‘This shit’s fake’: The Housing Crisis is Completely Avoidable
Only sustained, widespread anger is enough to break the complacency that holds Australian housing policy in a perpetual state of inertia.
The increase in the value of homes has been welcome…I don’t get people stopping me in the street and saying,“John you’re outrageous, under your government the value of my house has increased.” In fact, most people feel more secure and feel better off because the value of their homes has gone up. — John Howard, 2003.
I currently live off cans of tuna and pasta. I can’t afford vegetables.
The existence of the housing crisis is at its core a choice; it is by no means inevitable. And for decades this choice has been repeatedly made. The status quo is maintained at the same time that policymakers spend considerable amounts of time pretending to do the opposite: acknowledging the crisis, commissioning reports, announcing schemes — but doing nothing. However, it is only in fledgling moments, like in Howard’s off-the-cuff comment in 2003, in which the underlying approach to housing in this country is hinted at. That is, the maintenance of a privatised model of housing which privileges home ownership and wealth accumulation. The cost of this has been felt deeply by young and vulnerable people.
CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?
For this piece, Honi (in collaboration with the SRC) asked students how the housing crisis has affected them. The volume of responses, and the deep commonalities in those responses, were alarming.
For too many students, homelessness was a pervasive reality, one which plagued their youth.
I’m from out of state and have been paying $400 a week for a stranger’s spare room. I’ve been searching for a place for months with friends but there simply aren’t enough houses to go around. I’ve lived in Sydney [for] 4 years and feel like I’ve done everything right, been responsible, made the right decisions etc. I don’t understand how I’m on the brink of homelessness.
My parents separated because they couldn’t pay the mortgage, moved around 8 different rentals in 2 years, mainly staying (by luck) at friends’ houses as house sitters. Had first day of high school staying in a motel because we didn’t have a place to live. Sydney’s housing is fucked, with no extra support for single parent families & those escaping [Domestic Violence].
Unfortunately, periodic stints of homelessness are shockingly common among students and young people. This is substantially due to the chronic unavailability of rental properties, leading to long wait times:
I got kicked out of [my] present apartment. It took 4 months of obsessive looking to find another.
It took me two months to find a place in Sydney as I was relocating from regional NSW.
It took nearly 6 months to find a rental and be accepted.
Periods of homelessness and months-long searches for a place to live should not be normal; they should not be accepted. Yet, for many students, the threat of homelessness marks their experiences at existing accommodation. Homelessness has been used as a weapon against young people by the landlord class, forcing them to live in terrible conditions:
One of my roommates tried to choke my roommate and his friend so we went and got an AVO from the police against him. The real estate agent refused to acknowledge the AVO despite the law being explicit about who is covered by it. We felt unsafe and […] forced to pay thousands of dollars to cover the break fee just so we could leave. Our agent didn’t offer any advice and the owner was completely apathetic.
Our landlord wants the rent put up 160 a week. Our bathroom is literally outside and it’s covered in mould.
I’m considering having to move back to my homophobic parents’ house in Penrith as I’m currently living paycheck to paycheck.
Rising rents and the unavailability of properties has rendered young people powerless against the larger force of the housing market. It is one which emboldens landlords to raise rent and deny necessary maintenance.
I was broke for 5 months because my first landlord kept my entire bond and I had to spend my savings on a new bond. I had to take the fucker to tribunal to get my [money].
[I’m] living in an unsafe house afraid to tell the landlord in fear he’ll up the rent for the repairs.
These experiences are the consequences of profound policy failures, from insufficient laws protecting tenants to creating the conditions of an overly competitive housing market in the first place.
The dominant media narrative, in which the housing crisis is explained by isolated phenomena — COVID, low interest rates, insufficient construction — is too myopic a perspective to explain a problem which has been coming for decades.
The root cause of a system which fails to provide safe and affordable housing to all, is the failure to properly view this type of housing as a human right. Rather than prioritising the provision of housing, successive governments have instead focussed on allowing as many people as possible to own a home. This intensified with the rise of neoliberalism in Australia in the 1980s. At its core, neoliberalism delegitimises the state’s role in providing housing, instead privileging an increasingly privatised approach to housing.
The post-war Liberal government of Robert Menzies set the home-ownership objective into motion in 1945, with the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement. The agreement, as opposed to earlier national housing plans, dedicated substantial funding to home purchase assistance, and focussed on building houses which would then be sold. The underlying approach here, of selling public housing where profitable — and prioritising ownership over provision — has endured to the present day. Governments continue to sell-off public housing wherever convenient — just as the NSW government has done to inner-city public housing over the last ten years — yet at the same time they refuse to build it. As a result, less than five per cent of housing in Australia is public housing. At the same time, the waitlist for social housing is over 100,000 households long.
The post-war turn to treating housing as a commodity, not a right, was borne of a simplistic valorisation of the individual. This view, as Menzies put it in his Forgotten People speech of 1942, is that “the material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving.”
As young people, whose work and attempts to save money are subsumed by unaffordable rent, know: the view of homeownership as the product of frugality is a fiction. It is not just unrealistic, but stems from a distinctly conservative view of the world. One in which individuals can triumph over the structural forces of the housing market. One which privileges the lifestyles of suburban nuclear families above broader community good.
However, home ownership only privileges some individuals. Those individuals are not those who are frugal, or save, but people with personal or intergenerational wealth. With the growth of house prices and rent outstripping wages for over a decade, the ideal of home ownership is not an ideal which serves the vast majority of students and young people.
Students are always going to be a landlord’s last pick over families and higher earners.
WHY NOT FIX IT?
The first step towards ending the housing crisis must be reimagining what the purpose of housing is. This means the disentangling of the logic of neoliberal capitalism from our housing policy. Neoliberal logic is incompatible with treating quality and affordable housing as a human right: a system which relies on scarcity and demand to increase value has no interest in making quality housing as widespread as possible. A substantial way of doing this would be the government constructing and maintaining large amounts of quality public housing.
The barrier which governments cite for not doing this is the cost of doing so. But Australia has ample amounts of money to address the housing crisis. The value of residential “property” in Australia is nine trillion dollars: three times our Gross Domestic Product, thirty percent more than Australians’ superannuation, the stock market and commercial property combined. This money is currently funnelled into private hands, despite the fact that the land it sits on and arguably the property itself is a public good. Instead of privatising ownership of land value, the public could democratise that wealth through initiatives such as land taxes or land banking.
Similarly, Australia pays landowners massive amounts of money — in the form of tax concessions — for merely owning “property”. Sometimes we offer money for owning more than one dwelling. The tax concessions offered to housing investors, in the form of negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions, will reach twenty billion dollars annually by the end of the decade. We already spend almost thirty billion dollars a year on exempting people’s main residences from capital gains tax. (This is not to mention billions of dollars which could be raised in repealing the stage three tax cuts or other senseless tax breaks.)
When announcing his lack of intention to repeal capital gains tax exemptions for main residences earlier this month, Anthony Albanese said that it was “a bad idea.”
“And I have never heard, in all of the meetings that I’ve been to over the years … I have never heard anyone raise that as a proposition.”
This comment is indicative of the actual barrier to ending the housing crisis: the structural political forces which oppose it.
Both Howard in 2003 and Albanese in 2023 may not be hearing about the need for genuine solutions to the rising cost of housing because of the immense political influence of the home owning class.
Although the rate is steadily decreasing — a product of housing unaffordability and wealth consolidation by the rich and older generations — 66% of homes are owned rather than rented. This makes it incredibly difficult, simply because of democracy’s majoritarian bent, to do anything which would meaningfully address rising housing costs.
Beyond this, however, is the outsized role home ownership has in the Australian psyche. As social researcher Hugh Mackay puts it, home ownership is “the most culturally obvious and accessible symbol of personal power, achievement and control over the environment.” People care too much about their homes to accept any changes they feel could threaten their ownership of their house, their land.
A particularly harmful subset of homeowners are those who participate in Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) movements. These have been demonstrated to have contributed to unaffordable housing by opposing higher density developments in attractive areas to live.
Home ownership is accompanied by the influence of housing developers as a corrosive influence on democracy’s ability to address our chronic housing problem. Housing developers are among the largest donors to political parties, spending millions of dollars on these donations.
This is the real problem. And young people have a right to be angry about it. It explains why governments have done nothing to remedy the causes of unaffordable housing, disregarding the needs of young and vulnerable people in the process.
We don’t want to fix the housing crisis — despite the pretence of wanting to — but we could.
Successive governments have approached the housing crisis by supplying huge amounts of money for home buying schemes. They spent over twenty billion dollars on this over the last decade. These do nothing but increase prices and appease politically powerful homeowners.
Governments have also tinkered with planning reform at each election, thinking that increasing private housing production will solve the crisis. As long as we treat housing as a commodity, it won’t.
The solutions to the housing crisis are actually fairly simple: protect and dramatically expand public housing, allow for population densification closer to cities, end expensive tax discounts to the already wealthy, protect renters from harmful conditions and rent rises.
We know about these, yet politicians dare not try it.
THIS SHIT IS FAKE AS HELL.
I’ve lost a lot of sleep over the housing crisis. It’s depressing when the opportunities and support for young adults at uni are only accessible to those who can afford living near uni. There’s a certain kind of helplessness to it. It’s invasive and insidious, and the type that makes you want to beg and shout with anger at the same time. It pins you to the ground in silence, because how are you supposed to speak up for what is needed when you’re not sure if others would speak up with you? If you’re not sure the institution even cares the least bit about you.
I didn’t want to write this piece as a technical guide to solving the housing crisis. There’s been enough of that. However, it is so easy to digress into wonkish policy talk: the desire to pinpoint specific solutions is strong, given that they represent the concrete changes that will turn the tide on the crisis. It is much harder to detach ourselves from the corrosive logic of neoliberal capitalism, and consider what housing should be, and how our lives may change as a result. That, not another policy document, is what is needed to attain the quality of living which the current housing market denies young and vulnerable people.
With the sheer volume of negative experiences young people already have navigating the rental market, it is easy to be angry. I think that is worthwhile. Only sustained, widespread anger is enough to break the complacency that holds housing policy in a perpetual state of inertia. This is what we need.