Since the mid-2000s, Australian housing policy-makers have taken an interest in the transfer of public housing to community housing providers (CHPs), partly as a means of transforming a social housing system dominated by financially unsustainable public housing into a vibrant affordable housing industry. Until recently, however, such transfers have been mostly small in scale and experimental in nature.
Since 2013, three Australian states with relatively little prior experience of transfers have initiated ground-breaking transfer programs: Tasmania’s Better Housing Futures (BHF), South Australia’s Better Places, Stronger Communities (BPSC) and Queensland’s Logan Renewal Initiative (LRI).
The BHF and BPSC programs initially focused the activities of successor CHPs on eliminating backlog maintenance and improving tenant services, with more ambitious estate renewal objectives coming later to the agenda. LRI, which from the outset linked an ambitious vision for estate renewal to a wider policy of public sector cutbacks, was subject to a drawn-out implementation process and terminated in 2016 by a successor state government.
The case study transfers consolidate some aspects of previous transfer practice, in particular: capturing Rent Assistance-enhanced revenues; the transfer of ‘management’ rather than freehold title; and the absence of a role for tenants.
The case study transfers also extend on previous practice, with larger parcels of properties and longer contractual terms, as well as (in Tasmania) incorporation of (part-portfolio) title transfer as a second stage action. However, questions about contract termination provisions, organisational and tenancy management obligations, and employment require further resolution.
Transfers via long-term contracts mark a development in affordable housing industry finance, whereby assured cash flows may be accepted as sufficient security for credit. Financial modelling indicates that transfers on this basis may be a viable means for addressing moderate maintenance backlogs, enhancing community development and modestly expanding affordable housing portfolios. Recent transfer experience has also helped clarify the proper accounting treatment of transfers by long-term contract, with the assets concerned appropriately recorded as ‘disposals’ on the public accounts.
While transfers have built capacity in CHPs, there may be other, more advantageous, ways for CHPs to upscale and develop their businesses.
A long-term plan to transform social housing provision, informed by better data on public housing finances, coordinated across both levels of government and with the industry, and sustained by strong national leadership and bipartisan support, is an urgent priority.
Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited 2016