As the prime minister fumbled through his coronavirus pressers, my eyes fixed on his powder-blue tie. A drop of water trickling down from his mouth into the suppliant hands of the million freshly unemployed. While queues for Centrelink snaked for blocks, the same politicians who pillaged essential services shrugged off responsibility. Morrison insisted that we should take pride in our welfare system, flashing his infomercial smile.
When explaining the JobKeeper payment, he emphasised that eligible workers won’t need to engage with Centrelink, so the deserving middle class needn’t fraternise with the undeserving poor. The government will also throw buckets of cash at employers to tackle mass unemployment. Employers who have, for years, over-casualised workers, offered little in the way of wage growth and regularly stolen their pay.
For landlords, state governments will offer tax breaks totalling hundreds of millions of dollars, insulating them from the risk of their investment. This is supposedly for the benefit of renters. ‘Sit down, talk to each other and work things out,’ Morrison said, as if tenants and landlords are on equal terms. As if the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t rendered the cruelty of the rental system in ultra-high definition.
You need somewhere to live, so you must pay rent. In other words, if you are too poor to buy a home, you must surrender a substantial portion of your income to those who can. Property owners bequeath real estate to their children who will, in turn, extract money from people too poor to afford to own their home. This is how we do things.
I cannot fathom how we rationalise this arrangement. Why should the rich own two or three or ten houses when others have none? Why should anyone profit off basic human needs? In a country as rich as ours, why does homelessness still exist?
Housing is the right of every person, not a privilege for some. Nobody should be homeless, ever. Now is the time to demand a national housing guarantee, a home for every person, an end to homelessness. The temporary ban on evictions is a bandaid on a flesh-wound. If you can’t make rent this month, you won’t be able to pay arrears in six months.
The problem is not the pandemic but the system itself.
We could freeze rent payments for people with insufficient means. We could expand crises services, social housing, rent assistance and establish rent controls. We could nationalise housing. Australia is one of the most affluent countries in the world. We have the resources to clothe, educate, feed and house every single person. Yet there are around 100,000 homeless people and hundreds of thousands empty dwellings.
The equation is simple: we merely lack conviction. Homelessness is awful but not so terrible that we cannot live with it. Homelessness persists so landlords can make a return on their investment. Landlords need homelessness to force people to part with their income. Pay up or you’re out. The blunt force trauma of homelessness lands hardest on young people, over 65s, single parents, migrants, and people from rural areas.
More than a quarter of Australians pay rent, and most of them are under thirty. Many young people skip several meals a week, and most of us are only ever a few lost paycheques away from destitution. Poverty levels remain unchanged since 1988 despite economic growth and the promise of a fair go. In that time, the expendable income of the wealthiest households has continued to grow.
The idea of a big house on a quarter-acre block is a racket. It is a carrot on a stick. If we work hard and pay our dues, we too will one day own property. One day we might take advantage of negative gearing. In this way, we mistake our landlord’s interests as our own, but investors are not our friends. Even during the pandemic, threats of evictions and lawsuits have flown freely. If you stop chasing the carrot, you get the stick.
It is taxpayers who foot the bill for homebuyers grants. We absorb the cost of negative gearing, discounts on capital gains tax and now land tax. Money flows upwards from poor and working-class people to those rich enough to afford real estate. Liveable welfare payments are an impossible extravagance, while the billions in tax breaks for landowners are a given. Those least in need of assistance receive benefits while everyone else gets the scraps.
Homelessness is the sign of our policies working as intended. Austerity, capitalism, free-market economics, neoliberalism – whatever term you prefer, the point is that our system prefers profit over people.
The extraction of rent grinds people down, keeps them in their place. We can continue to deny a fundamental right in the name of investment opportunities, or we can imagine a future where everyone has a roof over their head. Now is the time to push for change and include in our demands a national housing guarantee. If the last few weeks have proved anything, it is that change is only ever a pen stroke away.