Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Great Australian Nightmare

I don’t usually talk about my work on this blog, since I talk about it so much in the rest of my life. However, I had a curious experience recently. I’ve just taken on a bit of work around support for low income home purchasers, and to get a bit of historical context I tracked down a 1983 book called “The Great Australian Nightmare” by Jim Kemeny.

I had never read this book, or even seen a copy, before the last couple of weeks. Yet its influence on my work has been huge. In the mid to late 1980’s this book was constantly quoted in articles on housing policy, and his arguments even if not attributed were the staple of left-wing housing comment.

I was surprised, then, by a couple of things. First, how short the book is – at a little over 100 pages its volume hardly matches the weight it carries.

Second, I was intrigued by the slightness and at times the confusion of its arguments. There was little data, a lot of assertion, and plenty of missing logical steps.

His argument is really quite simple. After a promising beginning, Australian housing policy after the second world war came to be dominated by the aim of promoting home ownership, to the neglect of other tenures including particularly public rental. This one-track housing policy leads to overpriced housing, over-investment in housing at the expense of “productive” investment, and leads to the exclusion of significant numbers of low income households from secure, affordable housing. Yet it also becomes self-fulfilling – because home ownership is the only viable alternative for households it comes to be seen as “natural”, so that it becomes what every household wants and governments become tied to it by popular will.

His argument (even in the full form rather than this one-paragraph summary) begs as many questions as it answers. By what criteria does he decide that housing is not “productive” investment? Is the mentality of home ownership created by the policy, or the policy by the mentality in a liberal individualistic society?

For all this, 26 years and two boom and bust housing cycles later, his argument is still powerful and prescient. Housing prices, despite the busts, have steadily ratcheted up, excluding more and more households. The alternatives remain as undeveloped as ever – public housing is now more a “welfare” measure and less a genuine alternative than it was in 1983, private rental is still a temporary form of housing dominated by small-scale landlords and unable to attract significant investment. And governments unhesitatingly pour money into home ownership to prop up this sector and prevent prices from falling despite the fact that anyone can see they are too high – because the banking system is geared around sustaining the value of housing, and no-one benefits if the banks collapse.

I don’t know where Jim Kemeny is now. I assume he is retired. Unlike other Australian housing academics from the 1980s like Judy Yates, Terry Bourke, Tony Dalton or Vivienne Milligan, who have stayed active in the field and made deep and lasting contributions to housing research, he was largely invisible in the field after the publication of this book. Yet his influence is still there, in me and many others like me who caught the passion for a fairer housing system, and the role of a good public housing system in creating that fairness.

No comments: