Don’t dream, it’s over
The story of housing in this country is a story of anxiety.
Those who can’t get in are waiting for the crash – a little ghoulishly, on the sidelines – hoping it will be a big one, and that they’ll move in and snap up something.
Those who are in are jumpy before the interest rate announcement, fretful for their jobs, believers in statistics. The prices can’t go down, they say. People thought the market was cooling, but then it wasn’t. The most recent figures for Sydney have the largest yearly rise in values for more than a decade. In Melbourne the quarterly growth to June 2015 was the biggest since March 2010. Meanwhile, figures out this week showed Sydney rents rising at the fastest rate in four years. Median rents are now $530 a week for houses. Everyone’s afraid. There’s a lot at stake.
The postwar Australian dream – owning a home, with a yard – has become outdated. Prices have outpaced wages. The average income cannot buy an average home. The dream also fails to reflect how we live. Restlessness has become inbuilt: from how we work, in more short-term contract work rather than jobs for life, to the transience of how we partner. More of us are living alone. The birthrate has slowed. Yet we’re stuck with this version of ourselves unchanged since the 1950s: the home owners, stable as a rock. This was as high as we ever needed climb on Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy of needs – shelter, comfort; forget love and self-actualisation – and yet most of us can’t even get there anymore. At least not beyond renting.
I’ve moved about 25 times in 10 years. But I’m tired of being transient. I’ve started looking at realestate.com.au and dreaming of a place of my own. To this end, I meet a friend for a drink after work, a kind of de facto financial planning session. On the back of a napkin he draws up a savings plan – no more overseas holidays, no more posh restaurants or interstate trips on a whim. Only one taxi a week, one latte a day; I must take my lunch to work and put the spare room on Airbnb. Later he texts pictures of cheap grocery items – tuna for $1, oats and rice for $2, bulk-buy tea bags. To save for a deposit, sacrifices must be made.
To scare me – or maybe not, maybe he can see clearly the way this will play out – he tells me that when I’m 70 I’ll be living on the pension, in a rented caravan at a van park in Portland, a Victorian coastal town where I spent an unhappy year in my 20s.
“You don’t want that, do you?” he says.
“No, I don’t want that.”
I order another glass of wine, then take a taxi home. But only when he is safely out of eyeshot.
The next weekend I’m in northern Queensland doing a travel story and staying at a cabin in a caravan park. I speak to the park’s new owners, who tell me proudly that they have got rid of all but one of the “permanents”.
Cause and effect. We now have capital cities where ordinary people – not an underclass who have always struggled – can’t afford to live anymore.
The papers are full of stories of the new homeless – many of them older women who lost out in a divorce, didn’t have enough super or savings, or have been out of the workforce for many years raising children. They sleep in cars or on friends’ couches.
Felicity Reynolds, chief executive of the Mercy Foundation, told News Corp the number of homeless older women represents “6 to 8 per cent of the total number of people counted as homeless in Australia”.
Reynolds said this number will grow. “This should be setting off alarm bells for the policymakers because this is only going to get worse as affordability gets worse,” says Reynolds. “[The women] are poor and they’re priced out of the market.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reports an increase in men sleeping rough in the bush – out in the caves of the Blue Mountains.
Those trying to get into the property market are making do with accommodation: they stay in share houses long past their limits, studio apartments instead of one bedrooms, or live “further out” where private bus services run where train lines should be.
There’s politics, there’s sport and there’s property. That’s what we talk about in Australia, I tell the recently arrived.
The Australian horror story goes something like this: “I got a house with my boyfriend in (name a rapidly gentrifying suburb/Redfern) and then when we split up, I sold him my share for $20,000 and spent the money on a holiday and then he sold the place for a million and I am still renting in Petersham.”
Or like this: “I was desperate to get into the market so I bought a tiny apartment off the plan in Abbotsford but lost my deposit after the bank wouldn’t lend to me because it was under 50 square metres and I was working on a contract.”
Or like this: “I had the money to buy a flat in Bondi 10 years ago when it was $360,000. I thought it was too expensive and that I’d wait. Now it’s $900,000. You can’t even see the beach.”
One of my favourite times was just after university when all my friends lived close to each other and we used to walk to one another’s houses. We’d drop in, no need to call, like villagers in some mediaeval market town. That the village was Carlton, North Carlton, Brunswick, Fitzroy and North Melbourne only makes it seem even more like a dream from another time.
I could still live in those places today, but there wouldn’t be the village. If you’re renting – usually on a cycle of one-year leases, with properties frequently turning over – the community you form would only ever be temporary. Which kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Real estate is not only an expression of our anxiety but also our envy. Friends betray you in myriad small ways when they buy houses. They become “them”. They tell you they bought in Powelltown or Leumeah – places where you think, “Where’s that?” and have to Google, the map on screen with its unfamiliar shops and stations, miles and miles from the blue stuff, as you roll and roll the mouse over highways and football ovals to get to the sea, or the city. Do you like them enough to spend hours on public transport to visit them?
“I can’t live out there,” you think. “It’s not worth it just to say you own your own home.” But there it looms again – the spectre of the van park, the frequent moves, the community life you’ve never built because you’ve never stayed. If this were a morality tale, the plodders with the mortgages would be the winners and the renter enjoying her salad days and her feckless money down at Bondi Beach would end up with nothing. Everything’s squandered. The winners didn’t just buy a house – they bought security. They bought freedom from anxiety.
A million bucks to buy in Blacktown in April this year. That’s when the illusion burst: the illusion that one day you could buy a place in Sydney – that’s okay and that’s close enough to everything to not need a car – on a journalist’s salary. On the salary of any middle-income professional.
The price record in Blacktown, 34 kilometres west of the CBD, was front-page news. It is also what made Sydney – for me at least – a place to be lived purely in the present tense. There is no future here, no old age, no riding through the good times and the bad. If you want to buy in, you needed a million bucks worth of chips.
But that’s okay. Because a wake-up call is good. And I suspect I am not the only person having one.
Nights I can’t sleep I go to realestate.com.au and type in places on a whim – Castlemaine, Blackheath, Hobart. Everything’s twice as big and half the price. I think of the deep past, where migration patterns were dictated by the seasons and availability of food. In the 20th century it was jobs: work moved people. Now it is real estate.
I wonder where I’ll end up, and marvel at how house prices dictate destiny.
A new Australian dream is needed. I like to imagine a future where the housing affordability crisis creates something amazing and unintended. Where it creates a better world. Shakes up the demographics of country towns, with new blood moving in. Makes our workplaces more flexible, to cater to those living further away. Creates an impetus to tackle public transport and rail links. And creates higher-density, more-affordable housing in cities.
It will force architects and planners to be more creative with smaller amounts of space and more affordable housing – such as the innovative micro apartments being built in New York that emphasise common areas as opposed to large private spaces.
Or – boldest of all – lack of affordable housing may make us let go of our old dream. It’s a stale dream, anyway, founded on a debt that keeps you up at night when you should be dreaming.
Perhaps we have reached a stage where owning a home is so unlikely that we are forced to dream of a life without one. A life lived at the top of Maslow’s pyramid; one that isn’t trapped in the foothills of shelter and safety, that instead draws its meaning from love and belonging and self-esteem. It is a risky way to live, particularly approaching retirement. But living this way may yet produce new models of accommodation. And in the meantime, it would allow our aspirations to sit closer to our means.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Don’t dream, it’s over". Subscribe here.