When You Want to Buy a Home, But a Shanty is All You Can Afford

I remember the Liquid Amber tree that stood in the centre of the yard of my childhood home. It was small, like me, but I would still need to peer skyward into its rugged boughs.

I found comfort in its shelter when it was thick with green leaves during the hot Australian summer. In autumn, the Amber’s leaves would transform into resplendent colours of fiery red and yellow, before falling to the ground, brown and shrivelled, at the beginning of a chilly winter.

I would jump on the leaves to hear their crisp crunch under my feet, or pile them high and bury myself inside. After several years of growth, I would navigate up through the Amber’s dense weave of branches until I emerged in its canopy, which afforded me a view far and wide over our neighbourhood.

I watched the Amber’s incredible transformation take place sixteen times before everything changed for our family. While life was tumultuous and often painful, the Amber, despite its yearly shedding and regeneration, remained as a symbol of something unchanging – it was always there.

The Amber stood alongside our house – a structure that also remained unchanged – while my family was tearing at the seams and would soon fall apart. Our house was one of the few things that occasioned in me a sense of certainty, security, dignity and relative peace amidst several other uncertainties.

When my family split, I was on the move, no longer held secure by our family’s home.

I lived in one house for the first sixteen years of my life and ten houses during the next fifteen years – almost one new house every year. The majority of my migrations were forced on me by decisions of landlords to sell, or renovate, or other tenants – usually friends – moving on.

These temporary residences also meant for me temporary communities. I would build a new community and then have to say goodbye over and over again. This harmed me, harmed my friends and ultimately harmed my community. Multiply this harm by the number of people in temporary residences and you can see how this may adversely impact our society.

I know families with children who have fared worse from renting and temporary residency. Children are regularly uprooted from their schools, which impacts on their friendships and can harm their education. High rents also extract from these families the majority of their income, preventing them from buying their own homes in an already expensive market.

There are some benefits in renting, but to overcome several of its problems I have thought about buying a home. It’s been fun dreaming about what lifelong home my children will grow up in and what tree I would plant in the middle of our yard for their entertainment. But, this dream also creates significant anxiety.

The financialisation of housing is the cause of this anxiety. Financialisation is a way of saying that housing has become a place to store wealth and much less a home for family habitation and physical security.

A combination of factors produced financialisation. Housing represents for the average person and large investors an investment strategy with reasonably low risk and complexity in a slowed economy with low interest rates. Housing currently offers one of the best returns on investment and has done so for many years.

Federal government and global policies like negative gearing, capital gains concessions, foreign investment and mortgage-backed securities traded and sold on global markets, have all created added incentives to invest in housing. Our investment behaviour has both encouraged and responded to these varying incentives, increasing demand, and serving to artificially inflate the price of housing, making it unaffordable.

Over time our behaviour, together with reinforcing policies and market forces, has reduced housing to a financial investment for the increasingly few instead of creating a home for the many.

Owning a home now means exposing ourselves to considerable risk with large 35 to 40 year loans, reduced ability to save money and the possibility of losing homes during unexpected financial shocks – sickness, the loss of a job, or economic depressions. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes and savings in the 2007-08 financial crises, during similar economic conditions to now.

Sure, as is often suggested, many of us can choose to move to peri-urban areas where housing is typically more affordable – but not without recognising the negative effects on social cohesion and that this is a choice to move to areas with fewer employment opportunities and services. This view also means that very capable people could be moving away from economic centres, where their skills may be more affectively used to serve the economy.

It’s fair to say that housing no longer serves us; we serve housing and our creditors. The stress and anxiety evident in society regarding housing won’t settle until our investment behaviour and several policies are changed. I realise that this is structural, but there are things we can do, which include:

  • Learning about the various policies, behavioural and market forces creating housing unaffordability
  • Voting for the political party that will change current policies to address the unaffordability of housing during the next Federal or State election
  • Lobbying politicians now to shift their view on housing as an investment to a basic necessity that everyone can afford

A significant factor in whether we have a peaceful and secure society is our ability to make housing affordable for everyone. And not just for us, but for our children who will benefit from living with security, stability and endless play opportunities under the dense foliage of trees in summer and amongst brown crunchy leaves in winter.

References: United Nations, The Right to Adequate Housing

Thanks to my friends Hsu-Ann, Hilary and Alanna for going over the content of this blog and helping me to refine the ideas.

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