BOOK REVIEW: Regular readers of The Fifth Estate who have been following our coverage of housing issues – around affordability, sustainability, homelessness and urban planning – are going to love this book.
In No Place Like Home, Peter Mares has written what is probably the most accessible, comprehensive and multi-faceted book available on how we make sure every Australian can afford a decent place to call home.
At the same time, he places these goals in the context of ensuring cities are liveable and equitable, and that homes themselves are places that are energy-efficient, thermally comfortable and have appropriate quality standards.
Using a classic long-form journalism style and interweaving personal anecdotes, he combines detailed desk research with first-person interviews with a range of people from affordable housing advocate to those involved in the Brisbane Housing Corporation.
He sits down with young people in crisis accommodation, speaks with tenants in social housing, and consults with leading
economists, housing and urban research group AHURI and urban design thought leaders.
One of the achievements of the book is its joined-up thinking. The central proposition that there should be a shift from housing as a wealth-creating asset that should be taxed as little as possible is considered from numerous angles including social, micro economic, macro economic and policy.
Some of the enlightened thinking in the space is also explored, such as Professor Peter Newman’s advocacy for medium density in the middle ring “greyfields” suburbs and the exemplar that is the Nightingale Housing phenomenon.
Mares also deconstructs some of the language used to justify the galloping inequality the current situation is entrenching, such as the “mum and dad investors”. According to his research, these folks are pretty much a furphy, and a convenient one in terms of maintaining the status quo.
He also shatters popular economic wisdom such as house prices being strictly a function of higher immigration, or other supply and demand factors.
Houses are not like bananas, he says, in that when the price of bananas goes up due to scarcity, people can choose to eat something different. There is no alternative to having a home, except homelessness.
The market won’t fix everything
Mares also looks behind the oft-cited argument that if red tape and planning controls were abandoned, the market would fix everything.
In a nutshell, what he finds is it won’t, and that greater numbers of small apartments in towers of Melbourne and Sydney’s CBDs have not and will not in future solve the supply issue. There are already vast numbers of investment properties kept deliberately empty, he says.
The whole question of what to provide, and how to provide it is nuanced.
The particular issues experienced by renters – the income-generators for property investors, are also explored, including suggestions as to how we can shift from regarding renting as some kind of second-class lifestyle to putting it on equal social status with owning.
The answers he arrives at in terms of the overall “fix” are thought-provoking, and include a sound business case for the federal government to bridge the gap through a range of financial mechanisms including shifts in the tax system, and also tweaks to Commonwealth Rent Assistance and other measures… but really, we won’t spoil the ending by revealing them all here!