Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Australian Dream

The following is taken from Dr Robert Mowbray's remarks when launching Professor Alan Morris’s book on Tuesday, 25th October 2016. Robert is the Project Officer, Older Tenants with the Tenants’ Union of NSW.
Professor Alan Morris with his new book - The Australian Dream
It’s good social research ...
In Alan Morris’s Preface he quotes Professor George Ritzer (Explorations in the Sociology of Consumption: Fast Foods, Credit Cards and Casinos, 2001) who said (and I paraphrase):
There is a great need for sociologists to do work that can be read by a more general audience. Sociology should be interesting and relevant ... and should inform public dialogues on a wide range of important issues.
This quote reminded me of what two prominent Australian sociologists, Colin Bell and Sol Encel (Inside the Whale, 1978) said nearly forty years ago:
Social research should be linked with the public issues of the wider world. It cannot be value-neutral. Good social research reflects social and political concerns first and techniques later, if at all.
Alan’s book is, firstly, very readable because it lets those struggling in the housing market tell their own stories ... and secondly, it meets Bell and Encel’s criterion of ‘good social research’ because it reflects social and political concerns foremost.

Recent publicity about older renters ...
Over the last month the plight of older renters has been highlighted in both newspaper and magazines. Some examples:
27 October 2016: Peter Martin writes 'We are condemning more and more Australians to retirements burdened by rent'. He continues: ‘One of the barely stated reasons why house prices have been climbing out of reach of new buyers is many of us have been becoming richer. Would-be investors poured into the market. One in every six taxpayers became a landlord. To get there and stay there they've had to outbid would-be residents.'
10,11 October 2016: Kirsten Robb writes 'Life-long renters face financial stress in retirement'... according to a paper released on Monday by Swinburne University, which found more Australians are renting in retirement and facing financial stress. The authors of this report, Dr Andrea Sharam and others, found: 'The proportion of aged persons in Australia is set to increase significantly, posing many challenges. Amongst these is the growing number of households who lack housing security in retirement. ... A very marked outcome is that to be a private renter at 45 years of age is likely to mean being a renter and highly impoverished, in retirement.’ 
4 October 2016: A great essay by Anwen Crawford who writes about 'Nowhere to go – older women and housing vulnerability': 'The number of older women who are rental tenants in Australia is growing, and these women ... are increasingly vulnerable to poverty and homelessness ... Housing affordability and security for rental tenants will only become a more pressing issue as Australia’s population continues to age.'
4 October 2016: An excellent article by Kim Arlington, entitled 'Over-55s are the forgotten homeless': In this article Ms Yeoman, Chief Executive of Mission Australia said: 'older women can face a housing crisis for the first time in later life ... previously they may have had a stable housing history but even small changes in their financial circumstances – a rise in rent or utility bills or unexpected health costs – could propel them into homelessness.'
So Alan Morris’s book is well timed ...
Quote from Elsie, private market tenant:
‘... I think when people get to 65 and they’re on a Centrelink pension and in private rental, they should be entitled to take their life if they wish ...’
Quote from Rhonda, private market tenant:
‘I hate it because you’re more or less at someone else’s mercy all the time.’
Quote from Dan, public housing tenant:
‘When you know your accommodation is right, this is especially when you’re older, you can pursue other interests. You’re more relaxed ... you’re in for a longer life.’
Quote from Marlene, home owner:
‘It [home ownership] just gives you security ... It gives you freedom of expression ... Your home is an extension of your personality.'
Alan documents how, over the last two decades, the private rental sector across Australia has once more become substantial. It presently accommodates about one in four households. A major shift is that, for many households, renting in this sector is no longer a transitional stage. And the proportion of the population aged 65 years and older, like all developed economies, has increased significantly and is continuing to do so. Many will be become trapped in the private rental sector. Indeed, for a number of reasons, many will ‘fall out’ of home-ownership. Alan’s premise is that the capacities of Australians who are dependent primarily or solely on the Age Pension for their income are shaped fundamentally by their housing tenure. He places the 'meat on the bones', with real people telling their stories.

Alan conducted 125 interviews and highlights that many of the older private renters in his study were battling to purchase everyday necessities. They fare very poorly and, indeed, they are the new face of poverty in this country.

Alan’s book is divided into chapters that, by tenure, examine the cost and standard of accommodation, consumption and living a decent life, social ties, leisure, health including dental care and pharmacist costs ... and so on.

Alan found that, for older private market renters, the cost of their accommodation and negligible security of occupancy were primary concerns ... and this fundamentally shaped their everyday lives and dispositions. For most of the private renters, the cost of their housing was a considerable burden and provoked a great deal of stress. Indeed, this contrasts to almost all of the social housing tenants who felt that their rent was reasonable and manageable and that it left them enough disposable income to live a decent, albeit frugal life. But many of the older private market renters were in a dire situation due to the high cost of their accommodation. Many were having to use more than half of their income to pay for their accommodation. The high cost of their accommodation restricted their consumption and made it difficult for them to lead a decent life. Alan concludes that extreme frugality and self-deprivation were central features of many older private market renters’ lives.

He found that many private market renters were not able to buy fruit, fish and meat regularly and were dependent on unhealthy processed food. Also, any unexpected expense was a major blow and precipitator of anxiety. And, so medical expenses were seen as a serious burden by a substantial proportion of older private market renters and it was evident that there was a tendency to avoid health services.

Alan found that mental health was a major issue, with most of the private market renters reporting that they lived in fear of being asked to vacate or being subject to an untenable rent increase. There is a constant fear and much trepidation. As a consequence, everyday life is often enormously stressful. He says minimal security of occupancy, financial stress, inadequate accommodation and inappropriate neighbourhoods contributed to many of the older private renters being plagued by these high levels of stress. This contrast to homeowners and social housing tenants.
It’s the same story on all accounts. Home owners and public housing tenants on the Age Pension fair well, but private rental market tenants on the Age Pension struggle. (The noticeable exception here is public housing tenants in Millers Point, Sydney, who are being forced to relocate.) Except for those who receive support from family members, older private renters are very much an abandoned lot!
A digression ...
Here I would like to reflect on one of the three key pillars of the NSW Government’s ‘Future Directions in Social Housing in NSW’ strategy. It talks of ‘providing more opportunities, support and incentives to household to avoid and/or leave social housing.’ It talks of a system where, in the future, 'housing assistance is seen as a pathway to independence' and, to do this, placing increased reliance on private rental assistance.

This is placing an enormous degree of faith in the private rental market. But hold on!

Firstly, from The Sun-Herald (23 October 2016) comes the story of Ankita who is forced to show savings of a year's rent in advance before her application for a tenancy is even considered. Those interviewed by Alan provide graphic accounts of the type of accommodation they have been forced to rely upon in the private rental sector … and this is the private rental market on which Future Directions relies as an alternative to expanding social housing.

Secondly, Family and Community Services’ website states that Future Directions is backed by the whole of Government – including Health, Education, Justice, Planning and Environment, Industry ... but there is no mention Fair Trading! Indeed, Fair Trading has been reviewing the very legislation that can provide all tenants with greater security of tenure, for example, by repealing ’no-grounds’ eviction provisions. The omission of a reference to Fair Trading on this website page suggests that one arm of government was not speaking to another arm of government when Future Directions was being formulated!

Further, the Federal government is a key player here. Private renting will only be a reasonable long term option when our taxation regime discourages speculation in housing by ‘mum-and-dad’ investors and encourages institutional investors. Such a change is loudly rejected by the Federal Government. Discouraging speculation is picked up in a recent editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald (25 October 2016) which reads:
Mr Morrison says the objective of his approach "is to have policies that mitigate the artificial inflation of asset prices". That artificial inflation derives from negative gearing and the CGT discount.
And again, in recent days, Lucy Turnbull, Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, said greater institutional investment in housing, alongside stronger legal protections for tenants, could help to make renting a more attractive option.

Alan Morris’s book is an indictment of our political masters’ failure to acknowledge the changes necessary to make private renting a more attractive option ... along with years of neglect of public housing.

Alan Morris’ skills assist public housing tenants ...

And, of course, after Alan forwarded his manuscript to the publisher, he used the same skills in pulling together Shelter NSW’s Brief entitled ‘A contemporary forced urban removal: The displacement of public housing residents from Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Sirius Building by the New South Wales Government’. The power of this document is that, again, the residents tell the story.

Let’s launch Alan Morris’s book ...
Firstly, let me acquaint you with two little known facts about Alan. He is a serial letter writer to The Sydney Morning Herald, with another letter on 25 October 2016, the day of his book launch, where he writes: ‘Social housing as a viable option for low-income households needs to be revived’.

Also, he is a veteran of forced urban removal, having worked alongside of the victims of such in Apartheid South Africa. Back in 1986 The New York Times described Alan as ‘a white activist from the Transvaal Rural Action Committee, a group that monitors forced removals.’

Alan Morris’s book is more than a contribution to the current housing debate:
  • It is an affirmation that past government housing policies regarding home ownership and public housing have led to satisfied outcomes for older persons on low incomes. 
  • It is a warning ... indeed a dire warning ... to present and future governments that a weakening of security of tenure in social housing (including any re-run of what has occurred in Millers Point over the last two and a half years) and a reliance on the private rental sector as it is currently constituted will led to immense hardship for older persons on low incomes in future years.
Congratulations to Alan Morris for such an easy to read and compelling publication and a big thank-you to the 125 people who shared their experiences with all of us.

You may read a review of Alan Morris’s book in the Huffington Post on 5 October 2016 and some media around the book launch here.


  1. Most of the mainstream Television News programs regularly cover the "property market". These items usually feature mid program, quite sometime after the major news story which will be of the days best car crash - with video taken from a smartphone. Or perhaps a story of a child who has been injured somewhere.

    " and now to Super Saturday... - One Bedder sold in Marrickville for $800K. Isn't it wonderful ! After the break, we'll show you the best suburbs for house prices !
    Oh No - there is talk of interest rates going up, God forbid !! It's just not fair is it ?!! We'll get the response from the spokesman for the Real Estate Institute ,Phil Yakoffas after the break.
    And stay tuned for our special property segment...Tenants from Hell.

  2. Just got that book, what a well-written piece.


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