Compared with problems of housing affordability, problems of poor housing quality in Australia are under-researched and largely overlooked in contemporary housing policy. This was not always the case: poor-quality housing, especially when it was concentrated in inner-city ‘slums’, was a major focus of public policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over the century since then, poor-quality housing appeared to recede, overcome by the implementation of sanitary regulation and land use planning, the advent of social housing, widespread owner-occupation, technological development and, relatively lately, the enactment of modern residential tenancies legislation. Considering also the relatively hospitable climate of all of Australia’s major population centres, and the absence of very old housing, there is a widespread sense – and perhaps complacency – about Australian housing being of generally good quality.
However, problems of poor-quality housing persist, though in less obvious forms than the slums of the late nineteenth century. Over 1 million persons in Australia live in housing in ‘poor’ condition, with 100 000 of them living in ‘very poor’ or ‘derelict’ housing, according to an analysis of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) by Baker, et al (2016). They observe they while remote Indigenous housing is an acknowledged area of persistent problems of poor quality, most poor-quality housing is ‘statistically hidden in population-level analyses’ (2016: 1). Breaking it down, they found, not surprisingly, that most (62%) of the people living in poor-derelict housing were in low-income households, and estimated that 19 per cent of public housing tenants, and nine per cent of private tenants, are living in poor-derelict housing (2016, tables 2 and 3).
These findings accord with rising concerns that the marginalisation of social housing, once a lever of housing improvement, has systematically impaired the ability of social landlords to adequately maintain and renew their dwellings (NSW Audit Office, 2013). They also accord with the call by housing advocates for further reforms to tenancy laws to provide for ‘minimum standards’ for rental housing (for example, Everybody’s Home (2018)). There is growing awareness that the changing ways in which the urban form is built and owned – in particular, the rise of high density, multi-owner residential buildings - is also reconfiguring the problem of poor-quality housing. The first wave of strata developments are now almost sixty years old, and even older buildings have been subsequently strata subdivided, posing problems of how to maintain or renew ageing buildings in common ownership. New development, particularly on the dominant model of speculative building for sale, also poses problems of how to effectively discourage defects and encourage durable, low-maintenance building. Also growing is awareness of the dark side of technological innovation: the legacy of products that have turned out to be dangerous, such as those containing asbestos, and polyethylene-core cladding, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell disaster and the near-miss at Melbourne’s Lacrosse building.
Even this brief review of emerging problem areas indicates the complexity of regulation regarding housing quality. On the one hand, as a matter of public law, different aspects of housing quality are addressed in several legislative schemes (for example, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW), Local Government Act 1993 (NSW), the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW), Building Products (Safety) Act 2017 (NSW)), which vest responsibility in authorities across different levels of government (for example, local councils, NSW Fair Trading) and private practitioners and certifiers. These regimes may involve legislated standards (for example, the standards for places of shared accommodation under the Local Government (General) Regulation 1995 (NSW)), or pick up standards from elsewhere (for example, the Building Code of Australia), or provide for standard-setting through administrative order. On the other hand, a significant amount of regulation is effected through private law, such as building contracts and tenancy agreements, which are subject to legislative requirements (under the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) and the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 (NSW) respectively), with enforcement left to private individuals.
It is timely to produce for housing advocates a review of the evidence about poor-quality housing in Australia and particularly New South Wales, and a map of the various regulatory regimes that are relevant to housing quality. In light of both, some clearer directions can be contemplated regarding reforms to improve poor-quality housing.