‘Exercise in spin’: Housing advocates slam eligibility changes

A State Government move to narrow the eligibility criteria for social housing has been described as a “distraction” by housing advocates, who say the diminishing number of Housing Authority properties are already limited to the state’s most vulnerable.

Aug 04, 2021, updated Aug 04, 2021
Photo: InDaily

Photo: InDaily

Under the changes, due to come into force on August 25, single households who earn over $715.05 a week will no longer be eligible for social housing, while the maximum eligible income for couples will be cut back to $1112.30.

Currently, social housing is available for single households who earn up to $1023.36 a week and couples who earn up to $1338.24.

Households with children will have a higher income threshold of $1747.90, while special consideration will be given to people who may be ineligible under the new criteria but have special needs, such as escaping domestic violence or living with a disability.

The most significant cuts come to the household assets test, which will be reduced by 90 per cent for both singles and couples.

The single household asset limits will drop from $482,500 to $48,250, while the couples asset limit will be cut from $616,000 to $61,600.

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink first flagged the changes in October last year, announcing the Government would seek to “modernise” the housing system by consulting stakeholders about the “current, generous eligibility criteria for entering social housing”.

She told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that the changes would not affect people already living in public housing, but early estimates indicated that about 800 people who are currently on the waiting list would now be ineligible for housing.

A spokesperson from the SA Housing Authority told InDaily that there are currently 16,613 people on the waiting list for public housing.

Of those, there are currently 3292 people in category one – classed as the most vulnerable cohort – down from 4281 in 2017.

“We just really want to bring them (income and asset thresholds) into line with community expectations and make sure that people who access public housing are the most in need,” Lensink said.

“It’s such an easy change, it should have been done years ago, quite frankly.

“We think it’s really important that people have trust, that people are who getting houses are in fact the most vulnerable.”

But housing advocates say changes to the eligibility criteria are not needed, as the Government already has systems in place to ensure social housing is prioritised for the most vulnerable.

They argue the Government should instead build more public housing.

South Australian Council of Social Service CEO Ross Womersley told InDaily that it was “highly unlikely that people in anything but really difficult, urgent circumstances have made their way through the Housing Authority’s system to get to the top of an allocation”.

“I just think that this is a huge exercise in spin,” he said.

“Clearly the impression that this change leaves in the minds of the public is that we have thousands of people who are so well off and yet have been accessing public housing.”

According to the latest Report on Government Services (ROGS) data, there were 32,147 social housing dwellings in South Australia last year, of which 30,501 were occupied.

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This whole thing seems to be an exercise of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Of those, 87 per cent or 26,626 were occupied by “low-income households”, which are classed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as those that fall in the bottom 40 per cent of equivalised gross household income.

The number of social housing dwellings in the state has decreased since 2011, when there were 41,638 houses.

Womersley said the “great majority” of people on the state’s social public housing wait list would not be accepted as “we are simply not building enough public housing to enable that to happen”.

“The changes to the criteria are just a distraction in the midst of what we have, which is a major crisis in the availability of housing,” he said.

Shelter SA executive director Alice Clark told InDaily the changes “reek of an election coming and what’s today’s announceable”.

She said there was about 200 to 300 current public housing households who would fall outside the new income limits, but for the “vast majority” of tenants, the new limits would already apply.

“Unfortunately, I think, it does play into some stigma around social housing and ideas that there’s all these people that live in public housing that are driving around in BMWs with good jobs. That’s simply not true,” she said.

“It might remove a small number of people from the waiting list, but it does absolutely nothing to address the housing crisis that we’re in right now, where house prices have gone up, rents have gone up (and) there are no vacancies in the private rental market.”

Shadow Human Services Minister Nat Cook told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that changing the eligibility criteria “is not actually going to do anything for the huge majority of people who are on the list”.

“What is the actual point of spending all the resources at this particular juncture to set these different parameters if you’re actually not going to achieve one extra house, one extra placement of someone in a period of time where we know according to the Federal Government reports this year, this state actually is allocating less houses to people, we have the highest vacancy rate across the country,” she said.

Greens MLC Robert Simms added that the changes were “academic”.

“The reality is, we’re never going to get to the bottom of that waiting list, it just goes on and on and on, so this whole thing seems to be an exercise of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he told ABC Radio.

But Lensink told InDaily that the changes would bring South Australia’s “overly generous” eligibility criteria in line with the other states and territories and would ensure that the most vulnerable would be allocated housing.

“The new policy has most definitely passed the pub test, with the overwhelming response from the public saying ‘about time’ and the majority shocked that people could be in social housing with incredibly high assets and incomes,” she said.

“Most South Australians would agree that it’s not fair couples with assets of more than $600,000 have been eligible for social housing – and something drastically needed to change.”

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