There’s something cruel about a country that elevates renovation advice to the realm of sacred knowledge but is coolly evasive when it comes to solving the algebra of actually buying a home.
Today, we can turn on the TV and meet couples with a mystifying knack for grouting floors and browse interior blogs that tell us that we can find the keys to a better life in a white-washed sunroom. Yet, according to a May 2016 Australian Financial Review report, the dream of trading in the terror of impending eviction for a suburban house with a backyard or, heck, even an apartment the size of a shoebox is starting to look about as plausible as a reality TV plot.
The report, which cites statistics from Moody’s Investor Service, found that Sydneysiders spend an average of 35.6 per cent of their income on mortgage repayments, Melbourne home-owners devote 30 per cent of their monthly paycheck to their mortgage and that housing affordability was also declining in Adelaide and Brisbane. A 2016 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey which revealed that owning a house in an Australian city costs 5.6 times the median household income and that Sydney is the world’s second most expensive city, ahead of Los Angeles and London, is a case in point.
I realised that [working to pay a mortgage] wasn’t about dollars but about the life force that you expend.
Fred Schultz believes that this pressure to yoke ourselves to a hefty mortgage is a relic of a dream that no longer makes sense. Schultz tells me that he originally built a 10-square metre home on a trailer in Templestowe, Victoria, when he realised that the compromises associated with home ownership were out of sync with his own values.
“I was over 50 and getting sick of my job when it struck me that the program that we’ve been given by society – that if you work hard you can own your own home – had never worked for me,” says Schultz, who lives with his wife and young daughter and runs a business to help clients build their own pint-sized homes. “As I got older, my time became more valuable and I realised that [working to pay a mortgage] wasn’t about dollars but about the life force that you expend. I decided that I could control the expense side of things and that there was no reason that I couldn’t make what we lived in.”
Schultz, who was inspired by the Tiny House Movement – the global community of city-dwellers rejecting McMansions for miniature dwellings that enable flexible, sustainable living – says that although tiny houses demand an upfront investment the advantages far outweigh the costs.
“A tiny house on wheels can be built more quickly and the ongoing costs are radically reduced,” he says. “If you’re by yourself it’s not as bad but if you have a family, you can only have one person cooking at a time. But knowing what you need and limiting it to that can help you adapt.”
For Bill Johnson, a 45-year old Sydneysider who has spent the last decade living on a boat in various locations around Sydney Harbour, the Australian Dream has less to do with bricks and mortar and more to do with creating a home that’s true to his needs.
“I used to own a flat in the inner city and really hated it and thought that it would be better for my mental health to live on water,” he says. “I have a really nice spot where most of the general public can’t access. Before I spent my money on a boat, I thought about buying a truck and installing skylights and solar panels. I don’t use petrol much because I like to do everything ecologically.”
For new migrants or those from different cultural backgrounds, stable housing can be a route to community and mutual support.
But although making a home on the water reads like a fantasy (albeit one that’s not strictly legal), Johnson says that poor regulation, distance from essential services and maintenance costs can make it difficult to sustain in the long term. “It takes a long time to establish yourself. Once people get in bad health, they just have to move back to land.”
For new migrants or those from different cultural backgrounds, stable housing can be a route to community and mutual support. Ruben Amores, who helped establish the Kapit-bahayan Cooperative, a co-operative designed to provide affordable housing for Filipino families in 1995, says that the co-op model provides its members with a sense of ownership while recreating the trust and camaraderie typical of Filipino traditions.
“Rent is calculated on actual family income and residents are assured of long-term accommodation and those who have less stable employment are greatly assisted by the co-op,” explains Amores, adding that the co-op now spans six sites in Sydney’s West. “The tenant-members are organised to work voluntarily in helping manage it. This develops a sense of empowerment among the tenant-members.”
Perhaps, re-imagining the Australian Dream means rejecting the pressure to conform to an ideal that’s no longer viable and mustering the courage to reject the script. As Schultz puts it, “it begins with unplugging yourself from what you’re supposed to think and do and looking beyond the options that are available.”