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The reinstatement of a National Rental Affordability Scheme could help both the housing crisis and Malcolm Turnbull’s image among voters. In a recent article, Robert Pradolin put the case for government to finally take responsibility for creating new policies to support housing affordability.

Pradolin noted that “the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) tried, but it too failed. This is market failure and the responsibility to fix it rests with government.”

I agree with the latter statement, but I believe NRAS was working. Unfortunately, it was scuppered by the Abbott Government on purely ideological grounds.

In light of the political funk that Malcolm Turnbull is in, highlighted by last week’s Ipsos research findings that people view Turnbull as a “do nothing” PM and that highlighted affordable housing as a key issue, an obvious and politically intelligent course for Turnbull to take is to bring back a rental subsidy scheme similar to the NRAS scheme.

The original NRAS had some issues with its execution, namely inefficient control over how NRAS licenses were distributed, but it was a successful scheme. It provided 35,000 lower-cost private rental properties and was originally flagged to fund 50,000, with a further 50,000 in a second tranche. At the time of the 2014 budget when Tony Abbott killed the scheme, the Housing Industry Association (HIA) described the abandonment the final (fifth) round of the National Rental Affordability Scheme as disappointing. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA).

In the May budget this year, the government brought us a sleight of hand in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA) which rebranded the NAHA agreement, but unfortunately introduced no increase in funding. It did, however, propose new emphasis on priority areas with the states. These priorities focus on measures such as reducing planning roadblocks, advancing inclusionary zoning to require some proportion of affordable housing in new developments and funding some homeless services.

The problem with such measures, in the face of the shocking statistics from Homelessness Australia that there are now over 105,000 homeless people in Australia every night, is that they barely nibble at the edge of the problem. Practical, concrete measures to alleviate the growing housing crisis in Australian capital cities are thin on the ground.

What is needed is a targeted mechanism for increased funding. As was recently pointed out in an article in The Conversation, “the budget has indexed NHHA funding to wages. It would be nice to think that land and housing prices will increase only in line with wages. In reality, properly funding the growth and maintenance of our social and affordable housing stock will require more than what the federal government is offering.”

One measure being canvassed to assist the problem is the concept of inclusionary zoning – a means of stipulating a percentage component of affordable housing in planning schemes for new developments and particularly for all public sold assets. Recently described as aspirational only by a senior member of Development Victoria, this idea would require state government to debate both an adequate definition of what constitutes an ‘affordable’ residential product and to mandate the inclusion of this requirement into council planning processes.

Reinstating NRAS is an opportunity for Turnbull to show that he can stand up to the dries in his party and differentiate himself from the economic self-righteousness of Abbott/Hockey lifter – leaner rhetoric while delivering a better outcome for the disadvantaged.

Not only would this put at least one mechanism in place to counter the problem, but such a move simultaneously adds stimulus to the housing and construction industry and will also spark new innovation as designers and developers look for ways to build to a price suitable for this market opportunity.

Sadly, given Turnbull’s record to date, I am not holding my breath; however it would be heartening to see Labour differentiating itself on this issue by stating its support for a rental subsidy scheme such as NRAS.

 
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