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COVID inquiry might start with security guards, but it could stretch to crowded public housing

Let us hope there are some innovative ideas about how to make decisions quickly in a crisis without making mistakes. Now there’s a problem worth solving.

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Due process is the first casualty of a crisis, especially when the process is lengthy (and believe me, government tendering processes make the Paleolithic period look fast). That’s why police commissioners are given extraordinary powers to manage state emergencies and wartime powers are invoked to manage wars.

Poor information and the fast-changing nature of a crisis almost invariably mean decisions are a matter for judgment. They are based on the character of leadership and accepted by the rest of us because we trust those we vote for, remarkably.

Sometimes, however, an inquiry turns up well-hidden problems in public administration that are revealed only in a crisis. Britain’s Grenfell Tower social housing disaster is a case in point. The hotel quarantine inquiry might perhaps, within its terms of reference, end up including some focus on
social housing.

The nine public housing towers forced into lockdown, 3000 souls locked up for weeks, with 280 cases (so far) of COVID diagnosed, demand an inquiry that goes beyond bonking security guards and no tender process.

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The rapid and extreme nature of the lockdown tells you that the authorities always knew how much of a health risk those towers were. The question may not be so much whether security guards, who reportedly happened to live in the towers, brought COVID home, but about the population density in those buildings. In the words of Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, the large concentration of people in such a small area makes them “vertical cruise ships”.

The difference being that cruise ships are cramped spaces in nice weather with lots of fun and not for very long. It is very different to groups of eight or more living in two-bedroom apartments with restricted living areas and one toilet, permanently, as alleged by various people including the state opposition housing spokesman, Tim Smith.

In addition to smoking, which is much more prevalent in the public housing population than
elsewhere, poverty brings several co-morbidities, including chronic illness, that make public housing tenants more likely to become very sick with this virus.

Since about 90 per cent of public housing tenants receive welfare benefits – the old days of public housing being for working-class families in low-income jobs have long gone – more people than usual spend a lot of time in the buildings. Another reason that public housing authorities should be on high alert.

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One of the natural brakes on the size of households in social housing is the rent. Rent is calculated as a share of total household income, usually 25 per cent. As children turn 18, even if on welfare benefits, their income is counted towards the rent. Ditto adults who move in. If they are employed, you can be sure the total rent soon reaches market level and the household often then moves out.

Officially, no public housing authority would sanction the overcrowding in the towers called out by the Victorian Council of Social Service and RMIT University. That leaves two possible reasons for dangerously high occupancy densities: either the authorities have nowhere else to put them, which will explain some of it, or additional adult occupants, perhaps extended family members, are not declared on the tenancy and consequently don’t have their income or benefits counted towards the rent.

While most tenants know the rules and stick to them, there’s a high probability that language problems in the towers, already frequently referred to, have meant other tenants do not. It doesn’t take much for the lifts to become overcrowded, the shared facilities stretched, until one day, there’s a crisis.

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It is not nice poking your nose into a poor person’s circumstances and telling them they must pay more rent or family members must move out, especially when the options are few and far away. Governments don’t like doing it much. As social housing minister in NSW, I didn’t. No doubt public housing authorities around the country are now anxiously reviewing their vertical estates.

But there are reasons for the rules while other benefits, such as reduced health and social risks, are not to be sneezed at. If the Victorian public housing authorities turned a blind eye to overcrowding in their most at-risk buildings, then the Coate inquiry might have something to say about it. Or if that’s a stretch from this particular inquiry’s terms of reference, this challenge certainly deserves public exposure.

Pru Goward is a former sex discrimination commissioner and minister in a NSW Liberal government. She is a professor at Western Sydney University and a director with Taylor Fry, data analysts and actuaries.

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