Talking with a local – Paul Spooner on Affordable housing
The recent election bought up a lot of chatter about affordable housing in the shire. BPS loves a complicated situation so what’s the fuss? Is affordable housing a lost dream or an idealistic fiction? Can it be attained and how so? The biggest advocate on this issue is re-elected counsellor Paul Spooner. BPS sat down with him to find out what’s what and what’s not.
Q. What exactly is affordable housing? After all what is affordable to one person is out of the question to another. Definition please:
A. The actual definition of affordable housing is 30% of income to pay for accommodation. That means 30% of your wage should be spent on your mortgage or the rent. But affordable housing, the term, has become loaded. I want to change it to “Essential Housing”. The problem is that most people think “affordable housing” means cheaper house prices but its not.
Here we have house prices and rents which most working people cannot afford. Key workers cannot afford to live here. We don’t have enough diversity of housing. One or two bedroom apartments are not available and so people have to go back to shared housing. But basically, affordable housing is supposed to be a reasonable proportion of your income.
Q. What’s the difference between affordable housing and social housing?
A. Social housing is available to those people on some form of benefit – government subsidised housing. Here is an interesting figure: The state NSW average for the supply of social housing is 5% of the housing stock. Here in Byron shire it is only 1.8%. That is just one indicator of how badly off we are here.
Q. The conservative councillors argued in the last council that we can best achieve affordable housing by releasing more land and satisfying the supply/demand pressure. What’s wrong with that?
A. That’s why I have bought this graph to show you. Look at this from the Sydney Morning Herald. It clearly shows that even when you have an increase supply of the housing stock the median house price keeps rising in Sydney. Increasing supply does not decrease house prices. Cheap credit is the main reason for price increase. This is all over the place and not just our problem. New York, London, San Francisco and other places are having to look at supplying social housing again.
Q. Most people believe all the levers controlling the housing issue are in the hands of the state and federal parliaments. What exactly can BSC do?
A. This is the problem we have inherited. The government has stepped out of social or affordable housing. Now its time to step back in and its no coincidence that state and federal government are talking about it again. But I dispute that there is no room for local council to have an influence in this space.
If we had been more active with things like the West Byron development we could of had a good outcome and demanded 20% of that stock be affordable.
I personally am of the opinion that we have a lot of scope to allow more housing inside our built up areas. Do we want development in our green zones, our rural areas? Or do we want to allow more dwellings inside our towns and villages. I am firmly in the camp we can get more diversity and capacity in towns, especially if we drop some of the restrictions around car space requirements. We have planning regulations formulated in the 50s and this is a new century.
We can look at these things while formulating the new residential settlement strategy. One of the first things I intend to do in the new council is to hold a Housing Affordability Summit. That will be at the council meeting of October 6th so we will take it from there.
Q. Is one way of encouraging more affordable housing getting council partnering with developers and find an appetite for PPPs – Private, Public, Partnerships? Do you think the new council will have an appetite for that and what will it look like?
A. We want to do that. We are already progressing it with the land to the south of the Council Chambers in Mullumbimby with Northern Rivers Community Housing. They are the largest community-housing provider in this region. We had four lots there that were just going to be sold off but we offered it to them as long as they provide affordable housing in Mullumbimby. It’s still in early stages but I think it will happen.
Q. I have seen many waves of people leaving because the town has changed or is no longer affordable. Maybe this is just the law of natural attrition. Do you think we can really change that?
A. I don’t accept inequality and we are creating a community that is unequal. The dividing line is between those who own property and those who don’t. I don’t want to live in an unequal community. If you want to be green you have to limit inequality. If you can solve the housing problem here you can solve it anywhere.