In late 2020, the Victorian Government announced the Big Housing Build (BHB) with the construction of 12,000 social and affordable dwellings, to be completed within four years. This significant investment in Victoria’s public and social housing was closely followed by an announcement from the Queensland Government, stating they would commit to building 6,400 public and social housing dwellings before 30 June 2025. The Western Australian government followed in September 2021 with $875m in investment, including a $750m investment fund similar in nature to NSW and Victoria.
After a decade of housing policy that was mostly driven by small incremental gains and significant focus on cost optimisation and resource efficiency, these announcements were warmly received and indicate a significant change in direction for social housing policy – aiming to reduce the gap in housing demand versus supply.
As significant as these investments are, they will not solve Australia’s social housing crisis on their own or transform the lives of the people living within the social housing system. Alongside the bricks and mortar, an equal focus on the supports that people need to maintain their housing and survive and thrive within the social housing system and beyond is also needed.
Creating vibrant communities
Successful social housing needs to provide a safe place for people to live, to work, to engage with each other and the broader community. There is so much more to successful social housing than buildings.
Such large investments typically place significant pressure on a single government agency in each jurisdiction. They bear the responsibility of reaching the target housing quotas and as a result a significant portion of their effort at the front end is directed towards procurement and construction. With resources predominantly focused on construction, the human reason behind why individuals are seeking social housing in the first place can be overlooked and pathways in and out of social housing forgotten.
KPMG has worked on social housing projects for more than a decade. We understand the substantial effort required to deliver successful public and social housing communities. Significant community engagement is required to understand the systemic challenges residents face within the social housing system itself and their unique housing needs.
The program must be designed to meet those needs. Housing that is built for people, designed with supports that enable diverse, inclusive and vibrant communities must be a key pillar of the strategy that sits above and alongside the construction activity. We see increasing examples of this, such as Victoria’s proposed 10-year strategy for Social and Affordable Housing.
Most dwellings in social housing are occupied by individuals who are overcoming adversity – they’ve escaped wars, been victims of family violence or may have experienced a traumatic, life-altering event. As diverse as their cultural backgrounds and reasons for seeking refuge in the safety net of social housing are; what unites many of the current and future residents is that they have increasingly complex needs.
A home is a crucial first step to stabilising lives, but not a panacea. It’s often the social housing providers and neighbours that are on the frontline of supporting residents’ transition into the community.
Whether it be providing access to local health services or supporting a non-English speaker make sense of an electricity bill – the services they provide to residents are crucial for strengthening social housing communities as a whole. However, the neighbours and public and social housing providers are not adequately set up to deliver this support on an on-going basis.
Changing the relationship
Public and social housing policy has previously been limited in its consideration of the community-based needs of the social housing residents and the relationship between resident and provider has been transactional at best. Social housing providers need to undergo a fundamental shift from operating as rent collectors to acting as community stewards.
Working towards building trusted, reciprocal relationships with residents will lay the foundation for inclusive and resilient communities that allow its residents prosper and be welcomed by the broader community. Developing the capability of the social housing workforce to respond to this challenge is therefore key.
Lessons for social housing providers
Key lessons when planning social housing communities – for government and non-government providers.
- Engage with residents to get a deep, unfiltered understanding of the needs, worries and aspirations of the local community. For communities with a level of distrust in government or housing institutions, this first step often requires independent facilitation and mediation by a third party.
- Public and social housing communities are incredibly diverse. To get a complete perspective, research and engagement activities should be purposefully designed to include all voices and opinions. Conduct in-depth, one-on-one conversations with residents in a space and method that suits them – and in their first language.
- Co-creation is key. Invite residents to shape the research and community engagement from the beginning and facilitate a process that makes it easy for residents to express their needs, concerns and aspirations – in their words.
- Based on the need, concerns, aspirations of residents and the broader community – create opportunities and work with the community to develop an action plan that helps them prioritise the opportunities and provide a visible pathway to achieve them.
- Demonstrate action – early and consistently. This requires government agencies to adopt agile ways of working. In practice, this means iteratively testing initiatives with local communities at a small scale before rolling them out. This point might be most important, especially with local housing communities with a lack in trust in government.
Taking an integrated approach
The social housing crisis is not only characterised by supply issues; residents are facing a diverse intersection of challenges relating to employment, health and other factors. Various support measures must be interwoven with improvements in physical infrastructure to foster rich communities and empower individuals to lead fulfilling lives.
Investing in social housing goes beyond the physical dwelling; an integrated approach is needed to address the nuanced needs of residents and deliver lasting improvements in the social housing services.
Changing the relationship with residents will not only unlock the potential that sits within these communities, but will also help government agencies shape their organisational purpose to engage the hearts and minds of residents and lead the shift required to help solve Australia's social housing crisis.
Providing not only the right physical infrastructure, but also the fabric that will build strong and vibrant communities across Australia.
Social housing insights
Read how we've helped some of our clients in relation to social housing