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Confronting housing inequality

  • 04 May 2009
Not long ago, as the property market boomed, and housing prices soared, I bought my first home. I scrimped and saved, and with a little help from the folks, somehow managed to buy the low budget version of the Australian dream: a cosy little two bedroom flat in West Footscray, just 15 minutes from Melbourne.

I thought I was the luckiest guy in town.

The thing is luck played only a small part in me becoming a home owner. Not everyone can afford their own home. Being white, middle class and in a relatively secure job does wonders for putting a roof over your head. This position of privilege also helps to explain a particular way of thinking when it comes to home ownership.

My original motivation for getting out of the rental market was to give uncaring real estate agents the finger. Ultimately, however, I decided to buy my own place because I thought it would be 'financially strategic' to make a long term investment. West Footscray made sense — I was a single guy on a relatively modest income and could only afford to buy in cheaper areas.

This attitude towards housing, while no doubt sensible and mature in a financial sense, is problematic because it contributes to a wider process of gentrification that supports more privileged members of society.

This in turn places increased pressure on people, families and communities from lower socio-economic and/or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds looking for a place to live, or struggling to maintain the status quo in a rapidly changing economic landscape.

The effects of gentrification are far reaching. In inner city suburbs of Melbourne such as St Kilda and Fitzroy, there is a history of displacement that occurs when wealthier classes buy up cheaper housing areas.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute's positioning paper, 'Gentrification and Displacement', identifies a complex tangle of factors that can reinforce inequalities during the in-migration of affluent households to poorer and lower value areas of cities like Melbourne and Sydney.

It isn't just about rich people moving into poorer areas, it's also about the flow-on effects of this process. When richer neighbours move in, this can lead to a reduction in the amount of affordable housing in traditionally low income areas due to rises in rent and house prices; decreased access to essential services and employment close to the city for disadvantaged groups who relocate; and negative psychological impacts