A few weeks ago while hunting for a flat, my housemate and I unwittingly signed up to inspect an illegal boarding house. Behind a nondescript door in a vomit-encrusted back laneway of Ashfield, Sydney, we went single file up a narrow staircase, pressing our bodies against the wall to avoid making contact with the garbage bins blocking most of the passage.
The real estate agent instructed us to wait outside while she went in to wake up the tenants, who, judging from a cleaning roster in the kitchen, numbered 11. A shelf holding dozens of pairs of men’s shoes and the three-mattress-per-room arrangement confirmed our suspicions.
The asking price to rent the illegal slum flat in the vomit laneway around the corner from the seedy brothel? $400 per week, $100 less than the median Sydney unit price as of the last quarter of 2014.
Among low or average income renters attempting to find somewhere affordable to live, the outrageous stories pile up: what’s the worst property you’ve ever inspected? They wanted how much?! Tell me again about the place with the enormous hole in the kitchen floor! What about the one we lived in that had a back room extension made of packing crates, or the place with human shit under the sink?
These are the immediate consequences of Australia’s housing affordability crisis for those who can’t buy. It’s not just poverty-stricken uni students: many of the people I’ve seen inspecting borderline uninhabitable housing in Sydney over the past few months have been couples with young children. These properties are grimy, mouldy, tiny, badly-lit, with unreliable hot water or electrics. Many of them are still too expensive for poor families.
It’s tough to square the image of a three-year-old leaving small, clean handprints on the dusty walls of a $450-per-week two bedroom apartment, with Tony Abbott’s hope that house prices in Sydney are still increasing. Many commentators pointed out how callous the prime minister’s attitude is. The surprising part was not just that Abbott thinks this, but that’s he’d actually say it.
Media representations of the impact of expensive rentals also neglect their dirtier, more damaging aspects, the way an overheated market forces people to choose between sets of negatives. This house has ancient kitchen linoleum and gaping cracks in the skirting boards, which is a recipe for cockroaches. But nicer places are too far from public transport and infrastructure. What if we compromised, and got the place with the renovated kitchen, bedrooms that barely fit a whole bed in them, and only an outdoor toilet?
This is what happens when housing is seen as a vehicle of wealth creation rather than primarily as somewhere to live. People’s actual living conditions are abstracted away, replaced by sets of economic indicators that are largely of relevance to those who are already on the property ladder.
Those who suffer most under current arrangements are cordoned off into the realm of Unfortunate Social Issues, and they are irrationally blamed or held responsible for the set of unhealthy institutions that caused their range of choices to narrow so severely.
Having to make these decisions – an hour commute from a house with a patch of grass out the back, or a 30 minute commute from an apartment with a bathroom so badly plastered that there are previous tenants’ hairs embedded in your walls? – is demoralising for adults, and damaging for children.
The point of the iconic quarter-acre aspiration in the Australian psyche is not the actual white picket fence or the big backyard; it’s stability and comfort. Our rental market is the opposite not because of the large number of apartments, but because a sense of ownership and security is virtually impossible for many.
Instead, precarity creates stress. Living with the constant prospect of a broken tap the landlord refuses to fix, the end of a week-to-week tenancy agreement followed by a long house-hunting period and an expensive move, or even just having to pay rent that leaves little left for anything else: these things are sources of anxiety, so that your house isn’t a place to relax. It’s a shame housing is so expensive, but it’s a scandal that people on low incomes can never really afford to feel at home.