Contributed by Joe Montero
There is a debate in Australia, over the need for affordable housing. At present, it is seriously limited. The argument is often over the provision of more public or social housing and whether negative gearing should be scrapped or not. These matters are worthy of debate. There is also more to the housing problem.
Affordable housing is often seen as a welfare provision for the neediest. Of course, these people deserve special consideration. But affordable housing, is also a very important need for the whole community. Even more so, in the face of existing economic challenges.
Affordable housing must be regarded as an issue for the whole community.
One problem has been to see housing from the viewpoint of its being a commodity. A property is an investment and its owner holds a property that has the potential of bringing in a return. This sometimes hides us from acknowledging that housing also has a social side.
Having a roof over one’s head is important. Without it, we are not only exposed to the elements. We are excluded from society. A home is a basic component of participation in the workforce. Therefore, it has an economic aspect. It is also a place of refuge and indispensable for a sense of belonging and to bringing up the next generation of citizens.
Given its importance to quality of life, adequate and affordable housing must be regarded as a human right for all. When it is not being provided, there is a human rights violation and it treated as seriously as any other human rights violation. Market failure to provide, puts a clear obligation on government to respond to the need and not be part of the problem.
A paper on housing commoditisation was recently presented to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, by Leilani Farha, the United Nations Housing envoy.
She talks about the “financialisation” of houses, common to cites as spread apart as Sydney, Vancouver and London. All of them have seen the construction of swathes of hyper expensive real estate, in often “regenerated” neighbourhoods.
To Farha, this is housing disconnected from its social function. Unregulated global capital has distorted housing markets all over the world. Housing prices and rents have gone through the roof, creating housing precariousness on an unprecedented scale.
Hundreds of trillions of dollars invested in residential property worldwide, the paper estimates. The effect has been to accentuate housing need: displacing poor residents (often through forced eviction), driving up wealth inequality, and creating social dead zones in the once-beating hearts of cities.
In Melbourne, Australia, one in five investor-owned units lie empty, the report says. In in Kensington, London, a prime location for rich investors, numbers of vacant homes rose by 40% between 2013 and 2014 alone. “In such markets, the value of housing is no longer based on its social use,” the report says. “The housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon”.
The housing crisis is not only increasing the number of homeless people. It is placing many more households in a precarious position.
Some cities are reaching a point where there are flow on effects like the closure of shops that can no longer generate enough business and the closure of schools, because the former population has been forced out of the area.
Farha describes this as the problem of “residential alienation,” and concludes that on the whole, governments have been too deferential to financialised housing, subsidising it, providing tax breaks and bank bailouts, while simultaneously slashing spending of housing programs.