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Housing: are councils the solution or the problem?

This article written by Judy Skatssoon of GovernmentNews and was first published HERE This article is re-published with permission

Above: Housing used to be off-limits for local councils. Not any more, according to research.

Local government is often blamed for being part of the housing problem, but research suggests councils are increasingly taking on a stewardship role in what was previously seen as an off-limits area, a housing conference has heard.

Professor Andrew Beer from the university of South Australia is the lead researcher in a three-year project looking at local government and housing.

He told the National Housing Conference in Darwin last week that despite the traditional view that when it comes to housing, local government should limit itself to implementing state planning acts, a survey of 212 local councils showed local governments are implementing a range of innovative initiatives off their own backs.

“Clearly housing is finding its way onto the agenda of councils,” he said.

Councils often left out of the housing discussion

Liz de Chastel, a senior policy adviser with ALGA, says local government is often left out of the housing discussion.

“There’s a fear by some local governments about saying ‘we’re doing something about housing’ because it’s seen as a state, rather than local government role, apart from strategic planning and development assessments,” she told the conference.

ALGA has two key positions on housing, including a demand to for a national strategy on affordable housing and addressing the needs of remote Indigenous communities.

Ms de Chastel acknowledged a motion calling for mandatory exclusionary zoning was voted down at ALGA’s Naional Summit earlier this year but said this was because of concerns about decisions being forced on councils, rather than opposition to exclusionary zoning in itself.

She noted three other motions calling for action on housing were passed.

Stop demonising councils

Professor Beer says councils have the capacity to supply land, support community organisations, engage with other tiers of government, develop and implement planning projects and co-ordinate social services.

“Too often local government has been demonised as part of the problem, or that its unrealistic standards get in the way of solving the affordable housing conundrum,” he said. “We challenge that thinking.

“We argue these are new times in the relationship between local government and housing in Australia. What we are seeing is the stewardship role of local government in respect of their communities.

“What we’ve concluded is that in many ways local government has stepped beyond its role, particularly in terms of affordable housing… Now it’s part of a networked housing solution.”

Local governments take matters into their own hands

Melbourne’s Darebin Council has been working with an independent community charity on a project called the Affordable Housing Challenge.

“There’s a really strong commitment to affordable housing within the council group and innovative solutions and to council stepping into a gap and responding to local issues,” principal strategic planner at Darebin Sophie Jordan, told delegates.

The Lord Mayor’s Charitable foundation initiated the challenge to encourage collaboration from philanthropy, commercial developers, architects, urban planners  and government to address housing issues.

The foundation offered a $1 million grant , plus a $2 million loan, for the development of under-utilised sites. In return council put forward a proposal to develop a council-owned carpark in Preston into an affordable housing development, offered on a fifty-year lease.

“The good news is that philanthropy and local government both have a really strong commitment to quality affordable housing,” Erin Dolan, program manager for homelessness at Lord Mayor’s charitable foundation, told the conference.

Council is currently in the process of identifying a tenant for the site.

Increasing pressure on local government

Professor Beer says the housing problem is likely to get worse, putting more pressure on local government.

Councils had the option to act now or remain powerless.

“My argument would be that local governments are probably going to be better placed taking the initiative now than having it imposed from above”.

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