One of my earliest jobs was doing community development in public housing estates on the outskirts of Sydney. I loved this work. I was not terribly good at it but that didn’t matter too much because the people I was sent to organise had no difficulty organising, and educating, me.
We ended up doing some good things together and the organisation and education soon led to some serious agitation! It was one of my most important political lessons in life: that good policy comes not from above but from the people who are living in the concrete conditions the policy seeks to address.
There were many problems on these housing estates, all of them caused by the bad urban planning decisions made for people, on their behalf, instead of by them as agents of their own collective destiny.
The subsequent stigmatisation of public housing and the convergence of other forms of residualisation such as unemployment and exclusion from social infrastructure meant that the people, many of whom were immensely proud of their communities and deeply engaged in their ongoing social transformation, were constantly battling the mark of collective shame that the mainstream media and the financial interests behind it, had branded them with.
Public housing is tarnished, not by the people who use it but by those who would prefer it did not exist: the choristers who sing from the neoliberal hymn book, fanatical in their hatred for all things public. All the more reason why we should passionately fight for it, against the machinations of market logic embedded in our current neoliberal dystopia. It is worth fighting for because it has the potential to be the guarantor of everyone’s right to a place they can truly call home.
During the GFC Labor made a massive investment in 20,000 units of social housing. I remember saying at the time to the then prime minister: “This is good. But we also need to change the narrative around public housing; to speak of it as something we, as a society, are deeply proud of, rather than something you need as a last resort and will want to get out of as soon as you are able. We need to shape the public imagination so that people see public housing as a social good, like public education and public health.”
Private wealth over the common good
The housing market delivers profits but it will not deliver housing justice. Governments must do what markets cannot. Housing is currently framed, not as a human right, but as a speculative sport.
And if you want a sneak preview of the neoliberal vision for education and health, take a look at the deliberately manufactured housing crisis of today. We are currently seeing the ravages of privatisation in aged care, where the ethics of care take a back seat to the practice of profiteering. And as my dear friend and comrade, Angelo Gavrielatos, from Education International, has pointed out, the commercialisation of education is worth an estimated $5 trillion globally
So it’s no surprise that public housing is being run down, in both neoliberal discourse and economic practice. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates that Australia needs 727,300 new social housing properties
over the next 20 years to meet the current shortfall and address rising need. In the meantime, the global trend of the financialisation of housing is seeing a decline in the availability of housing for the working class at the same time as windfall profits for multinational investors, cementing the status of housing as “a commodity – a vehicle for wealth and investment
rather than a social good".
It is not poverty that causes homelessness. It is wealth. Especially speculative wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, constraining the choices of the many.
As the beautiful Irish proverb reminds us, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” If any of us is without shelter, it is because the rest of us, through our political choices as a society, have failed them. Thinking critically about the causes of homelessness, housing stress and inequality is crucial. But acting collectively to build the kind of society where we really are a shelter to each other; this is the key to making a concrete difference.
This is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice.
Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is the author of The Language of the Unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists Like Us (2017). He is a member of the Australian Services Union.