On rejecting the dehumanisation of housing

By Claire Gaynor
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VirtualWolf/flickr

In June, the usual deluge of ‘mainlanders’ descend on Hobart, making their annual pilgrimage to the ever-growing Dark Mofo. It’s when we celebrate the Tassie winter, in all its freezing-cold glory. Throngs of Melburnians and Sydneysiders fill local bars and cafes, and accommodation is booked out well in advance. And, like any good tourist town, there are Airbnbs aplenty – a reported one-third, or 6,000, guests stayed in Airbnbs during the festival period this year. Don’t get me wrong: I, like plenty of other locals, love how the town comes alive during the winter solstice, and would attribute much of Tasmania’s cultural renaissance to the ‘Mona effect’ and an increase in tourism. It’s easy, however, for Hobartians to bemoan these trendy festival-goers and blame them for the current rental shortage. But it’s more complicated than that.

The week before Dark Mofo, I was standing outside Myer when a young man came up and asked me for some spare change. Usually, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid – it’s a common occurrence for anyone who has lived in a big city. But in Hobart, not so much – if ever. A duffle bag slung over his shoulder, the guy said he was trying to get enough money together to stay in a hostel for the night. It was the middle of winter, and a cold wind was whipping through the city. I gave him whatever coins I could find – in this cashless age, it was a pitiful amount – and he thanked me before going on his way.

Having just returned to Hobart after five years of living in Melbourne, I’ve noticed a visible change: more people sleeping rough, more people finding it increasingly difficult to secure a rental property, let alone one that they could afford. People reportedly camping in caravan parks or their friends’ backyards, squeezed into their cars, or if they’re lucky, living back with their parents. And figures from Launch Housing support this observation: they say homelessness in Hobart rose by 21% between 2011 and 2016.

It’s an issue that’s top-of-mind for many, but especially low- and middle-income earners. During peak periods, social media is awash with people desperate to find a room – it’s now commonplace to seek rooms on Facebook groups such as Hobart Rentals and Gumtree. Word of mouth, and a level of privilege, secured me an affordable rental within a short time frame. But housing still comes up in conversation every time I tell people I’ve moved back here. How did you get your house? Did you know someone? How long were you looking for? How much rent are you paying? Do you think they’ll hike up the price, just because they can?

Hobart is no longer a haven for those wanting to escape expensive big-city lifestyles. According to a 2019 Domain Property report, it is now one of the priciest Australian capital cities to live in, with a median weekly rent of $450 – surpassing Melbourne, at $440; Brisbane, at $410; and Adelaide at $390. The amount of stress this rising median price is placing on low-income earners and the more vulnerable members of the community is reflected in Anglicare’s 2019 Rental Affordability Snapshot Tasmania. On the weekend 23–24 March 2019, Anglicare found just 1,050 rental properties listed across Tasmania – a 60% reduction since 2013. Rental prices have increased by 21% from March 2013 to March 2018, with public housing wait lists increasing by 40% since 2013 and an average wait time of 63 weeks, or 1.25 years. They reject the term ‘crisis’, which insinuates an unforeseen, short-term trend, instead arguing it is a ‘perfect storm’ of lack of public and social housing, a shortage of private rental listings, and an increase in private rental and house purchase prices – factors that many would argue could be mitigated with sufficient government intervention.

Adequate housing is a fundamental human right. Somewhere along the way, between the free market economy, investment properties, negative gearing, increased tourism, the rise in population and the ‘sharing economy’ of Airbnb, we’ve forgotten what we built houses for: as a space to rest, eat, build lives and raise families. A place in which we can maintain some level of dignity. A sanctuary where we can breathe.

There are myriad, interwoven factors as to why we’ve at this point. The rapid expansion of Airbnb – an experience that began as renting a stranger’s spare room, but quickly expanded into their entire investment property – is merely symptomatic of housing being viewed as a commodity. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha uses the terms ‘financialisation’ or ‘dehumanisation’ of housing in her 2017 annual report to the Human Rights Council. Farha describes these terms as ‘the way capital investment in housing increasingly disconnects housing from its social function of providing a place to live in security and dignity and hence undermines the realisation of housing as a human right’.

Farha’s report decries the global rise of the investment property, and understandably so. The ‘investment property’ (especially more than one) is an irksome concept. Saving something for the future is all well and good, but what about the immediacy and urgency of those who need a house, a home, right here, right now? Unfortunately, a quick scan of this list of Australia’s fiercest protectors of negative gearing (hint: your friendly local politician) shows that people’s right to mass accumulation of properties isn’t going to disappear any time soon. And statistics show that many of these properties aren’t even being lived in. According to Farha’s report, 82,000 (or one-fifth) of investor-owned units were unoccupied in Melbourne in 2017.

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As a young university student, I shared a two-storey, three-bedroom Federation house in inner-city Hobart with two other friends. It was spacious – actually, it was palatial, compared to what I’ve lived in since – and relatively cheap at the time, albeit slightly run down. In the few years since my friends left the place, it’s changed owners and become an Airbnb. Now, whenever I walk past, I feel a wave of sadness that this potentially stately home has become empty and soulless, with a steady stream of guests coming and going. From a family home, to a share house, to an Airbnb.

When I read about the current housing crisis, about people being evicted from their camp sites out at the Hobart Showgrounds, I think of how I used to joke that the vast carpeted hallways of that share house could easily accommodate a small family. But back in May, an article in the local Mercury encapsulating the peak of the crisis showed this was no longer a joke: a Gumtree advertisement was found offering a bed for rent in someone’s North Hobart hallway, for $75 a week. Hallways were starting to look like a viable housing option for some.

After much deliberation, the Tasmanian Liberal Government has promised a $125 million investment in housing through its Affordable Housing Action Plan 2019–2023 and hatched a new emergency plan to house people experiencing homeless in pre-fab units and hotels. And in a controversial move, Senator Jacqui Lambie has also vowed to support the Coalition’s tax package in exchange for erasing Tasmania’s $157 million public housing debt. It remains to be seen whether these actions will help the 1,600 Tasmanians sleeping rough each night or ease the financial stresses of those in unaffordable rentals.

Every morning, after I unwillingly throw off the blankets on my bed and complain about how cold my rental is, I take a moment to be grateful. I’m paying affordable rent (so far), and living in an inner-city suburb that allows me to walk to and from work every day. Currently, on my single income, I probably won’t be able to afford to buy a house before I’m 40, but I’ve accepted that. And when the time comes, I look forward to making that house a home.

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