MediaBOTCH: missing the most vulnerable

Max Chalmers investigates why rental affordability will not be an issue at next year’s election

Newtown has changed a lot thanks to urban decay
Newtown has changed a lot thanks to urban decay

This election cycle you are unlikely to see Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard front the media throng and lament that the rent is just Too. Damn. High. (As 2010 New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan famously did).  They will talk electricity, asylum seekers and maybe even interest rates, but issues of rental affordability will be decidedly absent.  Even if new policies are put forward they are unlikely to make a splash in the media pool.

Yet housing costs, especially rental pressures, are a heavy burden for many Australians.  The average household spends 2 per cent of income on gas and electricity compared to 18 per cent on rent and mortgage payments.  Low income earners in particular are experiencing an increase in ‘rental stress’, the term used to refer to individuals or families spending over thirty per cent of their income on rent.  A recent Anglicare survey found that on one weekend in April just 25 of 10, 358 rental properties inspected would be affordable, without causing rental stress, for households financially reliant upon government assistance.

SRC President Phoebe Drake has seen first hand the impact rental stress has on students, particularly those forced to relocate from regional areas to study in Sydney.  “Paying rent is the biggest stress factor, I would say, in student life”, she told Honi Soit.  Anglicare’s survey supports this and notes that many students are forced to spend nearly half their income on rental costs.  Australians for Affordable Housing estimates approximately three quarters of students who rent suffer rental stress.

However, groups trying to promote the plight of those suffering rental stress face difficulties in raising awareness.  The first reason for this is that renters are in the minority.  Just 30 per cent of Australians rent while the rest own their homes outright or are paying off their mortgages.  Editors and producers are more inclined to publish stories on interest rates and property values, which directly impact the greater proportion of the potential audience.  Activists like Sarah Toohey from Australians for Affordable Housing have also expressed concern that, “the media commentary around housing is very dominated by the real estate industry”, who are less interested in issues of affordability and accessibility.

The second problem is the discursive dominance of other cost of living issues.  Journalists love to write about conflict, especially between the major political parties.  When parties argue over interest rates and electricity costs at the political level, the fight flows down to the media and fixes the agenda of national debate.  Since John Howard asked Australians who they trusted to keep interest rates low, every sneeze from the reserve bank has rippled through an entire news cycle.  As neither party is interested in a fight over how to best help the 30 per cent of (often the poorest) Australians who rent, it remains hard to get the issue consistently in the news.

The last problem is the gaze of the audience and the way it establishes expectations about how to tell certain stories and who to tell them about.  When Angus Belling of Anglicare approached producers doing a story about rental stress they told him it would be better to have white subjects for interviews.  The producers wanted to tell a story their audience could relate to so decided that an interview with a white family would have the best chance of engaging the majority white audience.  They were also hesitant to use a family from a background that already suffered stereotypes relating to welfare dependency for fear of perpetuating those stereotypes.  Thus, the production of the story came to be shaped by the prejudices and identity politics producers anticipated were at play amongst their audience.

Ultimately, the lack of discussion about rental affordability in mainstream media spheres attests to the problems more vulnerable Australians face in having the issues that affect them become nationally acknowledged.  They are problems of political agenda setting, media source use and media consumption, for which we are all responsible.