An aerial view of a densely populated residential area of Paris. Photo: Nikada
Reading the newspaper lately has felt like being trapped in an infernal Sydney dinner party: "There's never been a better time to sell!" "Do you think that it's better to buy in the east or inner-west?" "Did you hear about the property lawyer who bought his unborn grandchildren their own gated community?"
It's the conversational equivalent of grating your face against a concrete wall.
Of course this is nothing new. We've been a nation of renovating, investing, buying and selling philistines for the better part of the past 20 years.
When prosperity hit in the mid-90s we elected a prime minister who channelled our wealth away from schools, public infrastructure, universities and hospitals and into the bricks and mortar of our suburban fortresses. And we never looked back.
Now, in the midst of yet another hysterical burst of investment greed, we've started to count the costs: an entire generation locked out of the property market, first-home buyers pushed out of the inner city by baby-boomer investors, and carnivorous foreign investors consuming our land.
But all these stories presume that it's natural and inevitable for every Australian to want to buy property; that investing is hard-wired into our DNA, and that we will always dream of owning our own home rather than, say, dreaming of an equal society.
We presume that the problem is not that our imaginations don't extend beyond a suburban home, but simply that those homes are getting too expensive.
Call me treasonous, but to me the great Australian dream has always seemed like more of a nightmare: mortgaged up to your eyeballs in a house you never get to enjoy because you're too busy working to pay off the mortgage; living in the paranoid isolation of a cyclone-fenced suburb with only the blinking idiocy of a plasma TV for company; and lazy Sundays smelling of barbecues and debt.
When I picture the Australian dream I imagine something akin to the second circle of Dante's Inferno – the one where the sinners lie drowning in their own excrement.
What makes these infernal visions even worse is that heretics like myself simply have no option but to join the sinners in their excrement. The dream of home ownership is not an autonomous desire so much as a death sentence because we have no viable alternatives.
Rather than proposing solutions such as more land release, I would suggest five lessons about property to learn from our more civilised European compatriots.
1. Renting needs to be a secure option for individuals and families. In Australia if your landlord decides to sell they can kick you out with one month’s notice. If you fall behind on your rent they are legally obliged to give you two weeks’ notice.
Contrast this to France where no-one can be evicted during the winter months. Or to Germany and Italy where rental contracts can be for four years or even for an ‘indeterminate’ period – meaning that you can sign a contract that gives you the right to rent for life.
2. The price of rent needs to be capped. In the three years that my friend Paul has lived in Potts Point in Sydney his rent has risen from $250/week for a studio apartment to $350; an increase of 50%. In many European countries this would be illegal. Under new laws in France, no new rental contract in the inner suburbs of Paris is permitted to charge more than 20 percent per square meter above the neighbourhood’s median rent, which will be assessed annually by a "local rent observatory."
In Holland there is a similar rental review agency that you can appeal to if you think your rent is too much. They will assess your rent based on the median rent in the area and the quality of your house. If it’s too much then the landlord is forced to lower the rent and to reimburse you the excess money.
3. Communities are made of houses, not investments. There is a word circulating, miasma-like, in Sydney of late: flipping. It holds a certain sinister whimsy and means to buy a run-down property, renovate it, then sell it – or, as wankers say, flip it! These are precisely the same wankers who are likely to spend their holidays sauntering through Parisian streets murmuring their appreciation of the quirky little stores that give the city its charm.
In my quartier (the fifth arrondisement) we had a bookstore that only sold ancient mathematics text books, an umbrella repairer and a music-box maker. I lived next door to a man who put gold embossing on books. Real estate in the fifth is expensive and these places are only able to survive because owners realise that sometimes it’s good to hang on to a place; that you don’t always need to sell and make money. Keep your bookstore for the sake of the community and beautify the property you have for you and your children.
4. We need to stop talking about property. While living in France, I encountered a wonderful phenomenon attributable to their socialist past: the belief that talking about property is vulgar and boring.
In fact, mentioning that you’re about to buy property in Paris is conversationally disastrous, as bad as telling people how much you earn. This has the effect of liberating dinner parties so that people can discuss ideas, art and politics. Not just greed packaged in a brick-veneer home.
5. Housing is a basic human need. Civilisation has arrived at a very dark point when people in the richest country in the world cannot afford to put a roof over their heads. We constantly complain that our rent is too high or that the property is over-valued and yet we do nothing about it. Boycotting rent would be lovely but wildly ineffectual and personally perilous.
We need collective pressure placed on our government to behave like most other governments in Europe: restrain greed, protect low-income families from housing insecurity and in so doing, liberate us from the conversational tyranny of the housing market.
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