By Stephen Easton

A free public debate in Melbourne this Thursday aims to start a frank and open public discussion about affordable housing by asking two teams to argue for and against the proposition, ‘Affordable housing is a right’.

Victorian aged care provider, Benetas, and the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation are jointly staging the event in Federation Square for the second year running after the success of last year’s debate which considered the statement, ‘Seniors must earn respect’.

This year the two charitable organisations are holding the Great Housing Debate, aiming to raise public awareness of the fact that homelessness does affect many elderly people, not just younger people and families.

Alan Gruner, manager of research and development at Benetas, said organisers were concerned at the increasing number of older people becoming homeless, and wanted to raise the profile of the issue. And Gruner, for one, is certainly not sitting on the fence.

“I think housing is a right,” Mr Gruner said. “It’s a basic need; it’s not just about shelter but also about connections between people in the community. Research has shown that housing, or lack of housing, is very closely aligned with health outcomes.

“What we want from the debate is to raise the profile of affordable housing for older people, and get the public thinking about the issue.”

Various government programs to address homelessness, Mr Gruner said, often ignored the plight of elderly homeless people as a specific group, and he hoped the debate would widen the terms of public discussion around socially supported housing.

“It’s often assumed older people own their own homes,” he said. “But we’re seeing more and more going into the rental market.”

He added that research was beginning to show a small but growing number of older people experiencing housing stress due to having retired with large amounts outstanding on mortgages, which they were unable to afford.

Mr Gruner agreed it was likely the negative team’s argument would place more emphasis on individuals looking after themselves.

“I’m not exactly sure what they’ve got in mind, but I imagine the other side will be saying there should be more individual responsibility, and that if people don’t save for the future, then that’s tough luck,” he said.

Statistics from the Australian Housing and Research Institute (AHURI) show that 112,000 households headed by a person over 70 were in housing stress compared with 56,000 households in 2004. On census night in 2006, over 18,000 people over the age of 55 were homeless. 

“The cost of buying, or even renting a house is a huge topic of concern for many Australians,” Benetas CEO Sandra Hills said . “It comes during a time when we’re seeing people become increasingly hesitant to down-size or sell their homes as they reach retirement or move into aged care. 

“We’re excited to host this event, particularly after the success of last year’s Great Respect Debate.”

The Great Housing Debate will be hosted by Pete Smith from Channel Nine and adjudicated by Farah Farouque, law and justice editor at The Age.

It will be held at 11am this Thursday, 6 October at BMW Edge, Federation Square. Free tickets can be booked by visiting www.benetas.com.au or calling 03 8823 7998.

Debaters include:

Rod Quantock, comedian

Pat Sparrow, director of aged care reform engagement, COTA

Bill Kusznirczuk, urban planning expert, 3AW radio

Tony Keenan, CEO, Hanover Welfare Services

Wesa Chau, Victorian Young Australian of the Year 2010

Tyrone Connell, Victorian Schools Debating Team

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