JULY 30 – 31 | 2016
When I arrived at the State Library of Western Australia on the Saturday morning I was surprised to see such a large group of people queuing outside the building. As the doors opened and they dispersed throughout the multiple levels, each went to a desk or computer, most people hardly touching the books available. Still a relevant place for study or sharing ideas, it is interesting how the library space has transformed over the last 10-20 years. Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to meet some of the people who access this particular library frequently and learn the importance of this unique public space.
In Melbourne, when I presented the car tent for the first time, I explained to people who were interested what I was doing and why, and waited to hear what resonated with that individual. For the second iteration of the project, I tried to focus the conversation. I asked the people around the campsite (out the back of the car tent) what is important or stands out when they think about their relationship with the landscape over the next 10-20 years? This is something that has been on my mind of late.
Recently, my girlfriend and I have been sussing out the idea of buying a property or apartment. The sums of money required seem so abstract, my position swapping back and forth between affordability and liveability. In rural south-east Queensland there are some pretty amazing and relatively affordable properties covered in trees for between $40-$60K. Granted they have no power or water hooked up, but it could be an ideal location for putting the old caravan I currently have in my parents backyard. Get some solar panels, a rainwater tank, set up a compost toilet, outdoor shower, I would almost be set up for off-grid living for an amount that while daunting, is still achievable (if I was really determined, I could pay it off in 5 years!). Later on I might be able to build my own Tiny House, tailored to what I need on a scale that is also affordable. Problem is, unless I have a career change, there is a good chance there is no work for me out there in rural Queensland, and given its location (3 hours out of Brisbane) I would be heavily dependent on a car for food/work/socialising.
At this stage in my life I don’t need a house, and for half a mil., I don’t think I want one either. Plus I don’t want to be trapped in the cycle of living out of the city and commuting 1-2 hours each day to work, once again being heavily reliant on fossil fuels. If I want to own a property in an already existing building, with shared resources, a minimal but healthy amount of space, close to major public transport routes, close to the city, comfortable during the seasons without being reliant on air-con or heating, with repayments close to my current rental costs, then a north facing unit in a 70s/80s apartment block on a train line seems like the best option. That being said, I don’t really know what the bank will think when they look at my current unstable income (yay casual!).
In the lead up to the festival I was flipping through the selected Housing, Income and Labor Dynamics of Australia (HILDA) Survey, released earlier this year. Two stats popped out: the first was the drop in owner-occupied properties from 68.8% in 2002 to 64.9% in 2014; and the second was the drop in homeownership rates by adults in Australia from 57% in 2002 to 51.7% in 2014. If this trend away from owner-occupied properties continues, we will need to reconsider how rental agreements work in Australia as “owning” land may not necessarily be the solution to the growing affordability issue. Examples of lifetime renting or longer leases in European countries like Sweden might be an option, but they have been having problems of their own; the wait list of rent-controlled apartments in Stockholm is around 10 years, sometimes up to 20 years long. This sparks a lot of questions with an increasing population both in Australia and around the world. Will a waitlist like this become the norm in Australia if we try to regulate the rental market? Will the government increase the housing/apartment stock effectively over the next two decades to help address this problem?
I met a lovely old bloke at the library who expressed concern for the future of younger generations looking to invest in a house or apartment. Having owned his own place for a while, he recalled crippling home loan interest rates of 17% during the Bob Hawk era of the late 80s (for comparison current home loan rates are about 4-6%). That sounds terrifying. With the increasingly excessive house prices of Australian property in major cities, the possibility of a major shift or crash in the Australian housing market makes the unknowns over a 20-30 year home loan even more terrifying.
Curious to see what others where thinking I invited some of my campsite friends to write down a couple of notes about the subject. The majority of these responses came from 18-35 year olds who rented. Still attracted to the idea of owning their own home, most of the participants noted the importance of living practices that were sustainable and independent (solar, grey water, compost, etc). Conversations about off-grid living intrigued a few; the idea compelling, the practicalities challenging.
One concern that kept on popping up in both old and young patrons, was stability. Stability of income and a stable place to live. I had a long conversation with a man who was incredibly generous with his time and sharing experiences from his life. Having been homeless for just over a year, I heard how his focus shifted from work, to getting by on a day to day basis, to devoting his time and energy into writing, to advocating for the homeless community within the Perth area. David (not his real name) suggested that current and continued instability of his current living situation and for others in a similar position, came from the disconnect between the “greedy” and the “needy” and ultimately a lack of understanding between the two. Hearing David’s story develop from financial stability towards his current state, reinforced the known but overlooked or forgotten reality how anyone could fall into a similar situation.
Besides having a place to sleep and prepare food, the impact of having a fixed address also stems to practical things like employment, the likelihood of securing a job almost impossible without one. David also mentioned the pointless cycle of unpaid fines, as it is hard to receive an overdue reminder or notification of court appearance without a fixed address. Whether it is originally from move on notices for sleeping on the street or fines for riding on the train without a ticket, it is hard to see how this way of dealing with the situation will help homeless individuals to move out of their current situation and work towards financial stability. We need to be willing to understand someones current situation, to listen to what they are saying and not make assumptions about how they got there.
Over the weekend I popped into Magnolia Jr radio studio on the ground floor to be quizzed by the next generation on the ideas surrounding my project and its reception in the festival. Although it was brief, talking about the future of housing, the environment and employment with these youngsters gave a different perspective to the weekend. Their optimism and energy was reassuring, but talking to them about some of these issues, as cliche as it sounds, made me consider what kind of world we will leave this or the following generation and if we can do better?
A huge thank you to Sarah Rowbottam for inviting me to participate in the festival, and to Anna Kosky and Georgia Malone for making it happen, the Stat Library of WA for being so accomodating, the Festival of Ideas, as well as the amazing work by all the volunteers involved.