Friday, May 18, 2012

Masters of our own domain

An interesting perspective from a young person. Aivars Lode 

May 18, 2012 - 7:59AM

Alecia Simmonds

"Our obsession with real estate goes hand in hand with cultural constipation and socially conservative politics."

"Our obsession with real estate goes hand in hand with cultural constipation and socially conservative politics."

Dinner parties are delicate creatures. It doesn't take much for merriment and mirth to descend into the conversational equivalent of Dante's inferno. It might be the ghoulish cries of a vegan trying to impose their culinary straightjacket upon the world. Or the seemingly innocent gurgle of a baby that has the effect of binding and gagging all adult discussion. But nothing, not even the tedium of a friend's ill-chosen partner, can send a perfectly happy dinner party into the fires of a medieval hell like the words: 'we're thinking about putting a deposit on a gorgeous house in...'


I can't even hear the rest. All I hear from that point on is thunderous Gregorian chant. I see faceless men in brown hooded robes nursing candles as they carry the conversation to its grave.
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How many dinner parties around Australia have been murdered by discussions of real estate? How many frolicking picnics and sunshiny BBQs have turned into slasher films featuring  knife-wielding amateur property speculators? Even as I write there are conversations - once lively and curious- being held captive by a monster of mythological proportions: the Great Australian Dream of Home Ownership.

If we are to liberate conversation from the chains of real estate, it is important to know our enemy. Why is it that we, a highly educated, creative and culturally eclectic nation, fall victim so easily to its lures? Is it just a serious case of Stockholm syndrome where we love our warden for locking us inside a brick-veneer prison with Miele appliances, a home theatrette and crushing debt?

Let me say firstly that it hasn't always been this way. Real estate is not, as John Howard once said, a 'timeless dream'. According to the 1911 census we were (by a slim but pleasing majority) a nation of renters. Only around 49 percent of the population owned a home, compared to around 70 percent today. Our imaginations shrivelled to the size of a fibro cottage when Robert Menzies took the national stage.

Our obsession with real estate goes hand in hand with cultural constipation and socially conservative politics. Under Menzies we became one of the world’s leaders in home ownership at the same time as we became suffocatingly insular and infinitely stupid. The White Australia Policy was pursued with vigour, cultural life died, intellectuals fled and women – dosed up to the eyeballs on valium – returned to the comfortable concentration camp of the home.

Much the same thing happened under Howard. McMansions vomited out into lonely suburban blocks while Australia closed its national doors to refugees, fretted about immigration and replaced a robust welfare state with a very gendered idea of home and hearth. Fortress Australia could be seen in the neurotic architecture of the suburbs as much as in our shameful policies towards anyone not white.

It’s tragic that economic prosperity spawns cultural poverty.  The minute we have a chance to build solid public infrastructure, a welfare state, and a rich artistic life, we become a self-centred nation of mean-spirited renovators.

As we embellish our private lives, we impoverish our public spaces. Our houses are larger and more Swedish than ever before. But we still don't have a metro, there are suburban streets without footpaths and it's hard to find a place to socialise where you aren't also forced to consume.

I know, I know. It’s not all greed and self-interest. Shelter is a basic need. People buy homes for security. The point, however, is that there is no reason why renting should be so costly and insecure. In Italy a four-year lease is the norm and in France you can’t kick someone out during winter. In Australia, the price you pay for a debt-free life is the possibility of eviction with two weeks notice, stingy landlords, leaking dishwashers and a bill of around 250-300 dollars per week.

And if renting is insecure then property ownership is not much better, as the American sub-prime mortgage crisis showed. In Australia, people are taking on higher mortgages so that they can invest everything they have in one asset that, on a median salary, will take them around 20 years to pay off. And why? Because we’re investing in the third (Sydney) fourth (Melbourne) or sixth (Brisbane) most unaffordable housing market in the world.

The question should no longer be why it’s unaffordable. We all know the story of how house prices doubled from 1996-2006 and how avaricious baby-boomers locked the rest of us out of the market. We’ve clawed at the cement out the front of our parents’ properties and bewailed the injustice of it all.

The question should be why we continue to call a nightmare a dream. Why do we search for security and identity in the over-priced boredom of bricks and mortar? We need to question whether working weekends so that we can pay off the pool that we never get to swim in because we’re too busy working to pay off the pool is REALLY worth it. And we need to believe in a world where property no longer cannibalizes every conversation.

The best thing about cocooning ourselves away in national and domestic homes is that chrysalis is inevitable. Let the metamorphosis begin!

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