Home ownership is an aspiration for many Australians, and has been supported by governments over long periods of time. It is an aspiration that has widely been referred to as 'the great Australian dream' and is reflected nationally in high rates of home ownership.2 Understanding the relationships between a person's, or household's, life-cycle stage, their income, housing costs and level of investment in home ownership, is especially important for developing policies and programs to facilitate home purchase among those who may need support. For example, understanding the typical size of the deposit gap faced by first home buyers
(i.e. the difference between the purchase price of the dwelling and the amount able to be borrowed) can help to determine home purchase subsidies to first home buyers. Among home owners, the amount of equity in the family home, especially the degree to which it increases over the owner's life-cycle, is also of major interest to governments concerned with fostering self sufficiency. This is because the family home is commonly the largest asset that households will own and one that provides a key economic resource for maintaining their economic wellbeing.
Housing, and its associated infrastructure (roads, power supply systems etc.), is expensive to produce and maintain so individual dwellings can be expensive to rent or to buy. Land for housing can itself be expensive. This is partly because some parcels of land have locational advantages over others and because their availability is subject to competitive bidding processes. Because housing costs typically represent a large share of household expenditures, the cost of housing influences the amount of disposable income households have available for other purposes. Describing and quantifying the full range of housing costs in relation to household income provides a means for identifying households experiencing affordability problems. This information may then be used in formulating policy aimed at assisting those in need.
IMBALANCES IN SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Too much or too little housing in any area is a concern for both producers and consumers of housing. Excess housing supply has negative effects on the value of houses (owners are worse off) and reduces activity in the housing industry thus affecting the livelihood of those engaged in the industry with flow on effects to the rest of the economy. Shortages in housing, on the other hand, obviously affect the opportunities for newly forming households to find suitable dwellings. Shortages also affect the general cost of housing (prices and rents go up) and, in order to meet demand, may lead to excessive increases in economic activity. However, anticipating the future by understanding the factors affecting supply and demand, can help minimise the negative effects that imbalances in housing supply can have. Projections of growth in household numbers, as produced by the ABS, provide the primary element for assessing underlining growth in demand for dwelling units. Efficient operation of the housing market, and allocation of an appropriate level of national resources to housing, are also concerns of overall economic management.
EFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE
Australian governments at federal, state and local levels attend to a diverse range of housing related issues. These include their involvement in setting housing construction standards and in regulating supply and demand through land use planning and a range of fiscal and monetary policies. Governments are also heavily involved in directly helping disadvantaged people to secure a place of residence, be it by providing low cost public housing, assisting first home buyers to purchase a dwelling, assisting households with rent payments, or providing funding support to community groups involved in providing long term community housing or crisis accommodation for people at risk of homelessness. Information that supports the development and evaluation of the policies and programs associated with these actions is critical to ensuring social goals are met.
The effectiveness of the more recent shift in approach to assisting low income households is a case in point. This shift has seen less emphasis being given to the provision of public housing and more to the use of privately owned housing in which case low income households may receive government support through rent assistance payments. Assessing the effectiveness, including the cost-effectiveness, of these programs is of vital interest to considerations of whether their goals are being met and as to whether other support strategies might be adopted. Understanding the factors affecting the supply and cost of private rental housing, especially at the low end of the market, also helps to determine if rent assistance is adequate in meeting needs when viewed as an alternative to public housing.
The spread and density of housing, particularly in large cities, have become issues of community and public policy concern. Associated with urban sprawl and greenacre housing development have been concerns about the inefficient use of energy, the high cost of providing new infrastructure and public transport to distant locations, and the impact of housing on the natural environment. On the other hand, there is a demand for new housing arrangements that suit emerging population needs, such as the growing demand for housing that meets the specific needs of older people. These demands, together with new ideas about housing arrangements and urban forms, are forces for change. Information that describes and monitors patterns of housing development helps to inform community and public policy debates about these various pressures and how they might be handled.
Difficult economic conditions, the de-institutionalisation of mental health facilities and family breakdown are just some of the many factors that have given rise to an increase in homelessness and a demand for crisis accommodation. Statistical information quantifying the extent of these problems, and the characteristics and circumstances of those involved, assist in planning appropriate responses. Homelessness is a problem which is often intertwined with a wide range of other social issues, and levels of homelessness may be a strong indicator of other areas of social dysfunction.
ACCESS TO HOUSING
While income and housing costs are major determinants of whether a household is able to secure and maintain good quality housing suitable to needs, other factors may also affect people's housing options. For example, landlords, and their agents, who generally would want to maximise their return on their investment may favour the selection of particular groups of people as tenants in a way that others may consider discriminatory. The extent to which any discriminatory selection processes are used to exclude particular population sub-groups (be they students, itinerant workers, people with disabilities, or people from particular ethnic or cultural backgrounds) is an important issue. The impact on both landlords and tenants of lease agreements being broken or of evictions are also of interest.
Community housing, which is generally managed by not-for-profit organisations and/or local government (often with Commonwealth/State government funding support) provides an alternative to private and public housing. As well as involving local communities in the task of providing affordable transitional and long term rental accommodation it sometimes also aims to achieve links between housing and other services including disability services and home and community care. Monitoring the outcomes of various models of community housing for people with particular needs for support against people in similar circumstances but not in community housing can help shape policies designed to improve housing options for those in need of support.