The browney – whitey house, (clue’s in the name, bestowed by granddaughter Matilda) is ready for her and sister Claudia to arrive for Christmas.** Brett and Beth the equal opportunity Bunning’s bears await, along with the shell collection, the family arrayed around the walls and even the old Yamaha organ set up by hopeful grandma. (Well, Mozart didn’t write his first symphony till he was nine!) They will have Kevin the koala and his tribe of well- worn dolls and soft toys for company, not to mention a shelf of books and a cupboard full of games and blocks and jigsaws.
We keep it all because we can’t be arsed cleaning it up, but also because they just love to rediscover things they have seen and played with before. Claudia is already setting up play dates with Kirsty Lorraine -Thea’s Cabbage Patch kid! Good to know that some things don’t change, and can be relied upon. As well, two doting (doddery) grandparents are a fixture – hopefully part of a childhood that is building emotional credit from which they will draw for the rest of their lives. But while that comes from being loved and cherished, we cannot discount physical familiarity; that some things will stay the same and give a feeling of permanence.
It’s the same feeling that has us return to places of childhood and stand in front of houses we’ve lived in, or the need to handle the stuff of our early lives, stroke the fur of a balding teddy, or leaf through a dilapidated picture book. It’s woven into who we are.
But what if you’re never allowed the luxury of permanence? What if you don’t happen to have the requisite thousands of dollars necessary to purchase some of that security for your family, no matter how much you try? What if you and your children live in insecure rental accommodation and are subject to the vicissitudes of the famous ‘market’ so prized by our system as a way of making the economy function. Finding affordable rent is becoming a joke – and a grim one at that. For thousands of Australian families, no matter how hard they work, the idea of a home they can afford to rent or buy in order to give them security and permanence is a distant dream. A friend of mine who volunteers for St Vinnie’s is trying to contact families to send them Christmas hampers, but finds that many of them have moved, or are not answering their phones. It’s a stark reminder that some people live with a level of precariousness that is truly frightening.*
Successive governments haven’t seemed to mind that house prices keep going up. By some calculations it makes the figures look good – private wealth for individual Australians is on the increase, and it’s one marker of a booming economy.
But surely there are other more important measures of a successful society. I’ve had many conversations about rising house prices, and the sense of achievement, that one’s dwelling is now worth so much more than when it was purchased. But this is bonkers accounting! Yes we might be sitting on a million dollars of real estate, but we have to live somewhere, and if we sell, we have to buy again in the same market, so we don’t actually have that money.
And if by virtue of your relative youth, a gig economy, and property speculation you are unable to get into the market, it becomes soul destroying. (Even more so when folk claim that you have frittered all your dosh on smashed avocado and latte.) Let’s see, that meal costs about $10, and the cheapest house in a city in Australia is $300,000. By my reckoning you’d have to eat 30,000 smashed avos to make up for a house – and that’s before you pay interest on a loan. It would only take you 82 years! And you’ll probably be sick of smashed avo by then.
When did shelter cease to be a human right, and become a way of making money? When did governments stop helping people to find affordable housing?
The health issues created by this uncertainty are unthinkable. Children growing up with a lack of permanent shelter amid the anxiety of parents trying to make ends meet are being robbed of a decent childhood. So many of those who end up moving from friends to family to living in their cars are ‘normal’ families who have been priced out of the market – ‘fallen through the cracks’, is the popular phrase. Isn’t it up to a decent society to mend those cracks?
Bill Clinton famously said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Allow me to rephrase that, Bill. ‘It’s the stupid economy!’ Even if you want to look at everything through an economic lens, the price we will all pay now and in the future, for the illness and stress that follows from insecure housing will cost a fortune! By one reckoning, a dollar spent to ameliorate the conditions for a child will save you twenty dollars spent trying to fix the unhappy adult. One way or another we will all pay for that! You can’t leave everything to the market – you have to intervene, but that takes a government with the courage to take the long view, not just the small window to the next election.
Check out the Attlee-led British government in the 1950’s that managed – in a war-damaged country that was stony broke – to build one million homes! (And, by the way, a free health system.) It can be done. It’s probably no coincidence that Attlee lived in a modest house in a suburb of London and was driven everywhere in a 1936 Hillman sedan by his wife Violet. No sign of the famed gold wallpaper refurbishment of Downing Street ordered by Boris Johnson, or the ninety (!) vehicles that accompanied Biden through Europe on his way to Glasgow. How did it come to this?
Amazon delivery is in overdrive, which tells us Christmas is approaching – and our thoughts turn to a small shelter in Bethlehem.
“Oh, that we, that we were there,
Oh that we were there!”
So goes the beautiful old carol, saying if only we had been present at the stable in Bethlehem we would have…we would have what? That stable is emblematic of a world we currently occupy – a couple on the road, seeking shelter – sounds a bit like refugees to me, or homeless people. And Mary and Joseph didn’t even have a car to sleep in – can’t sleep on a donkey!! Have we forgotten that their much-revered baby grew up to say things like:
‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” (Matt: 25: 40)
So now with contemporary stable – dwellers in full sight in a country supposedly renowned for its generosity and decency – governed by a man driven by his Christian beliefs, we find it more comforting to live in wistful regret that we weren’t there.
But we are.
(*I don’t want to disparage the many modest investors-turned-landlords who save for their retirement in this way. I just want to draw attention to a bigger systemic problem that needs some courage and vision.)
(** I’m aware that our house looks pretty posh! But that’s because we managed to buy that block of land in 1986! We boomers were such a lucky generation, due in large part to free health and education provided by a visionary government. Bob and I were the first in our families to buy a house. We are the embodiment of what a government can do for its citizens.)