The contemporary social housing system in Australia is increasingly targeted to households with high and complex needs and is delivered through a network of multiple public and community housing providers. Access to social housing is increasingly problematic with demand for assistance far outstripping supply as a result of the reduction of affordable rental housing in the private market, changing human services policies and reduced public investment in social housing.
This study analysed access to social housing through a case study of inner Brisbane, examining rationing policies and practices within a multi- provider system. It analysed rationing processes in a number of social housing organizations and took a systems view to assess how well consumer access arrangements operated across the local service delivery network.
An analytical model was developed for understanding access to social housing across three domains: 1. government policy; 2. service delivery; and 3. consumer agency. The primary focus of the study was the service delivery domain, although the interactions with the other two domains were also examined. For the purposes of the study, access to social housing was defined as a set of rationing processes that operated within individual organizations and across the service delivery system. The analysis drew heavily on human services management and public administration literature relating to rationing, service integration, consumer choice and the role of front line workers in policy implementation.
The research found that access arrangements in the case study area were fragmented and involved complexity and duplication of effort for applicants and service providers. While there was strong stakeholder support for reforms to address these problems, there was no consensus about the nature and scope of change needed. A major arena of contention was the appropriate balance between system diversity and system integration. The research challenges the adoption of a dichotomous integration-diversity paradigm in favour of an approach based on network theory. The findings present the challenge of coordinating access to multiple social housing providers as a problem of network management.
Rationing policies, program design and investment decisions emanating from the government policy domain were identified as establishing the parameters and constraints within which access was rationed in the service delivery domain. Government relied on service delivery agencies to implement policy and these organisations, in turn, relied on frontline workers. The extent to which government policy could determine local rationing practices was dependent on how tightly those policies were specified and the governance arrangements in place to achieve compliance. Similarly, organisations relied on formal policies and procedures and varying levels of surveillance to manage the exercise of discretion by frontline workers. The study identified a range of factors that influenced how rationing policies were interpreted and implemented by service provider organisations and workers. A significant factor was local housing market conditions and how they impacted on service demand. The study also found that service delivery organisations and workers advocated strongly for the retention of local discretion in key access processes, especially in matching applicants with specific vacant properties. They emphasised the value of local knowledge and discretion rather than uniform procedures in achieving appropriate and sustainable housing outcomes.
An important finding of the study was that reforms such as tighter rationing and improved service integration have limited potential to address underlying problems of inadequate supply or significantly impact on the total number of people who can be assisted. These demand management policies and practices do, however, determine who applies for social housing, which applicants gain access, the order in which applicants are housed.