Online engagement rises to the global affordable housing challenge

Sally Hussey

Housing is a human right. But solutions to current affordable housing scarcity might be better served by an online engagement approach to involve community in effective and sustainable outcomes.

Affordable housing is an intractable problem globally. Housing stress, dwelling prices out-of-step with wages, working poverty, unstable accommodation and severely overcrowded dwellings are just some of the critical problems facing most major cities across the globe. Add to this decades’ long unregulated speculative housing and, in some cases like Australia, a lack of federal government involvement, and these problems are more than exacerbated. With swelling population growth and urban expansion, this is not limited to major cities. Charting the changing geography of poverty in the United States over recent years, where smaller metropolitan areas have grown at double pace, the suburbanisation of poverty accounts for almost half the total national increase.

On a global scale, price points of dwellings are well beyond household means. In Australia, more than 50 per cent of low income residents are spending upwards of 50 per cent on rent while, in the US, more households are renting than at any other time in 50 years, leaving people open to vulnerable and unstable accommodation. Alternately, in the last year, nearly a quarter of Canadians spent more than 30 percent on shelter costs, revealing more people are living in precarious circumstances. In Vancouver alone, the 2018 Homeless Count found more than 2,100 people do not have a home.

Governments incentivise housing supply

This is not to suggest that governmental policies haven’t been introduced. Nor that governments are blinkered to the impacting “housing crisis”.

While Australia is yet to action a national housing affordability strategy that might prioritise, finance and implement cultural change, individual states are seemingly addressing the issue. In the state of Victoria, for instance, affordable housing has recently been enshrined as an explicit aim in the Planning and Environment Act. Alternately, in the United States, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, introduced historically unprecedented budgetary efforts to incentivise housing production to tackle the state’s widespread housing crisis. This is in the wake of a controversial bill allowing high density near transit stops despite any community objection. By contrast, Newsom’s budget proposed funding for emergency homeless shelters, subsidising developments for low- and middle-income residents and providing grants to cities and counties to instigate housing construction.

But whether buried in planning laws or leading a state wide budgetary promise, when looking at solutions to housing affordability, state governments tackle housing supply. Policy interventions have ranged that from experiments with high-density housing to changing zoning laws primarily to increase supply.

This has been redoubled in proposal measures at Federal levels. Indeed, the UK government has introduced series of budget measures to boost housing supply to fix the “broken housing market”. Equally, in Australia, the Federal government’s proposal to introduce a scheme to offset housing construction aims to inject into housing supply. Although not without concern, some government housing initiatives have had positive results – programs such as encouraging regional policies like, Move To Work, in the US. But, in general, tackling housing supply as an antidote to current affordability scarcity has had varying outcomes for community sustainability.

Housing supply “mathematically impossible”

In fact, the biggest problem isn’t overall supply. False arguments like boosting housing supply to fix affordability is, as Jamie Hall recently stated in The Monthly, “mathematically impossible”.  This is equally questionable in the context of California’s new budgetary promise. As writing in The Atlantic in February, Reihan Salam states: “There is simply not enough zoned land to reach Newsom’s target of 3.5 million new housing units, even if everything went swimmingly.” (From now until 2025, Newsom has called for the construction of 3.5 million new housing units, far surpassing the current average of 80,000 new homes per year over the past decade.) Alternately, the Australian government’s introduction of a “social impact investing” discussion paper to increase supply follows a similar London-based housing scheme criticised for driving up rents and driving out public housing.

The affordable housing supply crisis

A 2019 report by research team Transforming Housing reinforces that the greatest challenge is not overall housing supply. But that price points of dwellings exceed household means. In addition, the actual amount of housing required needs to be not only affordable, but appropriately sized and accessibly located to meet people’s needs.

This brings into question planning systems and policies that contribute to rising inequality, such as those in the UK. Here, researchers have explained how Britain’s planning system and tax policy cause the country’s housing crisis and contribute to rising inequality. As Daniel Bentley explains in his 2017 guide to the housing crisis: “The challenge, however, is not just to raise total output but to ensure that the right types of housing are delivered and in the places they are needed most.”

In Australia, limited crisis accommodation and overflowing public housing wait lists – currently at 200,000 with up to a ten-year waiting list – generate homelessness, in the extreme. Add to this, in just five years, homelessness has grown nationally by 14 per cent (while the state of NSW had the highest growth of over 37 per cent.) With the social housing sector constrained, as Kirsty Muir et al distinguish, we don’t have a housing supply crisis but “an affordable housing supply crisis.” [1]

A crisis in definition

It could be argued that solutions proposed suffer from affordable housing’s broad definition. “Housing affordability,” as the Grattan Institute 2018 report, Housing Affordability: Re-imaginging the Australian Dream, puts it, “is a catch-all term for a grab-bag of public concerns linked to rising house prices.” Indeed, its common use takes in wide-ranging issues from rental stress – “low income earners struggling to make ends meet” – housing accessibility to services and employment, and “the cultural turn of ever widening wealth inequality between and within generations”. Primary to governments’ meeting the provision of goals, as Transforming Housing’s report illucidates, is to “establish a clear and shared definition of ‘affordable housing’”. The numerous state agencies that are often engaged in the aspects of affordable housing delivery further adds to the diffusion of tangible outcomes (in the state of Victoria alone there are over 12 agencies engaged in and around affordable housing).

Photo: Mark Klotz/Flicr

Homelessness and Social Housing

But can we look at housing affordability without looking at key drivers of homelessness? Financial vulnerability is on a continuum of issues that results in people not having affordable homes. Domestic violence, vulnerable groups, discrimination across rental markets, overcrowding, inadequate dwellings, are just some of the factors that push people into housing insecurity.

One solution has been to support public tenants moving into home ownership. The Melbourne Apartment Project (MAP) in Australia and Toronto’s Options For Home Schemes in Canada are two such examples that have enabled cross-subsidy schemes that bridge the gap between private developers and social housing. While MAP offers scalable options and has sold 28 out of 34 apartments to social housing tenants, Toronto has created 6,000 home ownership units in the past 20 years. In Europe, where providing adequate affordable housing has been under threat since 1980s public expenditure pressures, privatisation and liberalisation, social landlords, or organisations that own and manages social housing, have further done a lot to reset the balance.

This also shows how a coordinated, national strategy investing in social housing can reduce chronic homelessness and save government money. Finland’s ‘Housing First’ has reduced homelessness by 35% through its scheme, Y-Foundation, Finland’s largest non-profit housing provider, which owns 16,500 apartments. Here, however, basic social infrastructure is not a playground of finance and speculation.

Leading a national strategy through online community engagement

The Canadian government announced its first ever national housing strategy that commits 40 billion over 10 years and includes incentives to build for modest income residents. ‘A Place to Call Home’ tackles insecure rental tenure and “bad faith evictions” caused by proprietor redevelopments, leaving people caught in housing crisis. To date, The City of Vancouver and the British Columbia provincial government have scaled up a pilot project to deliver 600 dwellings of temporary modular housing built in just over six months. In addition, Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, VAHA, has in train over two thousand below-market housing options.

In its inception, the government sought community input to ask for feedback at a national level on how to reduce chronic homelessness. The Advisory Committee on Homelessness, moreover, sought views from all Canadians on how to reduce homelessness through an online engagement process, the feedback from which is to be released in an upcoming report.

Supportive Housing, Vancouver Photo: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Community engagement approached to housing affordability

Many local governments and councils, municipalities and provinces have looked to community input in meeting housing needs and reducing homelessness. Where these local organisations optimise online engagement, they have adapted policy through dynamically engaging communities through consultation. This includes innovative approaches such as Colorado’s City of Arvada using a photo survey as part of online engagement around affordable housing options, and Boulder’s newly formed Housing Advisory Board’s recent community brainstorm.  

Putting community engagement first in finding solutions, Canadian provinces have actively sought community input. Let’s Talk Kamloops online engagement site for City of Kamloops uses online engagement to gather feedback and ideas from residents and community members on proposed amendment to Zoning Bylaw to enable additional suites in residential areas of the city. The suites are a tangible form of affordable rental housing for tenants and increase density by using existing social and urban infrastructure. Lets Talk Housing BC, British Columbia Housing’s online engagement site, facilitates residents’ contribution to housing issues including the transfer of land for redevelopment, supporting housing for those at risk of homelessness, and temporary modular homes.

The City of Spruce Grove, Alberta, is working to create a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and homelessness, meeting a desire within the community to engage and be a part of the solution. Concluded earlier this year, this process involved reviewing and researching best practices, data gathering, and engaging with community members to evolve a strategy that is created by community members and supports collective action and collaboration in finding sustainable solutions.

In the US, the Mountain town of Truckee, California, is updating their general plan with affordable housing as one of the major issues on the plan. (Housing is one of five pillars of the plan.) Using online engagement, the town is actively seeking community input on housing issues and potential solutions, including housing types that are sustainable into the future.

Alternately, local governments in Australia also sought community stories from and of vulnerable peoples. South Brisbane PHN consulted communities through an online engagement portal on Homelessness – or a lack of a regular place of accommodation – to address and prioritise major issues impacting health. The Melbourne council, the City of Port Phillip similarly sought community feedback on the Homelessness Action Strategy 2015-2020 to work alongside support agencies to record the number of people turned away from their services and can’t be assisted due to lack of available crisis accommodation. Equally, one of the first local governments to introduce a Homelessness Policy in 2015, New South Wales Tweed Shire Council’s Draft Homelessness Policy consulted communities and residents to provide input on policy reviews. Indeed, community response to online engagement has suggested demonstrable impact.

Housing communities through social infrastructure

But the salient point here is that, rather than a suggesting housing supply is one-fix solution, through an online community engagement approach, local governments, councils, municipalities and provinces are taking up the mantle of an actionable national strategy. This approach crucially takes into account social infrastructure, essential to the changing landscape of contemporary cities and increasing urbanisation.

As early as 2003, a report by the Brookings Institute examined the effectiveness of seven decades of affordable housing strategies, highlighting seven basic goals of housing affordability. While this covered supply, affordability and accessibility, equally crucial were promoting racial and economic diversity in residential neighbourhoods, strengthening families and linking housing with essential supportive services to provide and promote balanced metropolitan growth.

An online community engagement approach by local organisations combats governments’ narrow set of objectives, such as the number of dwellings created. For this narrow criteria doesn’t reflect the array of community needs, reflections, ideas and input into housing issues that impact their communities and neighbourhoods, as well as enabling an evaluation of the effectiveness of past, present and future affordable housing programs and policies.

Community engaged approaches to housing affordability, it would seem to me, might enable federal, state and local leaders to better align community outcomes they themselves want to achieve with housing policy approaches they adopt.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Principal Writer and Editorial Director. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

Banner photo: moerschy/Pixabay 

[1] Muir, K., Martin, C., Liu, E., Kaleveld, L., Flatau, P., Etuk, L., and Pawson, H. 2018. Amplify Insights: Housing Affordability & Homelessness. Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney.

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