Australia’s unaffordable housing crisis is bad. But we shouldn't look at it in isolation

A house for sale in Melbourne. Image: Getty.

For all the talk of a housing affordability crisis, here in Australia and beyond, having unaffordable housing isn’t necessarily bad for people. This is perhaps a dangerous statement to make, but housing cost stresses and other problems – when experienced in isolation – may be tolerable. Difficulties usually emerge not from one problem but from an accumulation of problems. The Conversation

Housing affordability alone may have limited impact on people if they are able to adjust the household budget or their rental or mortgage costs. But if a household has an accumulation of problems (for example, unaffordable housing, plus insecure tenure, plus unemployment), that greatly reduces their capacity to adjust or respond effectively.

Acknowledging the difference between separate problems and an accumulation of problems is more important than you’d think. If we don’t, we underplay the impact of multiple problems on people, incorrectly identify who most needs assistance and probably misdirect our attempts to help.

Generations of Australians have enjoyed very high housing standards compared to most other nations. For the last couple of decades, though, cracks have appeared (and are widening) in the Great Australian Dream.

Australia now has some of the most unaffordable housing in the world. The problems of housing quality and insecurity in the private rental sector are increasing. And the public housing safely net is now so small it cannot catch all of the people who need it.

Researchers, governments and Australia as a society are concerned and heavily invested in understanding and responding to housing-related problems. But perhaps we are too “problem-focused”. We often seek to understand and solve housing affordability, or rental insecurity, or homelessness, or even more broadly, employment or problems associated with disability.

But we tend to look at each aspect separately.In doing so, we overlook the fact that many housing-related problems are experienced in combination – usually by the same people.

Teasing out patterns of problems

What if we were to think of people with multiple problems, instead of the separate problems that multiple people have?

What if we were to think of people with multiple problems, instead of the separate problems that multiple people have? Image: author provided.

In the current edition of Cities, we model how people’s problems accumulate. Using data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) dataset, we look at more than 17,000 adult Australians in unaffordable housing. We define people as having unaffordable housing if they have low to moderate incomes and spend more than 30 per cent of their household income on housing costs.

Our research set out to test the degree to which these people experience multiple housing and related problems. In this experiment we focus on six problems: affordability, locational advantage, security, welfare, employment and disability.

This simple analysis far from captures the full breadth of housing-related problems that individuals face. Even so, it reveals enough about people’s accumulation of housing problems in Australia to challenge our current thinking.

Our analysis shows us that only a relatively small proportion of people (around 10 per cent) have an accumulation of these housing-related vulnerabilities. But simply identifying who has multiple problems doesn’t necessarily indicate the package of assistance they might need.

When we examine the collection of accumulated problems among the 10 per cent, we see few clear patterns of shared problems. Even in this small analysis, there are 40 distinct combinations of problems.

The largest group sharing a pattern of problems represents only 12 per cent of the 10 per cent. And remember that we are only looking at a limited list of six problems here. It would almost certainly be much more complex in the real world.

The findings allow us to reflect on how assistance might shift if focused on people with an accumulation of problems. Using the example of housing affordability, we might seek to address it for every person in the whole population of 17,000 classified as having unaffordable housing.

However, this research shows that more than half of these people (60 per cent) do not have any other problems.


How does this affect policy?

Perhaps our concern for housing affordability should be disproportionately focused on the small group who have an accumulation of multiple problems.

What this research leaves us with is a call for a different way to think about and respond to housing-related problems. It suggests we should look beyond separate problems – such as housing affordability – and focus more attention on the people with an accumulation of multiple problems.

The substantial variation in combinations of housing problems also suggests that “individualised” responses may be much more effective than generic packages of problem-focused assistance.

To some extent, the suggestion that we should be thinking about people’s accumulation of vulnerabilities and problems is not new. Policy thinking appears to be heading in this direction anyway. Australia is well down the path of exploring individualised welfare, with approaches and packages like Consumer Directed Care and the NDIS (the intentions of which were well discussed in recent work).

Perhaps the way we think about housing affordability just needs to catch up.

Emma Baker is an associate professor in the School of Architecture & Built Environment, at the University of Adelaide.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.