Home truths about the ways we live – and why we need to move closer together

Posted on 07 Aug 2023

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

Door close neighbours

The origins of the nations housing crisis can be traced back to changes in Australians tolerance for their neighbours proximity, says Denis Moriarty, group managing director of Our Community.

Australia has, everyone agrees, a housing crisis. There obviously need to be changes in public policy, but it’s still worth noting that the problem originates in changes in Australian housing preferences over the years. We don’t have enough roofs over our national heads largely because we don’t like being next to other people.

Back in the 1910s, for example, the average household held 4.5 people. Now it’s three. Since just 1986, too, the average house size has gone up 30%. We now build something like 120,000 houses a year, which at three under each roof covers about 360,000 people. At 4.5, and if we cut house sizes by a third and used the bricks for other houses, we’d house 920,000 people.

We worry quite a lot about (ever so slightly) falling rates of home ownership, but that’s a second-order problem. Renting is a perfectly reasonable way of life. If a family has a space in which they can live happily then their financial arrangements are an issue for their budget, or possibly for national wealth distribution, but it’s not a housing problem.

And it’s also worth noting that our forebears had a number of other different ways of organising shelter that we’ve almost entirely discarded – the boarding house, for example. If someone ended up with a large house back in the 30s, their first thought was to go into business as a boarding house, keeping a bedroom for themselves and cooking for five or six or ten tenants. That’s not a thing any more, except for student share houses, and neither is the smaller-scale lodger who you’d bring in to fill up the spare room.

If older people end up rattling round a large house now, we tend to suggest they downsize. Back in the day they’d just take in lodgers (and really large houses, of course, would have an extra room up the top for a maid).

There’s been a lot said about children leaving home later, or coming back (I reckon our two teenagers are never going to leave home) – but, again, that used to be routine. Children would leave home when they married, but if a woman remained unmarried it was pretty common for her to stay home to look after her parents until death did them part without anybody expecting otherwise.

Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of our grandparents’ arrangement. Living in one room wasn’t regarded as the ideal even then. Sharing kitchens (and bathrooms) led to all sorts of tensions. A lot of those smaller houses were genuinely inferior; there are many good reasons why slum clearance was so popular before it was overtaken by gentrification.

Even if it all had been perfectly okay, though, there would still be no point trying to go back to those times. People’s preferences have changed, and it’s the government’s job to give people, other things being equal, what they want. People want, overwhelmingly, their own bathroom.

That said, though, there is a point in considering the question of housing from the viewpoint of people wanting more, because it does underline the reason why many people are getting less. If people are homeless because the building industry can’t keep up, that’s one thing. If they’re homeless because all the available material has gone into McMansions, that’s another.

If richer people have grabbed all the sandwiches, it’s surely reasonable to ask them to share some of that excess with the people who don’t have any – to ask them to pay taxes for governments to build social housing.

This is why I support the Victorian government’s new property tax. You could ask them, too, to swallow their complaints when someone proposes social housing in their street, and I’d certainly expect anyone who’s paid off their mortgage to give generously to housing-focused charities such as McAuley, the Salvos, Vinnies and Youth Off the Streets.

And perhaps we shouldn’t be quite as keen on throwing off the bonds of sharing. An increasing number of Australians live by themselves. There’s an increasing problem of loneliness. Social attitudes should change in response. We are today pretty chill about gay marriage, of all varieties, and don’t mind people living together provided they’re sleeping together. We do regard it as odd, though, if people share a house but not a bed.

The other great social innovation is the big industry super funds investing in build-to-rent models such as Assemble – it’s the best thing super funds could be doing, other than exiting all their investments in gambling and putting that money into Assemble as well.

Our judgements seem to have flipped completely since Federation. Is there a possibility of getting the best of all worlds? Save electricity: live with a stranger.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise that helps the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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