The Guardian • Issue #2072


What’s housing for?

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2072

The Victorian Labor government has announced a big housing plan. Around ten thousand people will be moved from their homes – with no consultation, and very little notice, so that public housing can be demolished and a mix of ‘social and affordable’ housing can be built under ‘public private partnerships.’ If all goes as planned, the new buildings will house many more people than the towers do now, but only ten per cent of the new build would be ‘social.’ It’s a good time to ask the question. What’s housing for?

This might sound like a silly question. Housing is for people to live in. Everyone needs some kind of housing.  It’s essential. It’s a human right.

Not so fast. In Australia, under capitalism, housing is for making money. Housing is for storing capital, and – thanks to a variety of governments – for avoiding taxes.  This has gone so far that using property as a way of dodging tax has come to be seen as though that were a human right. Labor backed off from its timid proposals to curb lurks like negative gearing.

There are contradictions hiding in plain sight when Australians talk about housing. One is that governments feel they have to simultaneously keep house prices high, and keep houses affordable for first home buyers. This has been about as successful as driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake.

In assessing the Victorian Government’s housing plan, some commentators just go along with the logic of ex-Premier Daniel Andrews’ introduction: ‘build more homes, and they’ll be more affordable.’ This is deceptively simple. If making more homes available were all it took, the government would be doing something about ‘land-banking,’ whereby developers lock up land for years until they think they can extract maximum profit from it. They’d be requisitioning unoccupied homes. Doing those things would mean tackling capital, which always comes ahead of the needs of the working class in this country.

Making more homes can only ever be part of the solution. What this country needs is more public housing. Not ‘social,’ not ‘affordable,’ but public.

If you’re reading this and wondering what’s wrong with nice words like ‘social’ and ‘affordable,’ here it is in a nutshell. Public housing is run by the government for the purpose of providing homes for people. Rents are planned according to income levels so that nobody is in housing stress (defined as paying 30 per cent or more of one’s income towards rent or mortgage). ‘Social’ and ‘affordable’ housing bows to the neoliberal idea that governments must not run things. Some ‘affordable’ housing sets rent at just under housing stress levels, effectively keeping poor people poor.

Public housing as it is run at the moment, is a way of parking disadvantage. It’s significant that our Prime Minister likes to talk about how he grew up in public housing as a way of showing that he knows what it’s like to be poor. If we ran public housing the way it should be run – for the people – “he grew up in public housing” would be as remarkable as “he grew up in a house.”

Public housing as it is run now reinforces class and racial division. During the Covid Pandemic lockdown, the supposedly enlightened Victorian government arbitrarily locked up public tenants in their towers in a way it would never ever treat middle class Victorians.  Mixed housing that replaced public housing has led to public tenants separated from private amenities in the same building by a 1.8 metre fence, really putting the disadvantage in their faces.

The Communist Party of Australia works for real public housing, planned with people’s needs in mind, run for people, not to make developers richer, and not to keep working people in their place. Public housing for the people!

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