Making Housing Affordable Series. JOHN MENADUE. Principles to guide housing policy and programs.

This is part 1 of our new 13 part series – Making Housing Affordable.  Further articles will follow on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Good housing policy and programs, as with other areas, should be based on values and principles that inspire and enthuse us. Otherwise housing policy can easily become a discussion about technical and management issues. 

Housing policy should be based on three important principles. 

First, we should value housing for its use-value, not its exchange-value. 

Second, housing policy should be part of community and neighbourhood building. 

Third, housing policy should promote social mixing and sharing, rather than stratification.  

We can accept that political leaders must make compromises from time to time, but we need to know what they stand for. Compromises should only be made against a framework of generally agreed values and principles. In short, we expect our leaders to have conviction in what they tell us.

We need to discuss housing, education, health or tax reform in such a way that it does not become a technical discussion. Too often housing policy advocates see the issue of housing as a technical problem concerning debt, prices and ‘bubbles’. Technical and management issues are important but there is much more at stake. What is really needed is that the policies in these areas reflect the sort of society that we want to live in. ‘Housing’ policy is not an end in itself. It needs to serve certain values and principles.

We need leaders and political parties to express themselves in a clear set of principles which accord with the best of Australian values. Otherwise the political contest is reduced to satisfying short-term materialist aspirations, appeasing vested interests (such as the Property Council) or managing the media cycle.

From broad community values a set of principles can be developed. These principles can underpin a coherent set of policies and programs which implement those principles.

Values > principles > policies > programs.

Before addressing the principles that should guide housing policies and programs in particular, I suggest there are some overriding values that should inform us:

  • FAIRNESS – which is primarily about economic opportunity which promotes social mobility and limits division and resentment.
  • FREEDOM – in which we all have rights to the extent that they do not lessen the rights of others.
  • CITIZENSHIP – in which we are more than individuals linked to market transactions.
  • STEWARDSHIP – in which we have inherited a stock of assets, both physical and human. We must maintain and if possible enhance that stock of assets.
  • ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY – that those in prominent office should promote those qualities which draw on the best of our traditions and the noblest of our instincts.

With those broad values as a background, what guiding principles should we apply to housing policies and programs? These principles should apply to both house ownership and rental.

The first is that we should regard housing for its use-value. Too often we value housing for its exchange-value. We need to decommodify housing. We must build houses to provide ourselves and others with shelter, comfort, a place where we can grow as individuals and a base from which we can develop as full members of society. We must avoid regarding houses as instruments of exchange as is so often the case today with taxation incentives for investment in housing for short-term capital gain.

In the iconic film ‘The Castle’ Darryl Kerrigan put it this way: ‘I’m really starting to understand what the aborigines feel. Well my house is like their land. Their land holds their memories, the land is their story, it’s everything, you can’t just pick it up and plonk it down somewhere else.’ Kerrigan added ‘It is not just a house, it’s a home. A man’s home is his castle. … This is as clear as day. It is right and fair that a family be allowed to live in their own house. That is justice..’

As Saul Eslake in this series recalls, Robert Menzies said in 1942 ‘One of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours so that we can withdraw and in which we can be amongst our friends and into which no stranger may come against our will.’

It is an important principle that everyone should be able to live in a house or apartment appropriate to their needs. Good housing is a human right, just like the right to a good education and good health care. It is essential for a social wage.

Housing is not a commodity or a market transaction. It is where we develop as members of a family and community.

The second principle is that housing must be part of a neighbourhood.

We are more than individuals linked by market transactions. Meaning in life comes from relationships both personal and communal. Our life in the public sphere is no less necessary than our private lives. As citizens we engage and contribute to the common good. It is in communities and neighbourhoods that we learn respect for others. It is where we abide by shared rules of civic contact. It is where we build social capital, networks of trust with our neighbours. We need to behave in ways that make us trusted members of our neighbourhood.

Unfortunately many housing developments are becoming sterile and hostile to the building of strong neighbourhoods. They promote exclusion rather than inclusion. More and more of our physical and metamorphic space is being enclosed by the market. The worst consequences of this are on show in the US. This alienation from neighbours takes many forms in gated enclaves – high walls, roller doors, CCT cameras, private entertainment, which all have the consequence of avoiding contact with neighbours and hinder the development of community. Good housing policy should be about building strong and vibrant neighbourhoods and not just isolated houses.

The third important housing principle should be the promotion of social mixing and sharing. It should be a basic requirement of good housing policy to avoid stratification or ghettos whether on the basis of income, employment, religion or other grounds.

Our health service is increasingly discouraging social mixing through the massive subsidizing of private health insurance which is separating out services for the more wealthy. Our schools are becoming more stratified with wealthy parents aided by enormous government subsidies, sending their children to separate private schools.

In NSW the fight against local government mergers is primarily about opposition to social mixing and sharing. The rich councils want to maintain a defacto layer of government for the rich, rather than share with less wealthy councils or councils with different social or ethnic mixes. They want to maintain their more homogenous populations by resisting mergers with councils of greater diversity. The people of Vaucluse are not keen to mix and share with the people from Maroubra. The small wealthy councils oppose what they call ‘inappropriate development’ in their leafy suburbs i.e. densification and social mixing. They don’t want smaller houses on smaller blocks that might be owned by people different to themselves.. The trend to social alienation through housing, education and health must be reversed.

Housing policy and programs must support social mixing through for example setting minimum and substantial levels of social inclusion in all major new developments.

In the post-war years, there was always a senior Commonwealth minister as Minister for Housing. That is no longer the case. We need to reassert appointment of a senior minister as Minister for Housing along with Ministers for Education and Health. Appropriate housing, education and health facilities are important human rights for everyone. These should form what should be regarded as part of a ‘social wage’.

And housing policies and programs must be anchored in key principles. ; use value and not exchange value; building communities and neighbourhoods and social mixing and sharing.

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