Governments have been urged to ramp up the construction of thousands of social and affordable homes in NSW to keep the state safe and save the public purse as the pandemic rips through communities that are at most risk of homelessness, experts have warned.
The latest outbreak in Sydney has left the local governments areas of Canterbury-Bankstown, Fairfield and Liverpool locked down Since Sunday with the harshest of restrictions in a bid to stop the virus in its tracks.
These same pockets of the city also face some of the highest rates of overcrowding – a form of homelessness – and are in desperate need of thousands of extra social and affordable homes.
Across the state, there is a 135,000 shortfall in social and affordable housing with almost 15 per cent – or more than 20,000 additional homes – of the total needed in these lockdown areas.
Health and housing experts said the latest outbreak highlighted the importance of secure and affordable homes to secure better health outcomes for individual families and the broader community.
“What the pandemic has made clear is the community impact. The disadvantage has a broader community impact,” said Kate Colvin, spokeswoman for the Everybody’s Home campaign, which aims to end homelessness and support vulnerable households, first-home buyers and renters. “The fact that we’ve not provided that [social and affordable housing] means not everybody has a home where they have enough space, and [that] is a risk for the health of the whole community. The pandemic has awakened a great sense of community care and responsibility, but it hasn’t translated to the government,” Ms Colvin said.
“There is a real question: if we don’t do this now, when are we going to do this?”.
Last year’s multimillion-dollar emergency funding for rough sleepers showed the government could fix the problem, said Nicola Brackertz of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
“It’s brought it more to the forefront of the minds of policymakers who have suddenly thought ‘oh we better do something’,” Dr Brackertz said.
“The programs implemented suddenly housed people on the street when previously governments have said ‘this is too expensive, this is an intractable problem’. In most places, they were able to put rough sleepers in accommodation,” she said.
“For me, what it has shown is that it is definitely possible to address this problem if there is the political will to do so … It’s definitely time to call for that.”
By building 5000 social and affordable homes each year, the reduction in homelessness would save NSW could save $13 million a year, economic modelling for Community Housing Industry Association NSW found. That saving would increase to $52 million a year after four years.
The NSW government spent an extra $12 million to find temporary accommodation for those at risk of or experiencing homelessness in the latest lockdown.
Researchers worldwide have found that providing housing to vulnerable communities generates huge healthcare savings, with costs dropping by 85 per cent in one Californian study.
But the construction of these homes would help save the public purse and generate jobs and income for the economy, said Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW.
The same economic modelling found it would generate 16,200 construction jobs each year and bring with it $5.2 billion in additional economic activity every year.
“What we’re seeing with the spread of increasing cases in particular areas in Sydney … is completely unsurprising because we are well aware of the housing need in that area,” Ms McKernan said.
“It’s really important we look at housing alongside other infrastructure elements. We need to see extensive investment in social housing, so we see families are able to stay healthy and safe.
“We’ve asked for many years. If you invest in the social housing needed, you’re also generating the economy as well. If not last year or this year, when?”