House or Home?
All that they see and know is only possible because of the dispossession of our people. The true cost of living here has already been paid by our ancestors. A price much too high. (Nunami Sculthorpe-Green)
The shift from understanding a house as a home and place of shelter – to a house as means of wealth accumulation – has a long and entrenched history in Australia. The development of the nation was informed (and continues to be shaped) by the colonial logic of establishing private-property and wealth through ownership, achieved by the violent dispossession of Indigenous people from land. A price much too high.
From colonisation to commodification
The established norm of capital growth for landowners – and denial of ownership or intergenerational-wealth transfer (inheritance) for people dispossessed of land – is so embedded in the national psyche it is difficult to imagine otherwise. Or to remember that the current landscape of unequal access to stable housing is an outcome of structured decisions and power relations. Homeownership is promoted as a shortcut to a sense of belonging, where connection to place is achieved through possession. Owning a home is socially understood as ‘part of the Australian way of life.’
In addition to this ongoing legacy of personal wealth through possession of land, the understanding of ‘house as home’ is increasingly shifting to ‘house as asset commodity’.
This essay traces the government policies, cultural norms and social conditions that have helped to facilitate the increasing commodification of housing – from home to investment – in order to make space to consider other futures beyond accumulation of assets. As the Home|Land exhibition asks, ‘How do you share something that isn’t yours to share?’
The Australian Dream
While possession had always informed the development of Australia as a nation-state, it wasn’t until the end of WWII that this personal possession of property was made accessible, and promoted as socially desirable, on a broad scale. Post war, there were strong government incentives for homeownership, through the drive for ‘full employment’, as well as support of War Service Home loans, sales schemes of public housing, and the development of multiple-owner apartment buildings.
The narrative of the Australian Dream, coupled with policies to support homeownership, resulted in 70-75% of Australians owning their own home by the mid 1970s. As Dallas Rogers explains, this created a ‘property owning democracy’ – describing a society in which between 65-85% of households are homeowners.
Policies for profit
While the post-war period saw homeownership as socially and economically normalised – the policies that supported this ownership were intended to create stable living conditions for citizens, rather than an asset from which to explicitly generate wealth.
The transition into multiple-property ownership as a way to ‘get ahead’ was facilitated by a range of legislative and tax-setting interventions. In 1985, Rent Assistance was expanded as a means to support low-income households to secure private housing (rather than through the provision of social or public housing). This encouraged mom-and-pop landlords to provide private rental options for those who were unable to access the Australian dream of their own.
This expansion of the private rental market was coupled with a change in the tax system aimed at stimulating capital markets through adjustments to capital gains legislation that allowed for negative gearing. Australia is the only country in the OECD that allows negative gearing (a tax setting that allows losses on property investments to be used to reduce tax on wages) – as it incentivises speculative investment, particularly on high-value properties. It also costs the Australian Government approximately $12 billion a year.
These reforms were intended to encourage investment, supply and stimulate the economy; as well as stimulating rental investor activity. Changes to controls on lending also facilitated increases in investor-buyers and property related lending. In 1990, mortgage lending accounted for 20% of Australia’s GDP. Today it is over 80%, and these loans are predominately for the purchase of existing housing stock. Australia’s economy is kept afloat by ownership and property.
The Asset Economy
Houses are generating both national and personal wealth. The total value of Australia’s residential property is approximately four times the size of Australian GDP. And at a personal level, home ownership could contribute greater wealth than having a job.
In addition to tax settings assisting to create multiple property ownership as an attractive financial opportunity, slow wage growth in Australia has also assisted to embed the concept of housing as a safe and stable wealth generator. In 2022, house values increased seven times the pace of wage growth – meaning that asset ownership could create greater wealth creation than employment.
As Professor Lisa Adkins explains, “It used to be that if you had a better job, you’d more likely be better off. Now we’re in a new socio-economic phase favouring asset ownership.” As a reliable and significant income source, housing is no longer a home, but a way to supplement (or exclusively generate) personal profit. This is particularly evident in the rise of AirBnB ownership (and management, styling, branding, marketing) as a career.
Imagining a house as an asset, rather than a home, is also captured in the rise of ‘rentvesting.’ The term describes investors buying in an area with high rental yield, while renting a property elsewhere. Framed as a way to ‘get into the market’ or ‘overcome housing FOMO’, rentvesting allows buyers to build wealth through homeownership, before owners are able to afford to live in the house themselves.
A quick web search of rentvesting reveals titles such as ‘rentvest your way to the top of the property ladder’ and ‘rentvesting: strategy to go from zero to 3 properties in 3 years.’ Through negative gearing, rental income and increasing property prices, a home is used to build personal stability and generate wealth. This increase of Australians buying homes for the explicit purpose of personal financial returns has been described by Murray and Collins as ‘renterization.’
The attractiveness of passive income through asset ownership is socially and culturally highly normalised in Australia. Colloquially, we describe people ‘doing well for themselves’ and ‘getting a foot on the property ladder.’
But as Adkins, Cooper and Konings articulate, the asset economy has ‘produced a new logic of inequality.’
In her essay ‘Not All Millennials’, Kiara Barrow writes, ‘the patterns of wealth accumulation that were set in motion while real estate was still up for grabs are being cemented in place.’ She identities how low wages prohibit those who will not inherit wealth (predominantly generated from family property ownership) from ever owning a home.
Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights declining rates of homeownership in Australia – despite growing numbers of dwellings. Building more homes isn’t the simple solution, and those who already own homes are the ones who can afford to purchase additional ones.
Researchers have identified that by 2040, Australia will operate under a dual tenure housing system for those aged 25-55, where 50% of residents will be owners acquiring wealth, and 50% will be paying the mortgages of owners through rent. This ‘recipe for long-term social and economic problems’ has a deep history and is informed by decades of policies and societal values around housing, ownership, wealth accumulation and control of land.
Home|Land layers these patterns and makes the rolling and recurring experiences of exclusion and profit evident. Who gets to have a garden? Whose heritage is valued? Who gets to inhabit these spaces, and who benefits?
Decommodifying the future?
We have arrived at a point where the house is both a financial product; and a basic human right and necessity. As academic Brian Doucet wrote in 2021,
It seems like everyone is talking about housing these days. For many, it is in a state of crisis. But for others, it is a market doing exactly what it should be doing: making money. The crux of the housing problem is that it is both a basic human right and a commodity from which to extract wealth.
To make housing affordable is possible from both a legislative and economic perspective. However, while there are ways to decouple housing from the asset economy through the provision of non-market housing, and introducing tax settings to de-incentivise multiple property ownership – what is more difficult, is to change the normalised social and cultural narratives of wealth creation through investing in homes. It also requires reckoning with how we got here, and the logics of inequality and dispossession that the Australian Dream is structured upon.
Home|Land exposes the absurdities of economic imaginaries, the brutal history and ongoing violence of ownership, the rise of the asset, and the loss of the home. But the exhibition also suggests alternatives: of connection, shared spaces and new narratives of housing that privilege the residents and communities rather than the speculative investor. Home|Land makes clear that the price is much too high.
Miriam McGarry is a researcher and writer, interested in built and natural environments. She runs the podcast Hidden Cities about housing affordability, and has completed a PhD on the impact of Mona on cultural policy and urban planning. Miriam has written for a range of publications including Island Magazine, Overland and Failed Architecture.