I designed my first home when I was 11 years old: a two-storey Victorian with a wrap-around porch. I decked it out with tasteful furniture and littered the poolside with palms.
‘Add a surround-sound system,’ says my friend Ana*, seizing the mouse.
It’s 2001. We’re holed up at my Northern Beaches townhouse playing The Sims – a virtual dollhouse where players select simulated human avatars and then build homes around them, brick-by-brick.
I’ve never been to Ana’s place, but I know she lives in a flat by Miller’s Point and I know, from the way she tenses up sometimes, never to ask if I can come over. It’s the way Mum suddenly tenses up when I come home from school with a note asking for camp deposits or dance fees, her smile vanishing as she pulls out a notepad to tally up another unexpected cost.
These are the little price tags that come with life in a nice Sydney neighbourhood, where the houses are big and beautiful like the ones Ana and I build on The Sims.
The Northern Beaches are nicknamed ‘the insular peninsula’ because water separates us from the rest of Sydney. Today the average weekly rent on a 3-bedroom in the area is around $900. For most of my life, it has been Tony Abbott’s electorate.
Isolated places tend to become territorial. At school we’d joke that the peninsula doesn’t have a train line because it ‘keeps the westies out.’ For a long time, the phrase ‘Locals Only’ was spray-painted onto a cliff face at North Curl Curl Beach.
Many things about my family didn’t feel local. Like how Mum never really grasped the Australian concept of playdates. ‘In Poland, children played outside,’ she’d say pointedly whenever my brother and I had friends over. Our red-brick three bedroomer – flanked by a moulting Jacaranda spewing purple blossoms all over the driveway – was her sanctuary after a long work day. My brother and I soon learned to pack off to friends’ houses where the mothers fixed exotic white bread sandwiches and cordial while we splashed in their pools. Ana, who had Russian heritage, seemed to know not to make herself at home. For that reason, she was always welcome.
‘I’ve always loved your house,’ said Ana once in 2006. We were hanging out in the living room after the last year 12 exam. ‘You’re so close to the beach. How could your mum ever afford to buy this?’
Nobody had ever asked me that before. In Northern Sydney, home ownership is an assumption, not a question.
‘We rent. It’s housing commission,’ I said.
Ana’s face broke into a huge smile. ‘Me too! Seriously, how else do you think I could live so close to the bridge?’
We laughed, giddy with common ground. Then Ana frowned.
‘You just tell people that?’
I had never really thought about it. ‘Sure, whatever? Is there something wrong with it?’
Years later, Ana would confide that when she got lifts home, she’d ask her friends to drop her off around the block so no one would know she was houso.
Family legend holds that, after my parents split, Dad marched over to Housing Commission NSW every day until they let up and agreed to send his ex-wife and kids to the Northern Beaches.
The person who likes telling this story most of all is Dad. ‘An address is everything,’ he’ll conclude in a thick Polish accent. Dad took up a housing commission flat nearby, which he neatly lined with art books, paintings and the sculptures he worked on after his shifts as a mechanic. The neighbours were strange – one talked loudly to himself and another was caught rifling through everyone’s mailboxes – but I delighted in the rainbow lorikeets that flocked to the balcony and the pops of colour among the snaking vine-plants Dad carefully tended during his lengthy recovery stretches from a workplace accident.
Everyone assumes that Mum and Dad came to Australia in search of a better life or to escape the Iron Curtain, but they were just two expat Poles who met in Sydney in the late eighties, after Mum quit a finance job in Poznán to go travelling. She arrived in 1986 and stayed in the outer west with a friend. Her first memory was of dilapidated houses and cheap metal fences like prison gates. She says Australia struck her as an unhappy, poor place.
I was seven when we moved. I liked our newly-minted house on the Beaches. There was just one problem: it had only one floor, and I knew that houses were supposed to have two storeys. All the houses I’d ever seen did. Like the ones on our street, or on telly.
Once, I presented my mother with blueprints I’d carefully drawn up for a home renovation – a phrase I’d heard a lot at school because my classmates’ parents were always ‘renovating.’ I secretly teased out the meaning of the new English word on my own, too proud to admit I didn’t know what it meant.
‘The stairs will go here,’ I explained to Mum, tracing the lines carefully with a finger. ‘And then we will be normal.’
She laughed, ruffling my hair. ‘Nie, Lenka. Renovating is something you do when you own a house.’
Later, I wanted homes on the screen to reflect real ones. In Year 12 I shyly flagged to the careers counsellor that I was considering studying film. The admissions process had rattled me – I didn’t know anyone who worked in the arts or who had been through an Australian university.
Mrs C cocked an eyebrow. ‘Do you own a camera?’
I blushed, feeling stupid. ‘No.’
‘Well, you’d be attending classes with students who have been playing with cameras since they were kids; who’ll know all sorts of things about film that you don’t.’ I could picture them already, in houses with staircases, their brightly-lit bedrooms stacked with high-tech equipment.
Ana and I both enrolled in Law.
Law school was when I first heard ‘houso’ used as a slur, dropped by classmates unaware that they were talking about someone like me. Like them, I’d grown up in a nice neighbourhood, had European heritage, wanted the same white-collar jobs. Even I could forget they were talking about someone like me.
‘I’m from Housing Commission.’ I said, once.
‘Oh, but you’re not one of them,’ they took turns to point out, squirming slightly.
Who then, were the housos? Somewhere between my whiteness and my postcode, I guess I didn’t count.
Life might have been pretty different on the private rental market. Sydney boasts the second-least affordable housing market in the world, pushing more people into rentals which in turn, grow prohibitively expensive. Especially for low-income dwellers. Financial housing stress – spending over 30 percent of earnings on rent – is at an all-time high, with vulnerable renters forgoing other essentials to meet the high cost of housing. The IMF says Australia plays host to some of the world’s fastest growing income inequality. Lack of affordable housing is partly to blame.
Living in long-term, rent-controlled housing protected my family from skyrocketing prices and landlord whims. If Mum had lost her job, the rent would have shrunk to match. Without it, I might not have grown up on the Northern Beaches, near good schools and green spaces. Where the idea that you’ll one day own a home is a given. Where you live in the lucky country.
Like most of my peers, I lived in the family home during uni, saving for exchange and internships. Unlike them, I handed over 15 percent of my earnings from casual jobs to the Housing Commission once I turned 18. When Mum broke the news, I tried to hide my disappointment, but she caught it and gave me a hug.
‘Homes are something you pay for, Lenka,’ she said. It tapped into an adult realisation: that the homes we grow up in are a deciding factor in whether we’ll ever own a home at all.
Today I know that if Mum owned a property, she might be able to use the housing wealth as a tax-free deposit on an investment purchase, or to help me and my brother navigate the housing affordability crisis with down-payments (the majority of first home buyers in Sydney now rely on the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’). Not to mention that she would pass on an inheritance.
‘Millenials are screwed,’ my friend said in solidarity the last time I was served an eviction notice. But I worry that some Millennials end up a lot more screwed than others.
I always thought my twenties would feel like linear progress, but I have come full circle. In 2013 I moved to Copenhagen, where I also live in public housing. Except it’s different here. Denmark has close to half a million public homes for a population of five million. Some attract middle-class tenants, and are run as not-for-profit rentals by independent associations in cooperation with councils. Danes sign up to the waiting list by paying an annual fee.
I was overjoyed when my roommate picked me for the sublet on the outskirts of a trendy quarter. I love it here, where different languages echo in the stairwell and my neighbours range from lower-income families to professionals and old folks. But when my flatmate decides to buy her own place – housing loans are affordable in Denmark – I’m not sure what will happen to me.
‘Everywhere you go, you’re in housing commission,’ Mum pointed out when she visited in the spring. She was laughing, but I could tell she was worried.
Around the time I moved in, Ana quit her corporate legal role to relocate with her partner to London. He works full-time. She teaches music and writes her own songs.
‘I wish I had known I could just do what I wanted,’ mused Ana when she called to tell me the news. ‘I just didn’t think housing commission kids could.’
Ana and her partner rent a flat near a trendy neighbourhood. Perhaps if I had a partner I would worry less about housing. Two incomes make it easier to make rent and save up for a deposit, while singledom comes with risks. Single women over forty-five are the most rapidly growing group of homeless Australians. With fewer assets than men, a job loss or relationship breakdown can be enough to leave many older women functionally homeless, dependent on friends’ couches or sleeping rough.
Right before we split up last March, I visited my boyfriend in Sydney.
He’d grown up in a beautiful federation house on the North Shore, but we met in Copenhagen – kind of like my parents, except that we were ‘expats’ in Denmark and never ‘immigrants’. The question of moving back to Australia was a constant source of tension hanging over our Danish lives. ‘Don’t you want to go home?’ he would ask. For him the concept was so simple, tied up in the bricks and mortar he’d grown up in and would one day inherit.
I felt safer in a welfare state, because Australia increasingly struck me as an unhappy, poor place.
He didn’t understand. Sometimes it felt like we were talking about two different countries.
My ex loved to tell stories about his family. In Sydney, we pored over pictures of a manor his architect grandfather had bought and redesigned, laughing at old snaps of my ex as a dorky teenager throwing serves on the property’s tennis court.
I didn’t have anything to say about my own parents’ careers and he never asked. Once, I mentioned that my mother had a Master’s in economics, that she’d worked under the director of a leading Polish bank.
My ex was shocked. ‘But then why …?’
He trailed off. As if he’d always imagined merit dictated the homes we live in. As if that was the difference between housing commission and a manor with tennis courts.
There’s a heat-map on the web that shows the proportion of NSW public housing residents in any suburb. When I hover my mouse over the Northern Beaches, I see a lot of ones and zeros. In New South Wales, the waiting list for houses like Mum’s is growing, but supply is shrinking. A new report says Australia needs to triple its stock by 2036 to meet the backlog and emerging need.
Drive twenty minutes from Mum’s place and you’ll hit Allambie Heights. There’s a proposal to build a two-storey public boarding house in the suburb, with thirty-six affordable bedrooms and two communal spaces. It makes sense, given vulnerable singles are increasingly driving social housing demand. I’m reminded of communal living solutions rolled out successfully in Scandinavia, which target social isolation and boost affordable housing stock all at once.
But local residents have protested. They say it will erode the unique character of the Heights. I wonder if they’ve ever met anyone from housing commission.
There’s a legendary building next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge that once housed a thriving social housing community. The Sirius housing block might once have been touted as a success story, but instead it’s soon to be demolished. In 2017, the brutalist building was put up for sale with a price tag of around $100 million, turfing out the low-income earners who had called it home for decades.
When the state sale was announced, residents and interest groups rallied under the ‘Save Sirius’ campaign, asserting their right to share the harbour views, to belong. What struck me most was that they were not ashamed to live in public housing. They were proud of it. They saw their community as an artefact whose value rivalled any figure the NSW Government could net from selling the land.
I felt a surge of pride, too.
It is 2018. Ana calls from London to invite me to her wedding this December, at her partner’s property on the NSW South Coast.
I’ve already booked my tickets to Sydney. My parents will team up to collect me and we will have lunch by the beach, where Dad will probably talk over all of us. I will help Mum sweep the purple blossoms from the driveway and look out for Dad’s lorikeets. I might wonder how much the land is worth and how you can possibly put a price tag on the lives we’ve been able to build here. By then it will be the end of 2018, and yet you would never know that any of us were housos.
Perhaps it is time that you did.
*Names have been changed.
Image: Sydney’s Sirius apartment complex, from Wikipedia.