Introducing our New Life Member Vivienne Milligan

At AHI’s Annual General Meeting on 24th November 2016, Vivienne Milligan was invited to join an exclusive club of just three other members – Andrew Cappie-Wood, Frances Ferguson and Bernie Coates – as an AHI Life Member. Following is an edited version of a live interview conducted by Rebecca Pinkstone from Bridge Housing upon Vivienne’s induction.

Name: Vivienne Milligan
Title: Senior Visiting Fellow, City Futures Research Centre UNSW; and Director, NSW Federation of Housing Associations
Resides: Sydney
Years in housing: 35

Vivienne Milligan’s impressive career has been dedicated to the advancement of a fairer housing system.

Recently retired from her position as Associate Professor at the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW, she has spent the past 12 years as an AHURI-funded housing researcher where she has led and published numerous studies on diverse topics – ranging from international and national housing policy trends, housing affordability and financing rental housing through to Indigenous social housing, affordable housing developers and developments, and hybridity in housing organisations.

Educated in Urban Geography, Vivienne completed a BA (Hons 1) at the University of Sydney in 1973 and a Doctorate at Utrecht University, The Netherlands, in 2003. Prior to 2003, she worked for over 20 years as a senior housing policy-maker in various Australian jurisdictions. She played a key role in driving innovation in public, community, Indigenous and affordable housing programs across Australia.

Vivienne was also the recipient of a Public Service Medal (Queensland) in 1993 and, in 2016, was a joint winner of the inaugural Nazha Saad Award for Women’s High Achievement in Housing. She received AHI awards for Professional Excellence in 2007 (NSW) and 2008 (Australia). She is a Foundation Member and former Director of AHI, and was the inaugural editor of the publication you’re currently reading, HousingWORKS.

What do you see as the biggest changes in housing policy affecting the social and affordable housing sector over the course of your career?

“In my view, the single biggest change was the loss of public funding earmarked for building new social housing. Although a decline in social housing as a share of the national housing market has been a long-term trend, the 1996 Howard Government’s abandonment of any requirement for new social housing supply and the associated $200 million cumulative annual housing funding cuts had devastating and lasting impacts. We now need 140,000 additional dwellings just to get back to where we were had the 1996 policy change not occurred. Subsequent changes in 2009 (when the Rudd Government introduced the National Affordable Housing Agreement) also weakened state government obligations to invest in and protect public housing assets, and left a service system inadequately funded at a time of deepening need.”

“One direct consequence has been increasing ‘demand management’ – for instance, undercutting security of tenure in the hope of moving people on – and the latest NSW mantra about ‘how to get people to avoid social housing.’ These directions fly in the face of the founding vision of public housing as an alternative to a home-of-your-own for low income and disadvantaged people. Furthermore, viewing our private rental market as a destination for the vast majority of low income households cannot meet the objective of all Australians having secure, affordable and appropriate housing unless you radically change that part of the system.”

“A more positive policy development is that policy-makers and industry leaders since the 1980s have been gradually and doggedly building an alternative low-rent provider system to public housing. I am referring here to the development of community housing as a model for providing high quality and enduring housing services. But community housing could be so much more – elsewhere, not-for-profit housing organisations are major housing developers (currently doing 29 percent of all house-building in England, for example), as well as place-builders and long-term custodians of community assets. Here, similar entrepreneurship is still stymied by a confused policy framework, government paternalism and restricted CHP balance sheets.”

How have you seen the role of the bureaucracy, advocates and tenants change over this period?

“Recently, much has been said about the decline of the public service – that is, the hollowing out of the bureaucracy and its loss of institutional memory (as summed up in Laura Tingle’s excellent 2015 Quarterly Essay ‘Political Amnesia: how we forgot to govern’). Dating from the mid-1990s (some may say earlier), the housing realm has suffered heavily from a narrowing of the Australian Government’s policy interests and devolution of responsibility to state governments, which, in turn, has contributed to a fragmented and volatile policy environment. Over the same period, in most states, we have seen the submergence of housing within human services departments and the associated loss of a strategic housing policy outlook. This has effectively removed any counterweight to Treasury conservatism and its entrenched ‘market is best’ ideology.”

“Beyond government, affordable housing advocates don’t have the power and political access of other private interest groups that dominate the field. One exception was the 2004-2008 Housing Summit Group – a broad cross-industry alliance with a high profile chair – which helped shape major national reforms in 2008-2009, such as the National Rental Affordability Scheme.”

While I haven’t been closely associated with tenant participation activities since the 1990s, I think an evidence-based comparison with Western Europe, UK and the Americas would rank us lowly on tenant empowerment (such as tenant representatives as participants in governance and policy-making), and on our grassroots community housing movements, including cooperatives and community land trusts. This is, at least partly, a function of the marginalisation of collaborative and consumer-driven approaches under a predominantly privatised and individualised system of provision. So capacity-building needs to be a future priority in this area.”

What do you count as the key highlights of your career?

“I usually nominate my proudest achievement as my part in establishing the Aboriginal Housing Office in NSW. From 1994, along with local Aboriginal leaders, we argued the case (to successive governments) that resulted in the enactment, in 1998, of legislation creating that Office and setting its long-term objectives. This has enabled continuing specialised attention to the management of Aboriginal housing services, promoted fit-for-purpose policies (on rents, for example) and given Aboriginal people a lasting voice inside government. I believe, as a direct result, NSW has avoided the worst excesses of mainstreaming agendas seen elsewhere, and is on a path to having the most sustainable Indigenous housing sector in Australia.”

“Returning to academia in 2004 was another personal highlight, which has given me a voice beyond policy-making. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 12 years leading AHURI-funded research on new models and ideas for affordable housing. During that time, I have contributed to over 20 diverse projects, which together provide a large compendium of ideas and evidence on how to transform our social and affordable housing system.”

“I am also proud of HousingWORKS – the industry journal – of which I was Founding Editor between 2003 and 2006. Editing was an unfamiliar role for me but I took it on because the Australasian Housing Institute needed to get the project moving, and it’s now a well-established and valued magazine.”

How do you keep your enthusiasm, passion and commitment? What would be your take home advice for practitioners working in the social housing field?

“My housing career had an opportunistic beginning. However, it quickly became my ‘cause’ as I came to appreciate the fundamental importance of housing to personal wellbeing, and the huge need for alternatives to home ownership for vulnerable people and low income households. This brought an enduring sense of meaning and resolve to my work.”

“In a professional sense, housing is a fascinating, stimulating and multi-faceted issue – economics, social policy, architecture and design, law, finance, psychology and urban planning disciplines all have a bearing on housing analysis and bring fresh perspectives and ideas. Organisational, community development and management literatures have also offered new insights.”

“I feel fortunate to have been able to pursue a single, albeit wide-ranging, field of interest in so many different ways (via research, policy-making, program management, teaching, consulting and advocacy), and in many locations across Australia. Over the years, I resisted pressure to change fields or to stray too far from my areas of expertise. Mid-career, I refreshed through returning to study and built my international networks.”

“I have been helped enormously by many mentors and great colleagues (too numerous to name here) who were like-minded, capable, strong and committed professionals and advocates. Overall, my experience tells me you can make a positive difference if you are determined enough, and work purposefully and collegiately. Presently, we are seeing a mounting rejection of inequality in housing, and the growing influence of a new generation of housing consumers with different needs and preferences. So, I encourage those who have chosen a housing career and want to make our housing system fairer to stay the course.”