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May 19, 2016

Renting is a mug’s game, ‘freedom’ is a lie, insecurity is a hellscape

Private life becomes unendurable without the antidepressant of hope. So we accept and perpetuate lies about our circumstances.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

To take pleasure in everyday life, we tell ourselves a few everyday lies. These might include, “I love my job”, “I will read Ulysses” or “the diet starts next week”. Another delusion some of us low- and middle-income earners uphold is “renting gives me so much freedom”. Those of us about as likely to own a residential property as we are to read the collected works of James Joyce sometimes tell ourselves porkies. With no secure place to live, we live inside a silver lining.

We say, “I don’t want to be tied down like those mortgagee losers!” or, if we read some anarchists in high school, “property is theft!”. This is irrational self-trickery. But it’s of a fairly pardonable sort. When you’re on a stagnant wage, your most valuable asset is a smartphone with three months left on its lease and an expensively dressed 20-year-old property manager blows into your home every six months with a clipboard and the reminder that you should really buy more bleach, there’s nothing else for it but to lie to yourself. “I am so happy I didn’t fall into the trap of home ownership” is a thing that I sometimes utter in private.

Private life becomes unendurable without the antidepressant of hope. So you and I are permitted to talk bunkum to ourselves or to a very small audience. Media commentators, however, are charged with the higher responsibility of truth. I can tell myself that I just love renting and that its impermanence suits my go-go lifestyle. A columnist with a major news service really has no business promoting this view.

Yesterday, in The Sydney Morning Herald, Money columnist Melissa Browne took a falsely libertarian turn and took as read that “freedom” is synonymous with short-term residential leasing. While her proposal that home ownership may not be a splendid investment — a claim reputably discussed by the RBA in 2014 — is worth considering, it’s incidental to a piece that holds that people with nowhere secure to live feel “free”. In the Browne view, there’s no thrill more redemptive than that found in writing to your landlord and asking if it’s OK to hang your family pictures by a nail on the wall. Browne suggests that the human drive to put roots down is “primeval” and urges us to move beyond biology.

In a justifiably maligned April piece for The Guardian, economist Stephen Koukoulas didn’t so much ask people to get over their biology as to get over their butt-hurt. In an essay addressed to millennials, he suggested, with even less recourse to evidence than the popular economist is wont to show, that persons in this age range buy houses less frequently because they eschew meals in tins. He reminds the kids to toughen up, that buying houses has always been difficult, that they should stop it with the posh flavoured coffees, etc.

Koukoulas did not remind himself that the nation’s house price-to-wage ratio is now among the very worst in the world. Or that it’s getting progressively worse with dwelling prices rising at a faster rate than household income. Or that household income is now far more often the product of two wages than, as it was in the 1970s, of one, thereby failing to factor in unpaid domestic labour. Or that the capital gains tax concessions (CGT) introduced by Costello in 1999, cost aspiring first-home buyers much, much more than their posh flavoured coffees ever could. Or, peculiarly, that the many of the nation’s policy minds had been working on a revision to the CGT and negative gearing for a few years. Kouk is a smart guy who works for a professedly progressive think tank. So the strong focus on coffee and the lack of focus on what many of his peers had publicly said were peculiar.

He linked to an RBA report that gainsaid his moralising claim that it was young people’s indolence that had led to what might be reasonably called a crisis of housing affordability. That a Per Capita research fellow chose to focus on the bad character of individuals and not years of policy settings that have, according to the Grattan Institute and other organisations, changed the housing market was astonishing.

Kouk proposed it was a lack of backbone that led to a financial year that had property investment loans exceeding those approved to owner-occupiers in 2015. If there’s a people lacking backbone, it’s the investor class, a group at higher risk of default than owner-occupiers. And one so keen on their posh flavoured coffee that certain of them misrepresented themselves as owner-occupiers to lenders to secure a favourable interest rate until the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) stepped in with some controls.

Even Kouk tells himself fibs to make life more bearable. We all do. Even good Guardian columnists like Brigid Delaney, who proposed last December that we need to downsize our “sense of entitlement” and just live with the reality that we will never own a home. And even affirm it.

Sometimes when I’m on my own, improving the soil in a yard I know I’ll leave when my landlord’s daughter enrols in the nearby university, I tell myself versions of these untruths. Like Browne, I say that I need to get over my biology and be a Modern Miss who doesn’t need the “primeval” security of a permanent dwelling. I join Koukoulas and blame myself for my own financial failure. With Delaney, I tell myself to evolve, to fit the form of society and not demand that society fit people like me.

Then I remember the current national conversation on housing affordability that Kouk somehow forgot. And I remember that these media commentators must offer fewer individual moral injunctions, more scrutiny of the ALP’s encouraging proposals and keep their reassuring self-trickery for their days off.

We all tell ourselves soft lies to moderate hard reality. What we must not do is tell them to other people.

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12 thoughts on “Renting is a mug’s game, ‘freedom’ is a lie, insecurity is a hellscape

  1. Charlie Chaplin

    Good article Helen. I rent too. I’d never had the opportunity to buy a house on my low income before. I may have a shot now, providing I only look at small, floodprone towns an hours drive from a big, country town like Gympie.

    I have a good landlord now but I’ve had some horrendeous ones. Australian renters have no real protection from bad landlords. If you complain, you wait until you are ready to leave because you will be evicted- dishonest landlords are a vindictive lot. And there’s no bad landlord’s register after you leave to warn others, even though you tend find out later every real estate agency in town knew about the landlord and there were countless complaints – every agency except the one you were renting through that is. But there is a bad tenants register that effects tenants for seven years.

    Australian renters as a group aren’t allowed to own pets- it seems we just aren’t responsible enough. The funniest pet free rentals are the fully fenced old houses in the country- not bits of the country that are council zoned cat or dog free – just zoned pet free by the landlord. These are perfectly ordinary, average weatherboard houses- nothing special or at all upmarket about them.

    My 70 year old mother rents in Newcastle NSW. She’s been forced to find a new place every five or so years because investors tend to sell their properties. The place she’s in now is not what she wants at all – the rooms are so small they are claustrophobic, a family Christmas is out of the question and we are a small family -but it was the ONLY place that would allow her to take her two elderly cats with her. Once the real estate has NO PETS written on the list, there’s no negotiation.

    Australian renters also have to endure strangers wandering through their homes whenever the landlord decides to sell the place.

    I point these things out because other countries do protect renters and don’t treat them like second class citizens. As home ownership becomes harder if not impossible for many if not most, forcing more and more Australians to rent, you’d think there would be a lot of noise in public about bringing Australian renters rights in line with practice in the rest of the world, but nothing is said.

    It’s no wonder so many investors have grabbed rental properties. You can do pretty much what you like to the tenants, they have no real protection and the record of your dishonesty and breaches as a landlord disappears at the end of each tenancy so you can start all over again on the next tenant.

  2. Lee Tinson

    The freedom gained by not owning a home actually requires a lot of energy. When you get to my age (late 60’s) you’d prefer that energy to conserved for other uses, like getting up in the morning for example. And you’d rather not be invaded by an expensively dressed 20 year old who needs to be punched in the face. So I couldn’t agree more with your comments.

  3. mike westerman

    Great piece Helen. Sadly the biggest porky we tell ourselves is that it’s ok to put in as elected representatives people who are proud to publicly lie and who have every incentive to focus on being re-elected often enough to eventually retire with 49 houses, rather than on the interests of society. And so we slide down the slippery slope on most of the indicators that matter: the rights of the vulnerable, the future of the planet, the resolution of conflict, while being governed by the cruel, the inept and the deceitful.

  4. Shaun

    Hi Helen,

    I think you’re a bit hard on renting as an option. I think it truly is better for some people. Students and those on lower incomes (particularly if they believe their income is only going to be lower temporarily), or with volatile incomes. Those likely to move in the not too distant future. I certainly think renting is the better option for me right now (I fit a few of these criteria at once).

    But I also agree that for some (those who want to stay in the same place more permanently, and who have reasonably stable incomes) buying a home is the better option, and I hope to own eventually, when it suits me. I also agree the current structural arrangements make it more difficult for the young of the current generation to own than those of the last few cohorts, and I too have been amazed by Stephen Koukoulas’ strange defense of the status quo.

  5. klewso

    “Dear Landlord …..” – I’ve been thinking a lot about Joe Cocker lately – negative gearing and all.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    Stephen Koukoulas’ piece is much more self-indulgent than any gen y or millennials or whatever rubbish generational group you want to pin down. And the investor class generally have a sense of entitlement that would kill a brown dog.

    Nice piece Helen.

  7. Colin Batrouney

    The other big problem in all this will happen much later. As millennials grow older with little or no superannuation, after a lifetime of being moved on by landlords, perhaps three big questions loom: 1. where are they going to go? 2. how are they going to be able to continue to afford rent and 3. if they pay the rent, how will they adapt to a diet of dog food? The explosion of apartment slums in Melbourne has not been offset by a commensurate growth in public housing – just what is going to become of these people and who is going to be able to deal with the social (and geographical) dislocation of an entire generation?

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    The biology argument makes little sense to me…we were nomads for most of our evolutionary history.
    The biggest issue with housing affordability is that it’s turning us into a nation of (land)lords and serf (renters). Some European countries are effectively already life this, but grant much stronger protections to renters than we do here. I’d much rather see than land (located within commuting distance of available jobs) is affordable to everyone. Bring on progressive land taxes…

  9. Lord Muck

    Yes, renting is a mug’s game. We rented after moving town and the real estate agent treated us like vermin – not withstanding that we owned three other properties outright at the time.
    Then there is the Notice to Quit when a home is sold out from under you.
    Buy and sell as little as possible; there is nothing more gratifying than the spectacle of real estate agents huddled together in the village twiddling their thumbs due to dwindling sales.

  10. Anonymous

    Heartbreaking. The deceptions and complexity in the rental housing market – not to mention the stigma, and the recurrent physical and psychological impacts of long term renting – deserve to be centre of public debate on housing affordability. In the meantime, thank you, Helen for reminding us that we are neither alone nor unreasonable when we self-console with little lies. Sole parent and fellow Gen X, professional , middle-income earner.

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