Sunday, October 30, 2016

Housey-housey

Seat of Pants (ink drawing by Pants)

Whenever I have one of those what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking moments, I try to remember that there are two very good reasons to live in Australia. The wine is good and cheap and you can have a big house by the sea. There was a third reason for my return to the birth-mother country eight years ago. It had supposedly tired of being the dickhead of the world and had elected a progressive government. That hope bubble burst almost immediately. Old habits die hard. But the wine's still cheap and I still have my lovely house by the sea. Lucky me.

Plenty of my fellow residents aren't so lucky. Home ownership rates have been steadily declining for years in this country, which would be fine if there were lots of cuddly housing cooperatives and decent socially owned accommodation for fair rent and with secure tenure. For someone like me on a low fixed income, the alternative to owning my own home would be living in my car. Much as I love the Subaru, I don't think it would do much for my mental or spinal health. There are many good reasons for being a homeowner other than it clearly helps your finances if you don't have to pay rent. Nobody can tell you to leave or get cross at you for putting lots of holes in the walls. Both things would be constantly happening to me if I were in that position.

The fastest rising demographic for homelessness in the country is older women. Increasingly, having a home of your own costs more than most people can afford to pay. Why this state of affairs? Absolutely baffling, it would appear. Like every other challenge in Australia, it's one of those wicked problems that defy the best efforts of our most gifted thinkers. Building lots of houses where people want to live might be a start. Or perhaps build some cheaper ones not terribly far from where people want to spend a lot of their time and pop in some fast, reliable transport and a local job or two. And at the same time, remove the tax breaks for people who already own lots of houses and want more houses so they can pay less tax. Chewing gum whilst walking on the moon, apparently.

We have had a succession of fine minds at work on this thorny problem for some time. A former national Treasurer advised,

'The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money. Then you can go to the bank and you can borrow money.'

Who knew that's how it worked? Or you could always marry money. Like he did. And buy lots of houses. How did we reward this genius for his crystal clarity? By appointing him Ambassador to the United States of America. That bastion of clear-headed housing policy. On to Genius II who has concluded that the housing-affordability crisis is basically a planning issue. Which is the responsibility of the states and therefore not anything to do with him. He offered this enigmatic insight,

'Housing in Australia, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, is expensive and increasingly unaffordable but that does not mean it is overvalued.'

Well that's a relief and must provide some comfort to the people who are facing a future domiciled in a caravan park. As the mastermind in question has taken to wearing a little Australian flag lapel pin, one can only assume he's in training to follow his former colleague on to Washington, where he too can get a lovely big house for free, collect a couple of salaries and charge his household expenses, (including babysitting), to the Australian taxpayer.

Most issues in Australia quickly reduce down to some sort of demographic conflict. This is no different. Basically the Baby Boomers have bought up all the houses, leaving the Millennials no option but to squander all their hard-earned cash on brunching out. Yes, it's either a two-bed semi-detached or the luxury of having some even poorer sap smash avocado and arrange it on fancy toast for you. Speaking as someone who's always been a bit partial to smashed avocado on toast, (with freshly squeezed lemon, cracked pepper and a little sea salt if you don't mind), I suggest that it's possible to have it both ways, with a little creativity. Smashing your own avocado is a good place to start.

One of the reasons we Baby Boomers were able to get a foothold in the property market is that we didn't have to pay off student debt. I get that this gave us a massive advantage. But we were also prepared to live in places that no one else wanted to live. It was lucky for us that this included the inner-city areas which we found very attractive because they were littered with old pubs that we could turn into music venues and abandoned factories that we could co-opt for our art collectives. I won't deny that these were good times. Millennials might think about giving us some credit for revitalising abandoned city centres from Sydney to London, Berlin to New York and beyond. 

I spent a lot of my youth living in drafty share houses, squats and hard-to-let London council flats. Yes, it was cheap but it was also quite hard work at times. Repairing broken windows, carting furniture home from skips and sprucing it up. We didn't have eBay or Freecycle. Sacrificing comfort while you're young enough to not care can pay dividends later on. We agitated, organised, found resources that were going begging and used them.Why not form a collective and house pool or jointly buy a property in a regional city to rent out? Then you too can negatively gear yourself an income low enough to evade paying back your student debt and give the government one in the eye while you're at it. They'd soon take notice of that.

I've only ever had three full-time, permanent jobs in my life. None of them lasted much more than a year. On the first two occasions, I took the opportunity to qualify for a mortgage and bought the cheapest house I could find in a rundown area. The first time, in Brisbane, I was just twenty-three and although borrowing the $1,000 deposit from my parents was easy, getting a bank loan for the rest was not. The barrier for a single woman was the potential for pregnancy. Fortunately for me, I had a very nice boss who also happened to be on the board of a building society. He managed to convince the loans officer that I was so ghastly no one would ever be likely to want to have a baby with me. He was right about that. I sold the house for a big profit then went to live in England. Had I stayed and if I'd had a permanent job, I could have used the money for a bigger deposit and stepped up from my starter home. That's why it's called the property ladder, folks.

I was over forty when I bought the London flat that inadvertently secured my financial future. It was in Hackney. A place that, until fairly recently, no one wanted to live in. Fortunately, they all changed their minds at exactly the time I wanted to leave. Saving the £5,000 deposit wasn't all that difficult because I had a council flat where the rent was very low. I was also eligible for a shared-ownership property, which meant a fixed price, low interest rate and easy access to a building society loan. It really is a good system, but suspiciously socialist-sounding so very unlikely to ever take off in Australia.

Given the present predicament, it would seem that there are rather more opinions on its causes and rather less in the way of sod turning and loop-hole closing than is good for anyone. The sooner our multiple layers of government can agree that people are unlikely to stop having children and that everyone has to have somewhere to live and work out which layer is going to sort out which bit of it, the sooner we can all get on with our Sunday brunches in peace. Yes, it is extremely bad that my generation is hogging houses. But then again, many of us don't have huge superannuation balances and all the tax breaks that go with them. For a lot of people my age, property is a way to fund retirement. One of my neighbours, a single parent, built a very good house next to hers and rented it to a family on a permanent basis at a reasonable rate. That's the system working. We need more of that. And there should be heavy penalties for investors who buy property and leave it empty. The system enables far to much of that at present. 

I maintained my winning strategy of buying cheaply in a seriously uncool place when I moved here. I've been lucky twice in anticipating gentrification - although in Hackney it did take twenty-five years for the hipsters to crack on. Larrikin's End has a ways to go. Some days I'd kill for a decent baguette. But I do have my own lemon tree and I've got a couple of young avocado plants. And I'd rather have the view than quality coffee. If a perpetually single woman with an appalling employment record can do it, it's doable. Believe it.