The housing market is class war

21 August 2022

On census night a year ago, 1 million Australian homes sat vacant. Since then, rents have risen faster than at any point in the last 14 years. And house prices went up by an astonishing 25 percent in the year to December 2021. For workers already under pressure from consumer price inflation, it’s an increasing struggle to afford a home to live in, let alone to heat it and keep the lights on.

According to Bureau of Statistics data, median house prices have increased by a whopping 412 percent over the last 25 years. Since 1970, the average house price in Sydney has gone from $220,286, 4.5 times the median annual wage, to $925,000, more than 12 times the median annual wage. Australia has one of the highest levels of housing debt in the world, the big four banks holding nearly $2 trillion in home loan mortgages.

With the housing market so unaffordable, increasing numbers of households are being forced into the rental market, where they are exposed to short tenures, properties in appalling states of repair and the possibility of being evicted on a landlord’s whim. The most recent Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot found that there were only three rentals in the whole of Australia that were affordable for a person on Jobseeker.

Rental prices that were already far above what most workers can afford are going up again, as investors use higher interest rates to justify huge rent increases. Without rent caps or protections from “no fault” evictions, many families are being forced out of their homes, with some forced to sleep in their cars or in tents.

Though the cost of keeping a roof over their head is an increasing pressure for workers, not everyone is feeling the pain. For the richest people in Australia, the property market has been a golden goose delivering windfall returns driven by tax breaks, deregulation and cheap credit. As profit rates in the productive economy have stagnated, speculation in the property market has increased—Corelogic data shows that investors accounted for 55 percent of purchases in 2015, up from 20 percent in 1993.

In addition to rising land prices, negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions have meant big profits—$38 billion was made from the sale of properties in the last three months of 2021 alone. Contrary to the myths peddled by the housing industry and the major political parties, those profits are not going to mum and dad investors, but to the mere 9 percent of Australians the Taxation Office reports as owning an investment property.

Prime Minister Albanese went to the election campaign with a promise to address the housing crisis, but Labor’s policies will do little or nothing to make housing more affordable. Labor’s Help to Buy scheme, through which the government provides 40 percent of the equity for a new home, is an insult. It is available to only a tiny number of eligible households and will do nothing to address the general unaffordability of housing.

The Guardian reports that social housing waiting lists have increased to 163,508 households, while social housing has actually decreased to just 4.2 percent of total housing stock. In that context, federal Labor’s commitment to build 20,000 social housing properties over five years is not even close to the 1 million new homes the UNSW City Futures Research Centre estimates are needed to make any real impact on waiting lists and reduce prices in the housing market.

In Victoria, Daniel Andrews’ vaunted $5.3 billion Big Housing Build is little more than a massive sell-off of public land to private developers, with only marginal increases in net housing stock to be run by private NGOs.

Overall, Labor has abandoned even the mildest policies aimed at making housing more affordable, like restricting negative gearing or capital gains tax exemptions, in what Albanese described as a shift away from “class war rhetoric”. But while Labor was never seriously interested in taking away the privileges of investors and developers, the question of whether people can afford to place a live is clearly a class question.

For workers, having a home to live in is a basic need. For the rich, houses are simply commodities to be bought and sold for the most profit. Higher house prices, increasing rents and tax concessions benefit only the tiny few who own property portfolios. For the vast majority, they mean an increasingly desperate struggle to survive.

It’s when workers have taken up the fight against the rich that they have been able to win concessions from government on housing. In the depression of the 1930s, the Anti-Eviction Committees and the Unemployed Workers Movement brought together workers and the unemployed in mass protests and confrontations with landlords and bailiffs. Houses in which tenants were at risk of eviction were picketed, and evictions were resisted with barricades and occupations. While only a partial victory, the eviction riots forced the NSW and Victorian governments to make concessions on rent controls and evictions.

The Builders Labourers Federation fought the battle for the Rocks to save workers’ housing in inner city Sydney in the 1970s. In alliance with the Rocks Resident Action Group, the BLF opposed the attempt by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority to demolish workers’ housing in the Rocks area. That fight culminated in October 1973, when residents and BLF members barricaded a demolition site and large numbers of activists were arrested in the ensuing confrontation with police, including BLF leader Jack Mundey.

To address the housing crisis, we need to cap rents and mortgage payments, prevent evictions and end tax handouts like negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions. Instead of spending $294 billion on nuclear submarines, or handing over $184 billion in tax cuts to the rich, we could use that money to build the hundreds of thousands of public housing properties that are needed.

But it’s clear that none of that is going to happen without a fight—a fight to put people before the profits of property developers and investors.

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