Finbar O’Mallon
(Australian Associated Press)

Big city mayors want the federal government to waive billions in housing debt owed by the states and territories.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the coronavirus pandemic was an opportunity to fix Australia’s housing crisis.

She told a parliamentary inquiry into homelessness on Wednesday one of the best things the federal government could do was permanently raise the JobSeeker unemployment benefit.

“Putting people back onto the streets is not an option, not while COVID is unchecked and not while our cities fight for survival,” Cr Capp said.

The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors wants a national housing strategy and $200 million to fight homelessness in Australia’s capitals.

It says the roughly $2 billion that states and territories owed the Commonwealth as of June 2018 could be thrown back into support services.

Tasmania’s debt was waived by the federal government last year.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said waiving this debt would free up $800 million in NSW alone to go towards social housing.

“NSW requires 5000 social housing dwellings to be built every year until 2026 to just meet demand,” she said.

Two-thirds of Australia’s 116,000 homeless live in the nation’s capital cities.

Cr Capp warned rough sleepers are only the tip of the iceberg, with thousands squatting, sleeping in cars or couch surfing.

Treasury bureaucrats, veterans affairs officials and housing providers will all front the inquiry on Wednesday.

Liz de Chastel, a senior policy adviser for the Local Government Association of Australia, says state and federal governments need to listen to local governments more.

“Local governments often understand what is happening in their local community,” Ms. de Chastel said.

The association warned the lack of housing and homelessness rates is financially hurting regional and rural towns.

This was made worse by the recent bushfires and droughts, it said.

It wants to see more money pumped into homelessness support services run by local councils.