Give us a home among the gum trees

A few summers ago, I was sitting in a beer garden with half a dozen friends who work as commercial lawyers in major firms. The conversation drifted to property, as it always does in Sydney, and each of them confessed that they were looking for a house so their young kids could have access to a backyard. Then they all sighed and said that there was absolutely nothing affordable even remotely near the city, and they couldn’t look too far afield because they didn’t want to spend an hour plus each way commuting.

They were keen to reiterate that they weren’t looking for anything big or fancy, just a little terrace or something with a modest rectangle of backyard so that their kids could burn off some energy within the safe walls of their yard. Maybe, they pondered wistfully, they’d host the occasional barbeque, as well?

Not being a commercial lawyer myself, the conversation made me wince. If these people, who had jumped through all of society’s hoops to guarantee themselves success and a healthy income, and put in long, dedicated hours doing finicky work for demanding commercial clients, were having trouble finding a house that wasn’t a brutally lengthy commute from the CBD, what hope did I have?

I grew up in a pleasant, middle-class environment in North Sydney where just about everyone I knew had some manner of backyard where we’d make cubby houses, bounce on trampolines and generally muck around. The houses in which I grew up were never big, but my parents put in partitions and fixed things so that my brother and I had our own rooms, and there was enough space to accommodate two boys who liked playing cricket or soccer outdoors. I had my 21st birthday party in our backyard, and although it was about the size of half a tennis court, we festooned it with lanterns, and it was a great night.

My generation, who is on either side of forty, is surely the first in the history of Australia to grow up feeling that the dream of owning a home like the one we grew up in is unattainable. In previous decades, houses have grown bigger and bigger as the nation grew wealthier, but the vast property wealth accumulated by our baby boomer parents and grandparents has put an abrupt stop to this.

As macabre as it seems, the best hope most people my age have of owning a house is inheriting one. What’s more, our parents are living ever longer (which is vastly preferable, of course!), so what will probably happen is that many of us will inherit significant property in their sixties, right when our kids are leaving home, and we no longer need it.

I know that many may think that the complaints about housing affordability are a whinge from a group that’s already extremely privileged, and I’ve not much defence against that suggestion except to point out how consistently Sydney prices have outperformed inflation over many years. Yes, growing up in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful, safe and comfortable cities was a huge privilege, but it’s also one I’d like to be able to extend to my children some day.

When the Treasurer says “get a good job with good pay”, I wonder exactly how good a job you have to have to be able to afford a house in Sydney? The lawyers I know have extremely comfortable salaries, and they’re struggling to afford one. Even the Prime Minister, who presumably bought long ago when prices in Forestville were considerably lower, has admitted to suffering “mortgage stress”, even though the Abbott family, like so many, is a two-income household.

In these days of million-dollar mortgages, the concept of property ownership must seem absurdly unattainable to people in their twenties, many of whom struggle to afford their rent. Maybe their values are shifting, and home ownership isn’t as important as regular travel or employment satisfaction, so the thought of being a lifelong renter isn’t as off-putting as it feels to my generation. Then again, I’m pretty sure my cohort felt that way once, too, but now that so many of us are having kids, the lure of the backyard has become extremely strong for us.

Perhaps the reason why Joe Hockey’s comments have inspired such a strong reaction is because home ownership is such an emotive area for Australians. Owning a home makes us feel safe, both financially and physically, comfortable in the knowledge that when we own a place, a capricious landlord can never evict us.

The Coalition has campaigned successfully on being the party that keeps interest rates low, which shows that Joe Hockey’s party previously understood the place that home ownership had in Aussie hearts. Labor is talking a lot about the issue, too, but is unlikely to rock the boat with any major policy shift in areas like negative gearing – alienating existing homeowners is far too risky.

Prices rise when demand exceeds supply, of course. Unless Australians suddenly decide to reverse our centuries-long trend and abandon our cities for the joys of regional or rural living, or unless the economy wilts to the point where mortgages are once again 18% like they were in the mid-1980s, the only solution is surely to attempt to radically increase supply. This would place further demands on our already groaning infrastructure, and it might mean that we need to stop fantasising about backyards and be satisfied with balconies. But at least then future generation of Australians could feel more confident about their place in the world, because they owned a place in the world.

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