Today I’m attending Platform 1225, a conference about addressing youth homelessness organised by the Queensland Youth Housing Coalition. The organisers have done well. There are a lot of cool people at the conference and a lot of inspiring ideas floating around, but no-one seems to be talking about a key core issue, which is that the treatment of housing as a commodity is driving up property values and exacerbating the housing affordability crisis.

When housing is seen as a target for speculative investment, this inflates rents, increases mortgage stress and also makes it more expensive to deliver new ‘bricks and mortar’ affordable housing projects. Unchecked profiteering exacerbates locational disadvantage, pricing people out to the outer burbs.

It seems like Queensland’s entire housing support sector has become accustomed to begging for scraps – $500 000 here, a couple million there – to patch the cracks in a broken system. Even the most ‘innovative’ and ‘out there’ proposed solutions to increase the supply of affordable housing revolve around businesses investment and market-based responses. Too many people are asking “How can we incentivise the private sector to invest in affordable housing?” when we should be recognising that the treatment of housing as a target for profit-driven investment is part of the problem, and should instead be asking “How can we stop housing being treated as a commodity?”

We should be talking about systemic reforms like inclusionary zoning, rent controls, vacancy taxes, counter-cyclical government investment to acquire surplus private apartment stock, and of course, the abolition of negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts. If governments can afford to take out huge loans to buy fighter planes, or to fund sports stadiums and road-widening projects, why shouldn’t they also take out loans to increase the supply of public housing? There’s plenty of research from Australia and around the world about what works in terms of meaningfully responding to homelessness. There’s heaps of data from leading economists and policy experts identifying the risks and flaws of current approaches to the housing affordability crisis. So why haven’t these solutions been adopted? Why aren’t the warnings taken seriously?

Perhaps the answer is that any policy responses which meaningfully challenge the treatment of housing as a for-profit commodity are strongly resisted by the property industry, which wields disproportionate political influence.

It’s interesting to observe how the many organisations and individuals involved in the homelessness and housing support space seem so reluctant to advocate politically, and speak honestly and directly about how backwards our approach to housing affordability in Australia has become. I think partly this is because they’re run off their feet, and partly it’s because they’re still worried about having their funding cut if they’re too vocal.

I know a lot of people working in this sector have a lot of rage and fire and passion, but so many frontline caseworkers are so overworked and emotionally drained that they don’t have the time or energy to advocate for bigger-picture systemic change. Meanwhile it seems like the bureaucrats, researchers and policy-makers no longer believe that a better system is possible, even though we have examples from other countries around the world that are responding very differently to the same kinds of challenges. We’re not going to be able to properly address issues like youth homelessness unless we prioritise responses that directly challenge neoliberalism.

There’s a big difference between throwing half-inflated life jackets at a drowning person and actually pulling them out of the water.