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Don’t give me a home amongst the park trees

Recently in The New Yorker, author Andre Dubus III wrote about a weekend enjoying the high life in New York. The premise was

I had been writing daily for nearly twenty years, and now my third published book had become a major best-seller, and I – who at forty-one had never had more than three hundred dollars in the bank, whose mother once had to prepare for me and my siblings a dinner of saltine crackers spread with butter – heard myself telling my dear aunt Jeannie that I was going to fly her first class to Manhattan, to celebrate her birthday in style. I wasn’t sure what “in style” meant, except that it should have something to do with the word “luxury.” When I typed that into my computer, I was led to the Royalton and then to the Plaza, where we’d be staying our second and third nights in the city.

Suffice to say, Andre, Jeannie and family had a good time – and it cost a bomb.

A lot of people don’t have the fortunate circumstances of Andre Dubas III. At the end of his essay, he is somewhat disillusioned with the ‘high life’ and has a new sense of value, based around the home that he and his brother built (with the earnings from the same book) for his family, with the ‘granny flat’ downstairs for his mother

Sometimes a car will roll slowly down our driveway, and for a dizzying heartbeat I’m convinced it’s the landlord coming for the rent we don’t have. But other moments feel like luxury, filling me with a calming gratitude. When I want to visit my mother, I just walk down the stairs to her apartment stuffed with her plants and her books, her photos of us when we were young and often so unhappy. Before sitting on her sofa, a real one, I pour her a bourbon, and I pour myself one, too, and my mother and I sit and catch up on the labors of our respective days, on my brother and sisters, on my kids and her grandchildren, on all these people we love, high times or not, a smile on her lovely, aging face.

According to news reports, a lot of Australians are one salary payment away from homelessness in the current economic environment, something Dubus reflects on in his essay. ABC online reported recently of the plight of a number of people who are living in tents in Wangaratta, Victoria. They all have a different backstory and unfortunately no-one has found their happy ending, unlike Dubus (who took 20 years to become an ‘overnight success’). Regardless, they all have the right to a solid roof over their heads, which obviously keeps the cold and rain out to a far greater extent than the current arrangements.

The problem is larger than Wangaratta as well. Apart from comfort and warmth, there are also significant benefits to people’s lifestyle and ability to find work if they have an address that isn’t ‘under the third gum tree in the Main St park’. This ABC online story discusses homeless in Sydney. Melbourne and on the Gold Coast. Mentioned is Lee, who

Just as Sydney’s temperatures dropped to single digits, he got a break.

Last month the NSW Department of Communities and Justice gave him a one-bedroom apartment in the Waterloo public housing towers.

“That, to me, is literally like winning the lottery,” he says.

“I can get my clothes and dress for interviews … and grab my laptop and apply for jobs – so it just fundamentally changes what’s within your possibilities.”

There should be more of it … but it’s complicated. Crikey recently discussed that social housing is a state responsibility – not a federal one. Yet, most states wait for an injection of federal funds before they do anything about significant upgrades to existing social housing stock or building additional stock. While an injection was announced in the past couple of days, the previous injection was in the time of the Rudd Government.

The current government does have legislation in front of the Senate to increase the funding for social and affordable housing which the Coalition has, naturally, rejected because it doesn’t suit their narrative. Despite their rhetoric about the adverse effects of removing negative gearing and capital gains advantages of property ownership, the number of Australians that own multiple residential properties is reasonably small. It wouldn’t take much to carve out the small ‘mum & dad’ investor from measures targeting the multiple property owners.

The Greens (who have the numbers when combined with the government to pass the legislation) want more money to be available sooner. They also demand that the federal government somehow impose a rent freeze or cap on the states, again despite legislation about property rentals and sales being a state responsibility. Probably adding to the complexity is that most of the Greens in the lower house of Parliament represent reasonably affluent electorates, so at the same time as they are pushing for more social and affordable housing to be constructed, they are supporting campaigns locally to ensure that none of it is the ‘millionaires rows’ that they represent in Parliament.

So we are in position where the government is trying to do something, although arguably not enough to address a social problem in Australia. The political party that could help them do something have decreed it’s not enough, preferring to do nothing. Albanese’s Government has ‘upped’ the offer to the Greens in recent days as the Greens have to the government in recent weeks, but the frustration is showing – with some justification.

All this does nothing for the people living in tents and under cardboard boxes this winter who won’t be able to ‘get my clothes and dress for interviews … and grab my laptop and apply for jobs’. Instead, we have political parties are playing a drawn-out fight to the death in an attempt to position themselves favourably to their constituencies for the next federal election contest.

If circumstances change for some reason in the next 12 months, the person living in a tent under the bridge could be you or me next winter. In a developed and affluent society, a roof over a person’s head is a fundamental right – not a political plaything or a privilege. It’s time our politicians at all levels of government remembered that.

We should be better than this.


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  1. Lyndal

    Reminds me why I never vote Green anymore. They are purists of the worst kind, ever letting the perfect get in the way of the good, and not understanding that doing what is possible right now is more important.
    I was thinking, as this article came to its end …” in the next 12 months, the person living in a tent under the bridge” may well be dead.

  2. RomeoCharlie

    This suggests it’s the Greens preventing the government from ‘doing something but not enough’ to meet the demands of the homeless. Compromises have been offered but not accepted. I find myself supporting the Greens position. Last night the ABC reporter asserted the government wanted to spend $500 million a year, neglecting to mention this would only happen if the gamble on the stock exchange was favourable. I have heard it said there’s no point in promising more because we haven’t got the tradies to meet the demand. I contend that if the money is there the tradies will be found. Homelessness and poverty are the twin evils a rich country likes ours should be able to tackle but as long as millionaires are able to get away with paying no tax on sizeable incomes, the fossil fuel companies continue to be subsidised while thumbing their noses at us and foreign businesses use transfer pricing to dud our tax system we will continue getting half-baked band-aid solutions. Selling the big and bold changes needed to redress these inequities should be easy when so many are facing the financial problems caused by inflation but the current government lacks the courage to take such bold action. Labor voters expected better.

  3. Canguro

    Close to a hundred years ago, on the back of the arguably unavoidable socioeconomic disaster inflicted upon this country per its involvement in the war across the western & eastern fronts of the European landscape and the hot-on-its-heels Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Australians experienced poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

    George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher & essayist, is credited with being the author of the well-known expression “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”, which first appeared in his The Life of Reason: or the Phases of Human Progress, in 1905–1906, and has been repeatedly paraphrased and misattributed since.

    Notwithstanding both the readinessof a pithy core observation on a truth about human behaviour to be recycled, and the inevitable passage of time since it appeared, it appears that we are yet to learn the hard lessons suffered by those who bore the burden of the collapse of the Australian economy at that time.

    Some things never change, such are the fixities of human nature.

  4. New England Cocky

    Agreed RomeoCharlie. Perhaps the central city cellar dwellers running the Labor think tanks could look beyond the ends of their respective noses and recognise that those persons living in a tent or under cardboard boxes still have the vote at the next election ….. when the NSW Labor government has only a narrow majority.

    But spare a thought for those people located in regional centres where the frost settles at -5 degC and four layers of clothing may be required to keep the cold out. Likely these persons vote NOtional$ and so expect nothing except excuses for the 12 years of CPOALiiton misgovernment only selling off prime social housing residential real estate for the benefit of their rich mates.

  5. Lyndal

    Meanwhile the last census showed, as did the previous one, that 10% of housing was empty on Census night. Not all because they are up for sale or the owners happened to be overseas that night. It also showed a massive number of bedrooms exist unused. We need a full audit of existing property to see what could be made available with the right management. Just in my small town, I know of a derelict motel and empty hotel with accommodation, both waiting for redevelopment that is not happening yet, but which could be providing shelter in the meantime. The countryside is littered with empty share-farmers’ and stockman’s cottages now just used as an extra hayshed. Likewise there are many large houses with just an old couple occupying one corner. There are barriers to sharing their homes which need to be addressed.
    Maybe a simple short-term fix would be a tax on empty bedrooms.

  6. RosemaryJ36

    The ALP seems too timid.
    At this stage we need bold thinking and determination to help the homeless to get a reliable roof over their heads.
    The wealthy MUST pay MUCH MORE TAX!

  7. Clakka

    The ALP has much on its plate due to the utter ineffectual govt of the last decade. It is fair to say it badly miscalculated the onset of the surging housing crisis. In that regard, it is important to understand that homelessness surged towards the end of the major pandemic period, and was significantly added to by the major bushfires and floods events. Those events coupled with this last year’s inflation have seen builders go broke, and skilled labour shortages manifest in the domestic construction sector.

    The feckless LNP’s policies left or put deliberate choke-holds on land, resources and trades education and services development, and turned a blind eye to the flood of ‘dirty money’ into the country to horrendously distort upwardly the property market. This of course suited their mates, the land and property barons, and facilitated the political swamp to join their ranks. Did the Greens screech about it then? No they did not! And when the ALP presented their policies to address these LNP inequities in the run-up to the 2019 election, they were assailed by the LNP media machine, and donors, and lost the election.

    In the lead up to the 2022 election, the LNP cooked the economy accounts by omission – concealing the commencement of an inflation cycle. Against the virtual void of LNP policies, the ALP’s policies presented:

    Housing Australia Future Fund
    Help to Buy program
    Regional First Home Buyer Support Scheme
    National Housing and Homelessness Plan

    What did the Greens say then? Nothing! Since then, the ALP have been assiduously pursuing their policies. Meanwhile, in the last year, the post-pandemic delayed affects of supply chain disruptions, Russia / Ukraine war supply chain disruptions, and the affects of skyrocketing inflation has seen the biggest gouging / price spiralled inflation growth in years, and in Oz, unsurprisingly that has mostly manifested in the preferred (LNP model) Oz investment, property with existing dwellings.

    There have been significant regulatory and industry structural framework problems in residential construction for years. These are caused by several key factors; high-ideal but inefficient and impractical (nimby-style) planning frameworks, interference by land barons on local and state policies, international monopolistic domination of the building material resource sector, constraints on skilled trades development (eg. abandonment / privatisation of TAFE and apprentice schemes) and a dire shortage of experienced planners and building surveyors who have fled the industry due to pernicious red-tape. Whilst there has been excellent significant advance of application of best science via the Australian Standards, and the National Construction Code, there has been little encouragement or investment in world’s best practice of pre-fabrication of standard and / or bespoke housing in factories to accelerate the entire process. Nor has there been, until very recently, any real efforts to implement novel high-tech approaches to resurrecting the functionality of existing brownfield structures, such as old multi-level housing towers and unused commercial premises.

    The LNP run NSW property development industry is a case in point. It is rife with corruption, inappropriate land use, and dangerous non-conforming medium-high rise residential developments, that have seen folk out of those unsafe dwellings, in the streets and either bankrupted or close to it.

    Overcoming these regulatory structural framework problems will take many years. Where @ RomeoCharlie said “I contend that if the money is there the tradies will be found.”, this is an ill-informed reckless statement that only serves to perpetuate the various crises, and very poor construction outcomes seen throughout the history of Oz.

    As for the screeching sparrow Max Chandler-Mather, he’s all (recent) statistical theory, and magic-wand-waving bimboisms at best. There is no substance or gravitas or structural research behind the Green’s loud-hailer. As usual it’s yet another opportunistic populist grab at votes from the unfortunate and aspiring ill-informed (whom I have genuine concern for).

    That said, I am please Albo has distributed extra targeted funds to the states, and look forward to seeing the ALP’s further developments subsequent to their further consultations with industry professionals and industry bodies.

  8. New England Cocky

    So, it appears that Australian politics has reverted to a two party system; Labor, allegedly representing the best interests of the workers, and the tripartite Opposition; LIARBRAL$, NAZIONAL$ and GREEN$ representing the self-serving corporate business interests and the egomania of their own ”leadership”.

    The Green$ have demonstrated that they are more concerned with replacing the Labor party than representing & achieving the best interests of the Australian voters. All talk, lattes, inaction & obstruction of the new money $2 BILLION Albanese Labor Housing proposal, because Labor strategically outplayed Muddler Max Blather. Poor little Adam is upset so he turns to ISIS tactics of dictatorial dysfunction to keep Australian voters sleeping in cars, tents and on park benches.
    Oops!! Silly me!! I thought we had got rid of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party when we sacked the RAbbott, Turball, Scummo of the Secret Seven Ministries and their merry underwhelming under-achievers.

  9. wam

    far be it for me to say something about banditry but labor should lift his shirt.

  10. Ken

    Well, Hobart CC just voted to double rates for owners of short-stay accommodation such as Airbnb as well as land-banking ventures. It’s obvious vacant land & properties can easily be taxed at a rate deemed equal to estimated rental yields if developed. Think of this result as 8 HCC councilors, on behalf of the public, saying enough to the Labor/Libs rubbish housing politics over the last 25 years.

    This is the only way the problem gets solved, councils standing up for a basic human need, shelter. Major parties have no interest in change as that might impact on the value of their investment property portfolio. RE is a milch cow for many politicians, but thankfully Hobart councilors are showing a common sense approach is what needs to happen.

  11. Ken

    ‘The Project’ last night, and one presenter asked PM Albo a question to the effect of ‘how allowing in 100s of thousands of visa holders would help the rental crisis’?. Albo was near to tears as he burbled a reply that made no sense other than to his sponsors in the RE industry. Our current PM might be a good guy but he exhibits as much agency as a ping pong ball in a washing machine.
    I’m only seeing one Labor MP worth his salt and that is Jason Clare who at least recognizes the housing situation is both created and can be solved by politics. However, he’s not in the Department to make changes. The rest of Labor are duds. They might as well join the Libs.

  12. wam

    Ken 1 In parts of darwin insurance on body corporate has doubled(and more) because some owner have gone airbnb making it expensive for non airbnb owners be the same for rates???
    Ken 2
    if they listened to you or the loonies, ken, they would be replaced by the libs.

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