Australia’s human rights legacy tarnished by housing woes

09 Dec 2018

Australia’s human rights legacy tarnished by housing woes

70 years ago this week, the international community adopted the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). In the wake of a half century characterised by two world wars responsible for the destruction of more than 50 million human beings, the UDHR was conceived as a beacon of reason and decency with which the global community might light the way forward. 

Although the horrors that presaged its birth would have made it easy to dismiss as a Panglossian fantasy, the UDHR was nevertheless a much-needed affirmation of the essential dignity of humanity. And while its aims may have been utopian, it meant the international community, for the first time, had an agreed set of principles by which nations could be judged. “From now on,” it said,” wherever in the world you happen to live, and whatever system of government happens to prevail there, by virtue of your humanity alone, you are entitled to these essential protections.”

Perhaps due to the genesis of the UDHR being inextricably linked with the Second World War, we tend to think of human rights in terms of the prevention of genocide, or the protection of refugees. Less thought is given to those rights that go to the ability of individuals and families to enjoy a standard of living adequate for their health and wellbeing. Yet in the developed world at least, it is these rights that are perhaps most under threat. Nowhere is this more true than in Australia where housing costs in particular are denying millions of people the ability to provide a safe and secure environment for themselves and their families.

In 2007 a United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing visited Australia and reported that we had failed to address this fundamental human right, primarily due to there being no national plan. More than ten years later, very little has changed.

Over the past 20 years median rents in Australia have increased significantly above inflation and, when it comes to purchase prices, Australia remains among the most expensive places in the world. Although prices have begun to trend lower in recent months, the almost exponential growth of recent years means putting a roof over our heads still takes a much bigger slice of our income than it used to. The sad truth is that for prices in Australia to return to a level that would be considered affordable by international standards, we would need to see falls of more than 50% in some markets. The broader economic consequences of such a crash hardly bear thinking about.

The impact of high rents and purchase prices have been amplified by our country’s failure to maintain an adequate supply of social and affordable housing. A new report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), says 730,000 new social and affordable housing properties are needed in Australia by 2036. A significant amount of this shortfall exists right now. As we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it is totally unacceptable that a country as wealthy as Australia should be unable to provide its citizens with the basic human right to adequate housing. After all, it’s not as if we don’t know how.

On the contrary, the solutions to Australia’s housing problem are well known. What is missing is the political will. “Everybody’s Home” is a national campaign put together by housing experts that seeks to gather political support for those solutions. There are 5 simple things our Government can do to fix Australia’s housing system so that it works for everyone:

  1. Reset our tax system to make it fairer for ordinary Australians wanting to buy a home.
  2. Appoint a minister for housing and develop a national housing strategy to deliver 500,000 social and affordable rental homes.
  3. Improve renters’ rights throughout Australia by getting rid of “no grounds” evictions and unfair rent rises.
  4. Increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance for the thousands of Australians who are struggling to pay the rent.
  5. Develop a National Plan to end homelessness by 2030.

Some will argue that adopting these solutions would be too expensive, and it is true that building that amount of new housing would require substantial investment from the Australian Government. But at approximately $9 billion a year, it is certainly not impossible, particularly when the Commonwealth currently foregoes around $62 billion of potential revenue each year through various home ownership subsidies. Making it happen is just a matter of priorities. There is even a local precedent. In the decade following World War II, the Australian Government partnered with the states to build 670,000 homes. We need to see that kind of vision again.

If you think housing is your biggest and most important cost of living pressure, it is time to make housing an election issue. Visit to make sure your voice is heard.  


Greg Budworth is the group managing director of Compass Housing Services, and the Vice President of UN Habitat’s General Assembly of Partners.

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