If we want to mitigate the harmful housing outcomes from COVID-19 and prevent an avalanche of homelessness, it will be because COVID-19 fundamentally disrupts how we as a community respond to homelessness.
COVID-19 has already forced politicians to seek common ground and to adopt new policy positions, often at odds with their previous views. For this, they should be congratulated.
But if we want to end homelessness the Federal Government must immediately implement two broad policy initiatives to create the social infrastructure that will ensure all Australians can enjoy a life free from housing instability and homelessness.
Firstly, the implementation of the COVID-19 supplement was a clear signal that both political parties recognise JobSeeker payments have been insufficient.
There is already emerging evidence pointing to the benefits of the additional COVID-19 payments, with low income households eating better and more regularly, as well as managing rental payment.
The Federal Government recently indicated the standard JobSeeker payment will be increased to $815 fortnight. This is not a permanent increase, but it needs to be.
Secondly, there is clear evidence that for low income households social housing is the most effective way of preventing and ending homelessness.
Across the political spectrum a wider range of actors than ever before are endorsing the need for increased investment in social housing.
These include conservative economists, the OECD, large private sector corporations and peak bodies, such as the Victorian Affordable Housing Industry Advisory Group, CHIA Vic and the Victorian Council of Social Service.
While motivations may vary, all recognise the social and economic benefits that increasing investment in social housing will bring to Australia and to Australians.
If politicians are genuine about ending homelessness, governments – state and federal, left and right – must work together to stimulate the lower end of the housing market by setting social housing construction targets and establishing long term financing arrangements, including public subsidies, to meet the targets.
Despite the social and economic toll that COVID-19 will doubtless exact on the country, COVID-19 may – paradoxically – be the catalyst that drives the housing and homelessness policy changes we need.
COVID-19 may be the event that disrupts our fetish with individualising social problems and the political reluctance to create a housing system that secures better housing outcomes for every Australian.
Professor Guy Johnson, Director, Unison Housing Research Lab at RMIT University
James King, CEO Unison Housing