Housing first: Melbourne – Brussels

I can’t believe how long it has been since I wrote something on the site. Since we arrived here in Brussels, it’s been a whirlwind. Quite apart from 3 different residences, 2 international deliveries and being thrown into organising a huge event, there’s been a lot of catching up and rediscovering, as well as getting to know new places and new parts of town.

One of the things I was most looking forward to about moving back to Brussels was finding somewhere to live. In massive contrast to Australia, renting is a pretty run of the mill way to live your life here and while there was perhaps less on the market than pre-COVID (I am told), and much less choice because I was looking for somewhere that accepted dogs, there was still a good choice of houses and apartments. The really obvious thing though was the quality. I know I’m looking in a different price bracket now, but it was obvious walking down any street in my part of Melbourne, that any houses for rent were noticeably more rundown than the others. I loved living in Seddon and Kingsville, but the house in Seddon hadn’t had a thing done since its sale 5 years before we moved in (because I found the sale photos online), and had persistent plumbing problems that the owner did the minimum necessary to fix. In the house in Kingsville, the kitchen floor was literally rotting away beneath our feet and the cabinets were all at an angle. When opening a drawer, we had to stick a wooden spoon in it to stop it rolling closed again. Both houses were freezing in winter and baking in summer, with little insulation, single-glazed, ill-fitting windows and expensive-to-run, old heating and cooling units. Even as a person working full-time on a good salary, the energy bills were high. How anyone on minimum wage, never mind JobSeeker, is supposed to manage that is beyond comprehension.

Things are very different in Brussels. Not only does our new apartment have level floors and cabinets, we have a 3 year lease, which can be extended to 9. So we can really settle in. We can do work in the garden, knowing that we will be benefitting from it in a few years. We can really occupy the space, without worrying about the owner hiking up the rent in a years time, leaving us with the choice of more rent or the costs of yet another move. We have well-fitting double-glazed windows and a modern central heating system, which is checked every 2 years.

The issue is historically, I believe, that renters have not been groups with any political power – students, non-Australians and people without the financial means to buy. And those that own the houses they rent are very much at the interface of political power – older people, those with sufficient funds to invest in property. But that is changing. According to AHURI, the private rental sector has expanded at more than twice the rate of the increase in Australian households in the last two decades. About one in four Australians now rent privately. How much of this is choice and how much about the lack of housing stock to get on the ladder is another issue. I really hope that as more and more people experience the rental market, these issues will start to be addressed. And also that renting will be seen as a reasonable choice, not a sign of failing in some way.

Housing affordability in Australia is absolutely a supply-side problem. And a few months in Europe highlights very clearly one of the issues – the tendency to build out, not up. The streets here are lined with houses of 3 storeys or more, and apartment buildings with 3, 5, maybe 8 storeys. We’re on the first floor of a 5 storey building, with others in the street about the same, and with tall thin houses in between. There are very few huge apartment developments, like the ones popping up in Footscray, or that have made Docklands a new suburb. Apartment living is the choice for many, especially as they get older and stairs are more problematic. The owner of our apartment lived here for 30 years and raised a child here.

These thoughts have been bubbling away in my head for a while, but I think I was particularly motivated to mention them today after reading that less than a week before the election, the current Prime Minister has announced that people wanting to buy their first home can raid their superannuation fund to contribute up to $50k. I join many others in seeing this as a really bad idea. A bit like the owner of our house in Seddon clearing the blocked pipe every six months but never dealing with the issues that meant that the pipes got blocked in the first place, this policy is just going to make things worse in the future (when he, of course, will not be around to take the blame).

As has been said elsewhere, the groups that will suffer most from this policy will be those that have labour market (and thus superannuation) access issues: women, people with disability, those with low levels of education.

Look at this from the HILDA study by the University of Melbourne:

And it will benefit those that already are doing well from the overheated housing market.

The title of this post comes from the Housing First concept, which is that people with persistent issues that affect their lives – homelessness, mental health, alcohol and other drug misuse, domestic violence – need stable housing first to be able to deal with whatever else is going on for them. It seems obvious really. The least we all need is a safe and stable home. So I hope that Australia can get a new generation of political leaders that are prepared to cut the Gordian knot that housing policy has become.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union offical, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @antoniamochan or @antoniam

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