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Private rental option to house homeless

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South Australia is “slipping behind” other states on reducing homelessness, with a goal to end rough sleeping in the city unlikely to be achieved by the end of this year unless the private rental sector steps up, the former head of the Adelaide Zero Project says.

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Australian Alliance to End Homelessness CEO David Pearson, who spearheaded the launch of the Adelaide Zero Project in 2017, has called on the state and federal governments to fund a private rental subsidy to ensure rough sleepers are not forced back onto the streets once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

The Adelaide Zero Project, which is run by a consortium of non-government and government organisations, aims to ensure the number of people sleeping rough in the inner city is no greater than the housing available that month.

According to a report compiled this month by Pearson on behalf of the project, “functional zero homelessness” in Adelaide could be achieved if the State Government sourced an additional five public and community housing properties per month, and allocated at least 50 people into private rental.

But the report stated it was unlikely most rough sleepers could afford private rentals unless they received a government subsidy, either directly or through a head lease arrangement with a social housing provider.

Pearson said he had not prescribed how big that subsidy should be, but “the burden shouldn’t all fall on the State Government”, as “the amount of need far outweighs what any single government is going to be able to invest in in the short term”.

We’ve always considered the solution to solving homelessness as building more public housing, but the private rental system is there to help people get their lives back on track,” he told InDaily.

“Even if the Government announced a big housing stimulus package now – whether the Commonwealth did it or the State Government did it – it would take time for that public or community housing to be built.

“The private rental system has been massively disrupted by COVID-19 and we have stranded assets with international student accommodation and other things that could be activated to provide the support that the Zero Project enables.”

Pearson said to incentivise private landlords to open their doors to the homeless, governments needed to ensure there was “significant” funding for wraparound supports such as mental health.

He said increasing renters insurance could also “build trust” between landlords and their tenants.

“Obviously we are talking about highly vulnerable people with mental health concerns, and that has an impact on often unpaid rents or damage to properties,” he said. 

“That’s a risk that private landlords worry about, so one of the things that we explored is that if you take out an additional level of insurance for those landlords, they’re willing to take people who are vulnerable who they otherwise wouldn’t be able to take.

“The insurance there acts as that kind of assurance that they’re going to profit.”

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink admitted South Australia had an “outdated” and “expensive” homelessness system that “does not achieve real outcomes”, but she said the SA Housing Authority already ran a private rental assistance program.

The program helps vulnerable families on low and moderate incomes access or maintain a home through support with bond or rent in advance, or help with rent in arrears, to avoid eviction,” she said.

COVID-19 highlights more than ever we need to ensure the system is working well.

“That’s why we are undertaking long-overdue reform, with the aim of reducing homelessness.”

InDaily contacted federal Housing Minister Michael Sukkar for comment, but did not receive a response.

Adelaide Zero Project co-chair Peter Sandeman said the consortium would be “very supportive” of a private rental subsidy .

“While investment in social housing to overcome the current shortage is critical, we urge the government and broader sector to also consider private rental subsidy options in the short term to ensure there is enough housing for people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

The New South Wales Government last month announced it would spend $36 million to help community housing providers place rough sleepers in private rentals.  

About half of that funding would go towards buying homes from the market and the other half would be spent on providing wraparound supports including mental health, drug and alcohol services and linkages to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  

Under the scheme, people placed in homes pay 25 per cent of their income towards rent — the standard contribution for social housing tenants. 

In Victoria, rough sleepers are able to access a rental subsidy directly, allowing them to start a rental history in their name.

Meanwhile the Western Australian Government is expanding its version of the Adelaide Zero Project – called “50 Lives 50 Homes” – to connect with rough sleepers in regional areas as well as those in the Perth CBD.  

“We are slipping behind,” Pearson said.  

“While we were the first to make this commitment (to end homelessness) others are now making a commitment to a much broader cohort.

“We’re not sure what expansion will look like in South Australia.”

Sandeman said when the Adelaide Zero Project was established the aim was to focus on rough sleeping in the city before expanding to the regions.

“We are now in a better position than ever to improve the homelessness system and assist other communities to establish zero initiatives in their area,” he said.

“Adelaide Zero Project’s partners, including government, homelessness and housing providers, are considering options beyond 2020 and remain committed to achieving functional zero (homelessness).” 

It follows a State Government pledge in March to “immediately” accommodate people experiencing homelessness in hotels and motels to help stop the spread of COVID-19, with that decision since costing the state over $3 million.

InDaily reported on Monday that 117 rough sleepers are still staying in hotel or motel accommodation, while a further 158 households now live in secure private or public housing.

Opposition human services spokesperson Nat Cook said Adelaide streets were “again filling up with blankets and people in crisis”.

“The pandemic and housing interventions have been in place for more than two months,” she said.

“If a rental subsidy plan hasn’t been discussed and a plan is already in place by now then what is the Government actually doing?”

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