The ache for home is more important than the drive for wealth

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that governments can address homelessness if they have the political will. However, argues John Falzon, Australia’s policy settings continue to treat housing as an opportunity make money, rather than an essential ingredient of healthy living.

Aug 03, 2020, updated Aug 03, 2020
"The way our society is structured... has taught us to see everything as a commodity, something to be sold for profit. Housing, obviously, is squarely in this category." Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

"The way our society is structured... has taught us to see everything as a commodity, something to be sold for profit. Housing, obviously, is squarely in this category." Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

– Maya Angelou

Home is lots of things, including, but not limited to, a roof over your head. It is a place where you know you are safe, where you can be yourself, a place from which you can connect to people, form relationships and friendships, love and be loved. In other words it is a place to live, in the fullest sense of the word.

Without a place to live it is hard, if not impossible, to get a job or keep a job. It is hard to participate in education, whether you are an adult or a child. It is hard to take care of your health. Living on the street, in your car, or on a friend’s couch, consumes your time and energy in the struggle to stay as safe as possible and to somehow scrape together a semblance of the essentials of life. Living in a house with someone who is violent towards you or who engages in emotional abuse is not that “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned” either. Neither is living in overcrowded, inappropriate, insecure, or institutionalised accommodation where you are denied that sense of self-determination so central to our health and well-being.

Having a place to call home is one of the fundamental essentials of life. Which is why the ache for home does live in all of us. The way our society is structured, however, has taught us to see everything as a commodity, something to be sold for profit. Housing, obviously, is squarely in this category.

We are taught, quite systematically and deliberately, to see housing as something you pay for or make money from. It is as if this commodification anaesthetises the deep human ache. The ache for home, you see, is not only deeply personal, it is profoundly social. It is that awareness, that consciousness, that connectedness to the needs of each other. It can come to the fore at a time of crisis, when we might tend to actually feel like we are “all in this together”, as some like to describe our current pandemic experience.

Houses have shifted  from being valued as a place to live and to raise a family towards being viewed also as a place to park and grow capital.

But the inequalities that form the bedrock of our current social formation mean that we are never all completely “all in this together”. There are some of us who bear the brunt of inequality, its sharpest and most painful end, and a there are some of us who actually benefit from inequality, from the privilege and power that comes, for example, from patriarchy, from colonisation, or from our overarching system of capitalism which privileges the big owners of capital over the rest of us.

What has the power to connect us though, and to replace the politics of greed with a politics of caring, is that human ache for home. It is what we should be able to have in common, but we must first reject those social and economic practices that deny a place to call home for over 116,000 people in prosperous Australia.

It has been encouraging to see jurisdictions across Australia responding with urgency to rough sleeping at this time of the pandemic. Governments can address homelessness if they have the political will. We still however scandalously lack a cohesive national housing and homelessness strategy.

It is also particularly crucial at this time that the Commonwealth acknowledges its responsibility in preventing recession-related homelessness. For people who are experiencing, or are at risk of, unemployment, along with people who are in insecure work, the threat of homelessness is real unless government income support is properly targeted and genuinely adequate. Now is not the time to be cutting JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We urgently need, as part of a national reconstruction program, a new social guarantee, including a jobs plan, strong social services and supports and a robust set of protections for workers’ pay and conditions.

While it is a given that homelessness is connected to poverty, it is less acknowledged that the converse is also true. Homelessness is structurally caused by wealth, in particular the concentrated wealth that has been invested and accumulated in housing stock for speculative purposes. Governments have not only failed to ameliorate the knock-on effect of this financialisation of housing as a structural cause of homelessness, they have actively aided and abetted this socially destructive trend.

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Australia is by no means alone in embracing, and being overwhelmed by, the phenomenon of financialisation of housing, with dire consequences for the social objective of ensuring access to housing as a human right.

Financialisation is defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as “the phenomenon [which] occurs when housing is treated as a commodity – a vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good”. At a global level, this concentration of wealth in housing is of colossal proportions and has a commensurate impact on both housing markets and housing policy.

In Australia, the financialisation of housing has been encouraged through such policy levers as capital gains tax discounts, negative gearing, tenancy policies that favour landlords, poorly regulated mortgage financing arrangements and first homeowner grants. The resultant financial benefits of property investment for property investors and owner-occupiers have led to a situation where, as housing researchers Dallas Rogers and Emma Power note: “Houses have shifted  from being valued as a place to live and to raise a family towards being viewed also as a place to park and grow capital.”

The clear losers from financialisation are the people who do not have access to the capital required to take advantage of this system, namely people on middle and lower incomes, including people on income support, older women, young people (especially if their parents are not homeowners), people currently experiencing homelessness, people at risk of homelessness (particularly in the private rental market) and people living in social housing.

It is not without significance that, for Australia, there has been a strong public consciousness of the fundamental role of the Commonwealth government in funding and framing the right to health and education, even though most of these services are delivered by the states and territories. In the main, however, the same does not go for housing.

It is time this changed. It is time that housing was treated as a national priority and urgent responsibility.

Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute data estimates that Australia will need 727,000 new social housing properties by 2036 to meet the existing backlog and projected need. The interconnectedness of all segments of the housing system means that a national response to homelessness must go hand in hand in hand with a national housing strategy, using the policy levers available to all levels of government, including local government, to ensure that housing is re-framed as a human right instead of a speculative sport, massively boosting public housing and prioritising a “housing first” approach such as that which is central to the Adelaide Zero Project, in other words, ending, rather than managing, homelessness. [The Adelaide Zero Project, led by the Don Dunstan Foundation, has housed 369 people since the project began, but as of June 30 there were still 348 actively homeless in Adelaide’s inner city, including 83 people sleeping rough.]

This national approach must also be seen in the context of broader social protection mechanisms, the neoliberal retrenchment of which have been instrumental in the commodification of housing, the irrationality and inefficiency of its allocation and the accompanying decline in its availability as a basic right and social good.

Dr John Falzon (@JohnFalzon) is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita – an independent think tank focused on inequality. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He works with the Don Dunstan Foundation on homelessness issues – which are in focus this week.

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