Australia's not-for-profit housing sector has a key role to play in addressing a serious shortfall in affordable housing for low-income families, a UNSW researcher has said.

Associate Professor Vivienne Milligan, of the UNSW City Futures Research Centre, said not-for-profit affordable housing developers have an important role to play in sustaining a vibrant social mix in our cities and arresting homelessness, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis.

"We have a shortage nationally of 251,000 rental dwellings for low income people," Associate Professor Milligan said.

"We have had 15 years of no growth in social housing and compared to North America and Europe not-for-profit housing developers have been one missing element in our housing system."

Associate Professor Milligan presented an assessment of Australia's not-for-profit affordable housing industry at the 4th Australasian Housing Researchers' Conference, a major international forum hosted by UNSW and Swinburne University, which concluded in Sydney today.

Associate Professor Milligan said the not-for-profit sector had been identified by the Federal Government as strategically important but needed more support, particularly in the forms of access to affordable land for development and secure, long-term public and private finance directed to proven developers.

In her paper, Building a not-for-profit affordable housing industry in Australia, co-authored with Peter Phibbs of the University of Western Sydney, Associate Professor Milligan says that between 2004 and 2008, the number of units developed, owned and financed by not-for-profit housing providers increased from 1200 to 5440.

"However we need growth many times that level if we are to close the gap in supply," she said.

"The latest research shows that skills and capacity among the leading group of 11 developers are increasing, growth is accelerating and around 30 additional providers are poised to become affordable housing developers.

"Not-for-profit growth shouldn't come at the expense of the public housing system but public housing is increasingly catering to highest-need individuals."

Associate Professor Milligan said the number of low income households was continuing to grow in proportion with the general number of households.

"But the housing market has moved upmarket without replacing those affordable private rentals that have been lost or adding to the supply of social housing," she said.

Associate Professor Milligan's paper drew on research funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

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