My guest on The Network this week grew up on a social housing estate. The estate was in an English city called Luton. A place voted the worst place to live in Britain 8 out of the last 10 years. Iain Shields left Luton at 18 to study politics and history in Leeds before getting his masters in social and cultural history. Some years later, he found his way here to Perth, where he worked as a housing services manager with CHL. Australia’s largest community housing provider. He recently moved on from that role in 2017 to form Hygge Community Life LTD. A non for profit dedicated to enabling housing mobility, reducing homelessness and tackling the housing crisis in Australia.
Hygge (pronounced Hoo-gar) is a Danish word that essentially describes the feeling of being warm and cozy. In an article by Countryliving.com they describe a Hygge-like experience: “Imagine a window seat where you can wrap yourself up in a blanket and watch the world go by or your favorite armchair where you do all of your reading.” With Hygge Community Life I imagine Iain bringing that feeling of being warm and cozy to community housing and people living hard on the street.
When asked what was at the core of him starting Hygge, Iain spoke from experience. “Lived experience of housing, homelessness, stress and poverty. I grew up as a really happy kid, but also secretly quite angry. My Mum and Dad worked really, really hard and never seemed to really get anywhere.” Studying politics and history somewhat came from a need to better understand how society functioned. Which allowed him to gain some context around his own experiences. This led to becoming fascinated by migration, something nearly his whole family had experienced at one point or another. And understanding migration as “a natural occurrence” and “a really positive thing” ended up being the catalyst that led Iain into the housing sector.
He began to realise that there was a lived passion there. He had an academic understanding, a political application and an avenue that was presenting itself to make a difference. Something Iain’s been building on now for the last ten years.
Hyger’s focus is on housing mobility. In other words, how are you able to maintain flexibility in relation to where you live, while meeting your housing needs. That could be from street to street, city to city or even country to country. Housing mobility is about speed, efficiency and effectiveness. The goal is to get more people into houses faster in a way that empowers them and gives them control over the process. I think it’s safe to say that without proper housing, even the simplest things in life become significantly harder. “Housing allows us to feel safe and secure and provides us with a foundation on which to build a good life” Says Iain.
“There’s a new generation of younger people, who don’t want to get married at 21. They don’t want to settle down in the same city. They definitely don’t want to buy a house and pay a bank half million or a million dollars at the age of 25 or 30.” Iain says it’s this changing generation that actually believe in social mobility as a real concept.
“That’s my passion. Housing is the fire in my belly, but I think social mobility as a broader concept is what I’m aiming to achieve with Hyger.” In some ways, I think Iain is the perfect example of what having secure housing can achieve. He grew up in social housing, admittedly in an area he was glad to escape at the age of 18. But it still got his family through to a certain point and kept him off the streets. A double degree and a masters later and I don’t think anyone would see Iain as a product of a bad environment. However, not everyone is lucky enough to have the family unit or home life that Iain had either.
“I’m a people driven person. I personally believe those tenants in social housing that do play up to those myths. Sometimes they’re the result of an inefficient system and inefficient social service systems that aren’t necessarily supporting them to get access to housing quickly. To keep them in a sustainable tenancy and to provide them with the right supports. Whether that be drug and alcohol, employment, refugee resettlement it could be a whole range of things.”
Speaking with Iain however, makes the solution seem clear. If we can provide places where people feel safe, have resources and a foundation for building their lives, everybody wins. Those same people can then be empowered to actually give back to society in a meaningful way.
“It’s about giving people the ability to understand who they are, where they want to live and what they want to do. Some people may go though their whole lives not knowing that, but if we empower people to do things by themselves… It doesn’t matter about their personal characteristics, their nationality, their ethnicity or their religion. I genuinely think that if you are a valued part of society, you feel like a valued citizen and others view you as that, you will contribute.”
The Housing Sector in Australia
Iain’s social housing background comes from the world of academia, studying various housing systems around the world. He’s also worked in the social housing system, as well as being a product of it himself. But after arriving in Australia three years ago, Iain was astonished at how immature the community housing sector is in Australia. As well as how little we seem to value it.
“In WA, it’s called Homes West and if you mention ‘Homes West’ to someone, they immediately jump out of their skin and say, I don’t want to live in a Homes West property”.
But is the stigma even justified?
“The majority of people are very much like the UK. They pay their rent. They’re either in employment or they’re unable to work because of a disability or because they’re aged. The idea that people have in their heads about a social housing tenant, a social housing property or a social housing tenancy is a bit of a myth.”
One of the main areas of concern that Iain observes about our housing system’s immaturity, is it’s lack of future focus.
“In terms of how it’s going to develop and grow, as well as having a strategy for how it links in with the wider housing eco system”.
The Wider Australian Housing Eco System
“When you break down Australia’s housing eco system, it has traditionally been dominated by home ownership. Particularly in WA you were sold your quarter block and it was very cheap and that was great.”
Now, due to a host of factors, the majority of Australians are living in what the UN describe as ‘housing poverty’. That means the household pays over 30% of it’s household income on housing. For the average Australian, that number is 34%. The factors include market failures, increased home ownership prices, more investor mortgages, private/ market rentals and a higher cost of living. The biggest problem however, is that wage growth has failed to keep pace with any of these factors.
Australia is very much in the middle of a housing affordability crisis with no plans and no strategy for how to tackle it. Meanwhile, politicians are critically undervaluing social housing and currently have it sat behind political vote winners like migration.
This means, that despite a 33% population growth over the last fifteen years, social housing has decreased. Going from about 4.7% of total Australian housing stock, down to just 4.3%.
That’s not all.
Government funded services designed to curb homelessness were receiving $817 million per year between 2007-2016. Despite this, homelessness increased during that period by 14%. There are currently 116,000 people homeless every night somewhere in Australia.
Inefficiency is Fuelling The Housing Affordability Crisis
The first thing people think when somebody raises the topic of community or state housing is; ‘There’s not enough homes’. While Iain doesn’t dispute this fact, he does point out a shocking statistic in relation to this asset allocation.
“We know that 1 in 6 social housing properties around the country is under-utilised at any one point in time.” To put that into perspective, there are 433,000 of those properties around the country. Which means that upwards of 72,000 homes are vacant or have one person living in a four bedroom house at any one point in time.
In Perth specifically, we’ve gone urban sprawl mad. “We’re building up as far North as two Rocks which is an hour and a half north of the city. Or out as far as Ellenbrook which is again about an hour and twenty minutes from the city.”
Sometimes by providing someone with housing this far away from support can put an unnecessary strain on the resident. “We’re building four bedroom houses for people with mental health issues… It doesn’t necessarily meet their housing need or their social need. It doesn’t allow them to live as a valued community member and citizen. But it also costs us a lot of money in support services to try to make those things work when they’re never going to be sustainable”.
“Until we begin to put people in homes quickly in a way that meets their needs we can’t begin to understand our un-met housing need.”
Improving Housing Allocation
Imagine applying to go on a wait list, that grants you access to another wait list. For most of us the thought is so infuriating we’d write an essay length complaint about it on Facebook. But for lots of vulnerable people in Western Australia, even those facing domestic violence, it’s a reality.
“Because social housing has been seen as a valuable limited supply, we’ve created wait lists. Then we try to house people who are really urgent so we break the wait list into two wait lists. It’s the priority wait list and the general wait list.”
The one horrifying statistic that always blows Iain away? “There’s only one bed per day for someone fleeing domestic violence in Perth”.
Unfortunately these systems are set up in a way that doesn’t allow for autonomy either. “The wait list does things to people and for people, not necessarily with them or allowing people to do things for themselves”. For example, a person living with a disability may apply for social housing and have things done to their application without their involvement. They may be put onto a disability wait list, rather than a general or socially inclusive wait list. On average, that person will then wait for 7 or 8 years to secure their social housing property.
Then after 8 years of waiting, feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, a response comes. With no access to choice, option or control over their housing need, they’re given a property. “It could be in Northem with no disability services, no local shops. It doesn’t meet their need, but because they’ve been waiting for 8 years they’ll accept the property and move in.”
Responding To The Housing Crisis With Housing Mobility
Iain’s plan for housing mobility revolves around “Thinking about housing need and supply in a really different way”. The key is to think simple. Putting control in the hands of the prospect and asking the question: “How can we allow people to do things by themselves? How do we give people a centralised access point to come and say: ‘Hey I need a house. This is preferably where I’d want to live, but I’d be happy living anywhere. Don’t exclude me based on social policy framework, just connect with me and I’ll do things by myself. A bit like a realestate.com but for social housing”.
Removing the red tape and streamlining the process is the priority when it comes to housing mobility. Iain’s concerns with the housing sector seem like part of a larger pattern. One that specifically emerges when trying to achieve social outcomes. Why is it that when you or I want to move closer to the beach there’s a simple solution? We can get onto a real estate app and browse properties in the area immediately. Why then, for people who badly need a roof over their heads is the process hidden and difficult to use? It seems that in our society, whenever somebody goes from wanting something to needing something, user experience goes out the window.
Just the Start of a Larger Conversation
Imagine a world where early one evening you’re walking along and you seem a homeless person. Instead of walking by you stop and ask them if they have somewhere to stay. When they say no, you’re able to take out your phone and open an app that finds them a place to stay for the night. It could could be the Airbnb or Realestate.com of social housing. This isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s only the beginning.
Iain is currently interested in speaking to anyone who this article may have lit a fire under. If you or anyone you know wants to help enable housing mobility, please point them to this article or get in touch with Iain directly.
You can email Iain at: firstname.lastname@example.org