The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and lasting impact on everyday life in Australia. The immediate social and economic shocks – from job precarity and loss of income, to housing stress and social dislocation – affected every Australian household, damaging individual and collective well-being. As a nation that prides itself on perceived high levels of quality of life, COVID-19 came as a once-in-a-generation reminder that our economy and way of life are more vulnerable than they seem. The social and economic shockwaves hit households
rapidly, with more Australians at risk of experiencing some form of housing stress. For those people already experiencing housing stress, the future looked bleak.
In our recent study
published by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), we revealed how the unfolding crisis hit the housing system in Australia, and how governments responded through policy interventions. The housing system is a complex system operating across levels of government, involving multiple agencies, organisations and service providers. Of course, a key goal of an effective housing system is to provide safe, secure housing for all. Our core motivation was to understand how rapid and effective coordination and collaboration was possible for such a system, under uncertain and emerging crisis conditions.
Chasing the storm
As the early stages of the pandemic response rolled out (March-June 2020), we traced the unfolding crisis by documenting all policy interventions and measures that directly and indirectly addressed impacts on households, across the housing continuum
. We followed this with a closer look at how
policy makers and service providers intervened quickly and effectively to alleviate the social and economic shockwaves.
What we found was a well-coordinated, multi-level response to the crisis on the housing system. Of 98 interventions and measures announced across governments, around $4 billion was committed. The range and number of policy announcements in the first two months of the pandemic was impressive, combined with clear federal and state leadership in priority areas and for vulnerable populations. At a federal level, flagship initiatives such as Job Seeker payment increases and the Job Keeper wage subsidy provided supports to sustain household income levels. This was complemented by coordinated policy action and key legislative reforms at the state government level, alongside further considerable fiscal commitments that were fast-tracked across housing areas.
Homelessness initiatives targeted rough sleeping and prevention, focusing on emergency funding for accommodation and front-line services and long-term housing. There was clear coordination between governments and service providers to ensure a rapid response to protect the most vulnerable. Multi-agency coordination in Victoria saw the elimination of rough sleeping in Melbourne
, while federal measures to address domestic and family violence during the pandemic were supported by targeted state-based programs
While the scale and speed of the policy response was as unprecedented as the crisis itself, some areas were left exposed by a legacy of poor policy leadership and underinvestment. For example, the under-supply and poor standard of social and affordable housing was laid bare during the crisis
. In Victoria, although the state committed significantly to upgrades and maintenance for social and affordable housing stock, the prevailing view is the situation was out of hand before the crisis emerged, leaving residents exposed.
This under-supply could, and should, have been addressed as part of a longer-term strategy coordinated by all levels of government, building on the federal response to the Global Financial Crisis. The recently announced $5.3 billion social and affordable housing construction stimulus in Victoria provides hope on this front; an area of glaring underinvestment and lack of leadership is now primed to receive a long-overdue boost.
Lessons for policymakers
There is still a long way to go to repair and re-think the housing system in Australia. That said, there are two core lessons for policymakers to take from the experiences of 2020.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that we should not have needed a crisis to illustrate just how much more effectively the housing system can work. Indeed, we now have strong evidence that a whole-of-government approach across all housing areas is possible and works well. The sudden release of sizeable financial resources and political capital to make rapid changes where they were most needed, and putting aside political and jurisdictional partisanship, brought about major and long-overdue investments. Policymakers must now use this knowledge to shape future strategic commitments to the system, to better support more Australians to have safe, secure homes and reduce the likelihood of negative housing outcomes.
A second lesson is to focus on how
the coordination processes worked so well (and why others did not). For example, policy makers should evaluate the outcomes from direct interventions in homelessness, crisis accommodation and social housing to create this knowledge and help to make the system more responsive to future shocks. This is a more granular assessment of the jurisdictional boundaries and contractual/collaborative arrangements between governments and with frontline service providers. Doing so will help policymakers learn how effective collaboration was mobilised, which existing processes worked well and which new arrangements were needed. This knowledge will provide the foundations for the housing system to build back better.