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Changemaker  |  Governance

A Vision for Improved Housing Affordability in Australia

7 May 2018 at 8:26 am
Luke Michael
Adrian Pisarski is the executive officer of National Shelter and has almost 40 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Luke Michael | 7 May 2018 at 8:26 am


A Vision for Improved Housing Affordability in Australia
7 May 2018 at 8:26 am

Adrian Pisarski is the executive officer of National Shelter and has almost 40 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Pisarski has worked in community roles since 1980 in housing, homelessness, welfare and youth peak bodies across multiple states and nationally.

He was executive officer of Queensland Shelter for 11 years and served as Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) vice president from 2008 to 2013.

He started in his current position at National Shelter in 2014, after serving eight years as the organisation’s chairperson.

Pisarski was also a member of the Affordable Housing Summit Group, which was instrumental in the development of the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

In this week’s Changemaker, Pisarski discusses his origins in the sector, explains why Australia is less egalitarian than it was in the 1980s and reveals why the nation needs a national housing strategy.  

How did you become involved in the not-for-profit sector?    

I started working in a youth refuge in Hobart, just as a youth worker in youth homelessness. I was reasonably young myself at the time, which was in 1980, but what I quickly discovered was that I had a much greater passion for working upstream from casework and trying to figure out how to prevent people from experiencing homelessness in the first place.

That led me to working with Australia’s first national youth housing peak, the National Youth Coalition for Housing in 1981, and I’ve pretty much worked in peak bodies around youth affairs, housing and homelessness ever since then – apart from a couple of stints in government and as a consultant.

Adrian Pisarski outside Parliament House in Canberra.

How have you maintained your passion for working in the sector after all these years?

I think the principal thing that keeps me going is anger at injustice, which is anathema to me. Injustice in all its forms in Australia – particularly to do with housing, homelessness and material well being – is actually mostly structural and therefore it’s important to try and work on the structures that create inequality and injustice rather than dealing with the symptoms of it.

How have the challenges in the not-for-profit sector changed since you started in the 1980s?

I think it was easier in the 1980s to highlight specific inequality. Australia was a more equal society then and so when we saw inequality, Australia seemed to be a nation that took it quite seriously. We’ve become less egalitarian and people seem to have become more selfish and self-interested along that journey and therefore it seems harder to point to where inequality is a real structural problem.

People are always thinking that they are not very well-off themselves and therefore have less sympathy with those that are really less well-off, when in fact most people in Australia are probably better off than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

I think the other change in our sector has been that there used to be two categories of people that came into the sector and particularly into the advocacy space. They were either from a political conviction like myself or came fundamentally out of the churches.

I think as we’ve now professionalised our sector, we no longer have those kinds of activist elements that were driven from political motivation or through more activist elements of churches as well. In professionalising I think we’ve risked [our] understanding of the structural and political dimensions of inequality.

How do you see the state of social and affordable housing in Australia currently?

Australia used to be a country where housing was generally cheap, where most people could get an affordable place to live either through a home purchase or within the rental market, and there seemed to be plenty of it about.

I remember in my own youth as a student, I never seemed to find that much trouble finding housing although some of it wasn’t great quality. It was certainly much more affordable than it is now. I think overall housing has just become less affordable in general and we’re now at the point where we’re experiencing severe overcrowding for too many people and far too many other people being forced into lower quality housing as well.

All of this is driven fundamentally by population growth and housing supply not keeping up, coupled with real under-investment in social and affordable housing in Australia and rewarding speculation rather than trying to reward people using housing as a place to live and from which to participate economically, socially and culturally.

Your latest policy priorities are headlined by a call to develop a national housing strategy overseen by a senior government minister. Why is this so important?

It’s so important because there are so many dimensions to housing affordability. It looks simple from the outside but it’s actually a complex equation: you do something in one area for example tax reform and you get unintended consequences in another.

It also is the fact you need to draw together the things which are distorting housing currently, like our tax settings, with an approach which is really [about] making housing a priority in terms of our urban and regional development as well as our infrastructure development and that means pulling together state planning systems, along with local government efforts.

We need to be providing the right incentives for the private market to invest. We need to determine exactly what the role of government is. Should it be a principal funder or just really funding the incentives required to draw in private investment – which is our preferred approach in the future.

We need to be building a community housing sector at scale which is capable of really providing mass housing options for the many low-income households that exist in Australia.

Pulling together those financial elements – the planning elements and making all levels of government and business community work together with our own community sector to develop that housing portfolio in the future – is going to require a national strategy.

It needs to be led by a senior cabinet minister because you have to pull the threads and various bits of government together. You have to create the environment where you can bring the states and the private sector on with appropriate incentives.

What would you like to see included in the upcoming federal budget?

In the budget we would really like some capital funding to support initiatives that they [included] in last year’s budget around the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation, City Deals, a bond aggregator and the creation of infrastructure incentives for local government to bring on affordable housing. Those were all good measures but they really lack two things: first is a capital fund to really start to drive affordable housing and second is the return of some kind of incentive to draw institutional investment into affordable rental housing.

What does a typical day for you look like as National Shelter executive officer?

I’m a reasonably early riser so I’m generally in front of a computer even over breakfast around about 6am. I’m monitoring the news, Twitter and various publications. Generally Fairfax publications, the ABC and the Guardian as well as a daily Google search which provides me stories from other sources like News Corp and also internationally.

That’s the start of my day, and I work from home because National Shelter is unfunded and we need to keep our overheads right down. So, my commute is very short – I just walk upstairs. Then I will spend probably another half an hour to an hour looking through and responding to my emails, looking at other media things like ACOSS’s media feed and Pro Bono’s media feed and those sorts of sources, just to make sure I’m across what’s happening on the day.

After this it depends on what National Shelter’s priorities are at the time, that could be writing submissions to government inquiries or it might be travelling to conferences or meetings with ministers and colleagues interstate or in Canberra. It will definitely involve corresponding with minister’s offices, setting up my schedule for future travel as well as making sure my administration is done. I don’t have administrative assistants, so I have to do it all myself and that might mean booking my own flights hotels etc for when I travel.

If I’ve got spare time that will be spent looking at our fundraising opportunities and making contact with people that I think might be able to support us nationally. Twice a year we have a fairly major process looking at the next issue of our rental affordability index with our partners SGS Economics and Planning and Community Sector Banking, which is now sponsored by the Brotherhood of St Laurence as well.

Twice a year there is an intensive period around that, looking at what the data says and preparing its release. A couple of times a year we’re also involved in other projects like the national survey of tenants that we are engaged with Choice and the National Association of Tenant Organisations on.

And than a typical day might also look at developing our own policies – that’s a constant process. It’s not something that just happens every three years but it’s something we are in the process of constantly adjusting. Part of my day often involves media interviews as well.

So amongst all that, I’m kept fairly busy on a typical day.

What do you like to do in your spare time when you do find time for yourself?

I’m quite a keen, if intermittent, artist, so I like painting in my spare time. I also like to attend music festivals and events. I’ll be attending a little music festival in Queensland called The Planting on the weekend.

Mostly my spare time is spent with grandchildren and our daughter’s family. Or with my partner playing music or talking and enjoying a decent glass of red wine if I can find one.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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