia, these projects have fallen far short of providing the essential employment aspect of a nation-building program.

But while the transport and communications portfolios have failed to deliver on promised outcomes, housing stress and homelessness are an interconnected policy problem that could provide for a nation-building project – and the solution is deceptively simple: we need to build more houses.

It has been estimated that a minimum of approximately 100,000 public or community housing units are needed to effectively eliminate rough sleeping in Australia. That doesn’t even address the additional 11% of households experiencing housing stress, which means that they are spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Furthermore, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates there is a shortfall of approximately 525,000 affordable rental properties in Australia.

This approach is known as a housing first policy, which has been explored by governments around the world, as far away as Finland and as close as South Australia.

Traditional approaches to housing are built around the idea that before people are offered housing, they must first show that they have dealt with the complex problems that contribute to housing problems and homelessness, from mental health through to employment.

Housing first offers people experiencing homelessness or housing stress secure housing at the start of the process, as the name implies. This has a range of benefits for the individual and the community, increasing social inclusion and providing a safe, secure and stable foundation for people in crisis.

The often untold part of this story is the significant potential for job creation. A review of the literature surrounding housing investment and job creation found that on average for every 100 units of public housing that were built, approximately 80 jobs were created in construction and an additional 30 ongoing jobs were created to support the people in the housing units.

This would mean that an investment in 100,000 housing units would create an approximate 80,000 construction jobs and an additional 30,000 jobs to support those who go into public housing.

While these are just estimates, when we add in the additional demand this creates up and down the supply chain, there is the potential for a nation building project to rival the Snowy Hydro scheme.

While this idea fits the three essential criteria for a nation-building project, it will require something else. More than anything, these projects are about hope. They are about offering the public a future that they can hope for, and one that is better than the one they are experiencing.

  • Shirley Jackson is an economist at Per Capita

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