Houses are becoming commodities to buy and sell and not homes.

Sep 25, 2020

The Property Council and our tame media are obsessed on property prices. Are prices up or down this month? They see property as a commodity  for wealth creation.

Housing policy should be about housing as a human right  and for use, where in homes we raise families, entertain friends and where we can close off from markets and business.

It is no accident that Scott Morrison was a senior executive in the Property Council. So it is no surprise that the ‘housing minister’,Michael Sukkar is not even in the Cabinet. He is in the ‘Outer Ministry’. That demonstrates to me more than anything that Morrison regards property as a commodity to be traded in the market and not a social good like education or health.

We need major reforms in our health and education sectors but the failings in our housing sector tell me that housing and particularly social housing for rent is of the highest priority.

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.

Let’s unpack the guiding  principles that  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. Housing policy should not be influenced by the quest for wealth accumulation.Older people like me have benefitted from increased property values through no particular virtue on our part. But in the process we have frozen new home buyers out of the market. A fall in property values would  be socially very desirable. But the media keeps us focussed on how we must protect our unearned property gains.

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..’

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. Housing, health and education must be part of a social wage for all.

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  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. 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 or units.

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 $12b pa subsidising 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.

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.

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.

Society is more important than markets. Markets must be the means to serve society.Unfortunately we have allowed the  commodification of housing at the expense of social needs,particularly the needs of low income people, and essential workers like nurses having to live a long way from their workplaces.  Older single women are facing dire housing problems.

I will be writing further about the need for a social housing push as we recover from Covid-19. The social and economic dividend s would be substantial.

But it requires national leadership from the Morrison government.  That means Scott Morrison will need to break from the Property Council and the property lobby that see property as a commodity to be bought and sold .

We must value housing for its use value, not its exchange value.

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