It is a year for divisive debates – the kind that pit generations against one another and make people hateful and racist. While you’d think the Indigenous Voice to parliament might head that ticket, it comes a distant second to the urgency and ire in the housing debate.
Housing has become a culture war with a number of fronts: the first is intergenerational resentment, the second is population and the third is ideology.
Intergenerational conflict has been with us since teenagers were invented, so no surprises the generations are at loggerheads over shelter as well. The conflict is simple: the older generations as a whole (yes, I hear you, not necessarily individuals) own more stuff. That stuff includes houses – sometimes big ones and sometimes many of them. The younger generations don’t own a lot of stuff yet. So, they need to buy it, cajole it, or vote it off the older generations.
This is not a new conflict but it is exacerbated by the fact Australia’s economic sunshine has disappeared momentarily behind a cloud of inflation. Inflation has pushed up mortgages, rents and the cost of living more generally. The people doing best in this environment are those who own their home outright and benefit when interest returns on deposits are high – that is, generally, the oldies.
Recent data from Commonwealth Bank found that spending by over-55s has increased above the inflation rate and those over 75 are spending 13 per cent more than previously. And they’re doing it ostentatiously – Baby Boomers are spending 18 per cent more on eating out than last year, snaffling Wagyu and chocolate treasure chests, no doubt, at kitsch, made-for-Instagram, French-theme brasseries. Of course, these were also the people who had less to spend when rates were low for a very long time.
Still, appropriating Millennial culture by booking out the ’grammable restaurants is a direct affront to under-35s, who are cutting back on all the fun stuff. With reality getting all too real, no wonder BeReal, the “authenticity” app, is no longer popular.
Philip Lowe’s suggestion to get a flatmate to help manage costs has merit – I once got myself a boyfriend for the same reason, a long time ago, in a country far away – but the generational optics of a Boomer with a large house in an inner-cityish suburb telling young people to share bog roll was never going to be great. Now he’s got the people who haven’t managed to buy a house off side, as well as those who are dealing with rising mortgage rates that were predicted to stay low.
The precariousness of renting feels more acute as prices rise and immigration starts to bounce back post-COVID. The only thing more terrifying than rent rises is the idea that a wave of high-skilled workers with high-skilled incomes is about to arrive in Australia and outbid locals for the mould-free rentals. This is exacerbated by the fact that, though there is notionally full employment, some large companies have been laying off workers. In news that absolutely everybody but the die-hard work-from-home class saw coming, tech giant Atlassian “rebalanced” 500 people off its books in March.
Then Commonwealth Bank offshored 40 roles to India in April and rounded that up by another 200 in May. (I hear HR isn’t worried, though – those who remain have been given two days of paid bereavement leave when their pet dies, so internal staff satisfaction surveys should record a dead-cat bounce.)
Where low-income cohorts have historically been most affected by population policy, now it’s the educated classes who are feeling off-kilter. But you won’t get any points for suggesting to out-of-work coders that they should learn to clean.
If this seems like a mix of the serious and the silly, it’s because that is exactly what life’s most fraught issues are underpinned by. Existential angst is intertwined with status anxiety.
People who own houses fear anything that will devalue them. Building more stock and infilling suburbs would push down prices, according to Centre for Independent Studies economist Peter Tulip. While developments in desirable areas would fetch higher prices, higher-income people moving to live there would free up stock lower down the chain, as people upgrade to suit their circumstances.
And Tulip argues that “if we put more money into construction, then the value of the housing stock will fall”. This would make housing more affordable for those who want to buy, but of course it would decrease the value of existing housing. He believes this is one of two reasons why increasing supply is so politically difficult. The other is simply fear of change. “It’s the same mentality that opposed decimal currency or daylight saving,” he says.
But Sydney University economist Cameron Murray reckons the current feeling of crisis is driven by the anxious educated classes. He calls them “the forgotten elite” – people in their 30s and 40s “who thought they’d be living in the inner city but now feel they can’t”.
“It’s the same half a dozen suburbs we always hear about needing more housing,” Murray says. “In the US, in California, where this culture war over housing has been imported from, it’s always about Berkeley, as though you can’t live anywhere else.”
Tulip is a YIMBY – Yes In My Back Yard – and believes the world needs more YIMBYs to embrace medium-density infill accompanied with well-planned infrastructure. Murray says YIMBYism is just another status play.
In the current circumstances, making YIMBYs cool seems like a win-win solution to me, whether it’s for silly or serious reasons. Concentrate on good town planning to build up thriving cities and let the rest take care of itself.
Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at award-winning campaigns firm Agenda C.
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