The public housing paradox: by helping only the neediest, we undermine the entire system

One of the first people I met when I came to Canberra, more than 30 years ago now, was a public housing tenant. Let’s call her Patricia. Patricia was a formidable lady from Cooma (a source of many formidable people). She was a widow and she worked full-time. She didn’t earn much but it was enough to get by.

The unit where she lived was part of a public housing complex that was handy to shops and services, and was also close to where she worked. Of course, those same advantages were worth even more outside the public sector. The units were demolished long ago, and the site sold, to make way for richer folk.

We are seeing the same pattern repeating itself, with greater frequency, as the ACT government prepares to demolish public housing occupying valuable land along Northbourne Avenue and elsewhere, having moved the tenants out to the suburbs. It’s true that these public housing complexes were ageing, and the tenants often desperate to move. But the problem the government says its strategy is solving has its origins in poor decisions taken years before.

On the face of it, public housing should be an activity of government that meets its social objectives while funding itself through adroit property management. Houses are, after all, income-generating assets. But public housing authorities everywhere in Australia are struggling to meet rising demand. In part, this is because private rental properties have become unaffordable for many people.

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