When my boyfriend and I were recently looking for a new place to rent, the process, strangely enough, wasn’t marked with humiliating queues and soul-crushing anxiety but that rare thing – good fortune.
We were approved for the apartment we’d made the mistake of moving into in our heads, a reasonably priced two-bedroom with high ceilings and large windows, overlooking a row of native elm trees. The movers were punctual and witty, turning the hell of lugging a funny-shaped couch and groaning boxes of books off a truck into a logistical puzzle, solved with military precision.
The urge to unpack, a task I usually avoid, put off by tedium and paper cuts, came mostly quickly, accompanied by a near-instant sense of wellbeing. It wasn’t long before the new place started to take on a comforting patina of home. Now, the end of my workday was marked by laughing kookaburras rather than the clatter of the 6pm train. We were renters, but we also felt held here. Was that feeling so wrong?
Three decades ago, renting in Australia was considered the province of students or a temporary diversion sparked by a sudden life change (divorce, mid-life crisis, a job in another city). But thanks to housing unaffordability and economic precarity – the defining mood of a generation – more of us are renting into our 30s, 40s and beyond.
Three decades ago, renting in Australia was considered the province of students or a temporary diversion sparked by a sudden life change (divorce, mid-life crisis, a job in another city).
A February 2019 analysis from Canstar found that you need a salary of $112,300 to comfortably buy a house in Melbourne and to earn $160, 611 in Sydney where the median price is close to one million – a scenario out of reach for everyone but bankers and doctors, never mind the realities of working freelance.
Unsurprisingly, 30.9 per cent of households in Australia are renting according to 2016 Census from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, up from 29.6 per cent just five years before. A July 2019 ABC report found that this is the lowest proportion of home ownership in Australia since 1994.
The problem, however, is that renting in Australia is still perceived as transitional and transient, a failure to meet some secret metric of adulthood – rather than a symptom of a culture that treats secure housing as a commodity not a right. Australia is one of the few developed countries in the world that allows “no-grounds evictions”, a law that allows tenants to be evicted at the end of a fixed-term lease without a given reason.
Australia is one of the few developed countries in the world that allows “no-grounds evictions”, a law that allows tenants to be evicted at the end of a fixed-term lease without a given reason.
Steps towards making a home – from adopting a cat to putting a hook in the wall – require written consent, putting the benefits of owning a pet or the pleasures of shaping your space squarely in the hands of a landlord.
In Perth, where I grew up, people are fond of saying that to rent is to spend “dead money.” The phrase is meant to conjure the wooden gloominess of paying off someone else’s mortgage, but it also implies that to rent is to kill some part of your future. This is sometimes what it feels like to rent, if your family is immigrant, like you’re betraying the way owning a house tethers you to a country, even if that very country is contested, built on stolen land.
But it pays to remember that owning a house and making a home aren’t mutually exclusive. Australia’s increasingly neoliberal approach to housing has pitted renters and owners against each other, forcing us to enter an unnecessary war.
As an August 2017 ABC report points out, the state of home ownership in Australia is more a reflection of national ideology than our status as owners or tenants. Australia’s conservative approach to housing isn’t universal. It isn’t the way it has to be. In Germany, where less than 50 per cent of the population are homeowners, renters enjoy indefinite lease terms, and the market promotes long-term security with tenancies lasting an average of 11 years. France requires landlords to give six months’ notice if they plan to sell an apartment and enforces a rule called la trêve hivernale – the winter truce – which forbids evictions during the colder months.
The right to shelter is part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, impacting our sense of comfort and safety. But to assume you need to own a home to make a home is a failure of imagination – one that forgets that there are more ways than one to live a life. The relationship we have with the places we live deserve to be better protected, whether or not a mortgage is involved.
Watch The Feed tackle Australia's rental market on SBS On Demand now.