In November last year we were commissioned by the Community Housing Federation Victoria to investigate and document the economic, social and psychological benefits of living in co-operative rental housing (rather than in –what is almost the norm in Australia privately owned or rented dwellings). A summary of the report is available including recommendations which were meant to contribute to a state government instigated review of ‘social housing’ in the state of Victoria. This review occurs against a general background of diminishing affordability of housing (Australia has the least affordable housing in the English-speaking world…) and an enormous shortage in public housing for those population groups who are disadvantaged or more generally in need (there are waiting lists of several 10,000s!).

A major recommendation in our report for a more appropriate policy response to the general situation was to create and increase the diversity of housing types and the diversity of tenure options. We are convinced that the two policy options usually considered and discussed within the existing political spectrum will – by themselves – not offer a solution to the housing ‘crisis’ in terms of affordability, availability, appropriateness and interest of those seeking housing:

-just quantitatively adding onto the public housing stock (which, of course, is also necessary and preferred by sections of the ‘left’) does not add to diversity and is politically ‘impossible’ given the financial situation of public households (assumed or real) and the neo-liberal agenda governing their management;

-or offering rental assistance (obviously, also necessary), which also perpetuates the perverse incentive to privately acquire, build and otherwise accumulate housing stock by those who already have too much anyway and, as it is often based on ‘negative gearing’, thereby systemically contributes to even more inequality and a process of ever rising rental costs, because of the maxim of profit maximisation and the lack of imposed ‘caps’ on rent.

Approaches to government have been made on the basis of the recommendations included in the Borderlands report, but given the ideological and political (as well as firm economic and financial) interests of the present governing Coalition and their neo-liberal program of ‘cutting spending’, investing in ‘social’ – let alone co-operative – housing is probably not on the agenda (as it was for a brief period during the end-70s and early-80s). What seems more likely is that the government will be trying to off-load their public housing ‘holdings’ to private agencies and associations, at least to manage them (and the people living in them!). They thus can create an ‘arm’s length’ distance between their social responsibilities as a government ‘running’ a welfare state, the ‘need’ to be seen as good (neo-liberal) managers of the economy (returning ‘surpluses’…) and their persistent belief in the ‘evil’ of welfare ‘dependency’.

In a way, our attempts at promoting co-operative (rental) housing as a viable option are suspended in a policy and political-economic context which continues to advance and support values and policy options across the range of human needs especially housing – which seem antithetical to the spirit of co-operation. In spite of the demonstrated advantages of co-operative living and working both for the individuals and groups/families participating in it, in spite of the very positive exposure we have had during the International Year of the Co-operative, we still have a lot of work to do before it will become more common-place in the thinking and practice of the so-called mainstream and those who govern that mainstream.

But then again, we have been making important strides towards that goal and that was what our research also illustrated. And it is possibly true that things still need to become worse before becoming better… Well, here’s hoping!