Every week it seems like there is another media story of someone crying out for a roof over their head or worried about unsustainable rent increases. Over the last five years, rents across Greater Hobart have increased by 45 per cent and the number of people waiting on our social housing waiting list has blown out by 50 per cent. In response, the Government went to the State Election promising record investment in social housing including building 3500 new social housing properties by 2027. But, there are currently 4388 social housing applicants meaning that most will be waiting at least two years for their home to be built and even if the Government was to meet its election commitment there would still be almost one thousand people in need of housing.
Greater regulation of the short-term accommodation sector by allowing owners to rent out rooms in their principal place of residence but returning entire properties to the long-term rental market is an easy reform that would provide accommodation immediately to hundreds of families across Hobart alone as well as putting downward pressure on rents.
Another reform that the State Government must act on is empty homes. Amid a housing crisis, empty homes cannot be allowed to gather dust. We must encourage owners with empty homes to return them to the long-term rental market.
Recently, we asked TasWater how many homes in the Hobart, Glenorchy and Launceston City Council municipalities they believed were empty based on water usage during 2018-20. The data we requested captured residential properties who had consumed less than ten per cent (19kL) of the annual average residential water consumption of 193kL as we also wanted to include residential properties with leaking pipes or dripping taps.
The response from TasWater was that there were 192 residential properties across the Hobart City Council municipality that had a “high chance” of vacancy, 115 in the neighbouring Glenorchy City Council and 256 in Launceston City Council.
The 563 residential properties that sat empty during 2018-20 is a conservative figure and the true number of empty properties is almost certainly higher. This is because the data only captured residential properties with three consecutive years of either none or minimal water usage. The data also fails to capture those apartment complexes which have a single water meter. Importantly, the data cannot be dismissed on the basis that Tasmanians own “shacks” which sit empty for most of the year, as the data requested was solely for the inner-city Hobart, Glenorchy and Launceston City Councils.
Between these three inner-city councils, and the conservative model we adopted, there was a range of vacant homes of between 0.58 – 0.91 per cent of all private dwellings, which if applied across Tasmania means that there is at least 1486 – 1932 empty homes. Not shacks. Not airbnbs. Just empty.
Vancouver, Paris and Melbourne are cities that encourage owners to make their properties available to long-term tenants by imposing an empty homes tax. In Vancouver for example, a tax of 1 per cent of the property’s value is paid by owners who leave residential properties empty for at least six months a year. According to Kennedy Stewart, the Vancouver Mayor, since the tax was introduced in 2017 there has been a 25 per cent drop in the number of empty homes and more than $60M raised for affordable housing.
With no end to our housing crisis in sight, it is time that we all recognised that housing is not an investment or a product but rather a scarce resource that needs greater regulation. Returning entire investment properties that are currently rented out to tourists on the short-term accommodation market and a tax on empty homes will free up homes for Tasmanians whilst putting downward pressure on rents. Isn’t that something we should all support?
Benedict Bartl is the principal solicitor with the Tenants’ Union of Tasmania
This opinion piece was published in The Mercury on 18 February 2022