Interview with Dr Emma Campbell CEO of the ACT Council of Social Service

10 September 2020

YWCA Canberra has been pleased that Housing affordability and homelessness have been a central issue this election campaign.  We caught up ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS) CEO Dr Emma Campbell to hear how the sector is addressing this core policy area and their response to the housing announcements which have been made so far.a photo of Emma Campbell

ACTCOSS recently released its election platform fixing Canberra’s housing and homelessness crisis, can you give us a quick summary of what’s in it?

Our election platform, developed in partnership with housing peaks and providers names housing as the biggest cause of poverty for people on low incomes. We are calling on an incoming ACT Government to address the chronic shortage of affordable housing in Canberra, especially rental housing, through policies including a commitment to the delivery of the ACT Housing Strategy; additional investment in public housing; empowering community housing providers to build more homes; a youth homelessness service and an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Housing Strategy.

We think a good start has been made with the ACT Housing Strategy but we need proper community oversight and an acceleration of the Strategy’s roll-out.

We also need to ensure that Canberrans living in social housing have equality of access to transport, schools, healthcare and other community facilities to prevent social isolation and disadvantage.

YWCA Canberra has prioritised safe, secure and affordable housing in our Towards 2024 election as a core election ask. Housing appears to be something that so many people feel passionately about. How do you see the policy theme of housing as playing out this election?

We’ve made some strides. Politicians and the media recognise that housing affordability is a serious problem in Canberra – housing affordability is a central part of the political narrative. That’s a tribute to collective campaigning by many in the ACT community services sector including YWCA Canberra, ACT Shelter, as well as some good alliances with sections of property industry who see the benefits of building more social and affordable housing.

While there is a need, ACTCOSS will advocate for public housing and appropriate homelessness services. However, we also need to ensure that people on low incomes, carers, single parents, older persons, students and income support recipients can keep a roof over their heads. Women are overrepresented in many of these groups. ACTCOSS will also advocate for more community housing and secure, accessible private rental options.

The challenges faced in Canberra are not only about the quantity of housing but the quality and type of housing available. There are too many people without access to appropriate housing – people with disabilities and older people. We need all the parties to commit to ensuring all new housing is accessible – built to universal design standards. The market won’t fix this – we need strong regulation.

During the COVID-19 shut-down, YWCA Canberra experienced a 170% uptake in referrals to our community services and housing support team. Clearly, a lot more people, including those who may never have needed housing support services before, are in housing stress. How does ACTCOSS’s suite of recommendations address the diversity of this growing need?

COVID-19 has resulted in massive job losses and financial uncertainty for thousands of Canberrans. The number of people receiving JobSeeker and Youth Allowance in the ACT has doubled since the end of last year. Women have been disproportionately impacted.

This year’s Anglicare Housing Snapshot showed that, even with the Coronavirus Supplement, housing in Canberra remained unaffordable to most people on income support. From 25 September 2020, a person on JobSeeker will lose $300 per fortnight and face the prospect of a further cut just after Christmas.

The ACT has a shortfall of around 3,000 social housing dwellings, while almost 1,600 people in the ACT are homeless according to data compiled by Everybody’s Home.

Homelessness in Canberra is a serious problem hidden by our high wages. A Mission Australia survey of young people found that in the ACT, one in 10 young people had couch-surfed and 2.6% had lived without a fixed address, a refuge or transitional accommodation at some time. We’re also seeing increasing numbers of older women facing homelessness in retirement.

The next ACT Government needs solutions to homelessness: for people leaving justice settings, for young people, for older women, and people with psycho-social disability.

The ACT Government recently announced a $61 million investment in public housing construction and upgrades. Does ACTCOSS feel this investment goes far enough to cater for housing needs across the community? What other measures should be pursued by the ACT Government to meet the goals of its housing strategy?

ACTCOSS welcomed the recent public housing stimulus package.

Secure homes for people with disabilities and people on low incomes, as well as the jobs it creates for the construction sector, leads to both welcome social and economic returns on investment. The addition of 60 new class C homes will provide vital accessible and affordable housing options with the security of tenure to support people with disabilities to exercise more choice and control over housing decisions. Infrastructure upgrades to extend the asset life of multi-unit complexes will support hundreds of Canberrans to stay safely housed

We also agree with our colleagues at ACT Shelter that without a holistic suite of demand and supply-side interventions – for example, reforms to land development, planning and zoning to achieve minimum quotas for social housing supply – we won’t achieve the goals of the ACT Housing Strategy including reductions in homelessness, strengthening social housing assistance and increasing affordable rental housing.

Affordable housing should be distributed, including close to the services and transport links. We support greater density but the focus must be on affordability, amenity and community development for good neighbourhoods.

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