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Confronting housing inequality

'Housing inequality' by Chris JohnstonNot 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 on those who are displaced from their social networks of support.

For migrant, refugee and emerging communities, such as the Sudanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders, the process of gentrification is compounded by other challenges relating to language, culture and race which make settlement and forging a life in Australia difficult.

The Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternative's study Refugee Access and Participation in Tertiary Education and Training and evaluation project The Relocation of Refugees from Melbourne to Regional Victoria both identified significant problems refugees face in securing housing.

Private rental housing is often too expensive. Residences can be inadequate for family/community needs, and housing not closely located to social support networks and employment makes it difficult for people to remain connected to their community and sustain a job.

Combine these problems with a lack of information and awareness around housing and renting options, and the cost of relocation or finding a place to live due to gentrification can be steep.

Our understanding of the Australian dream of owning a home is bound up in a process of gentrification. This has the potential to further undermine the precarious housing situation of many people and communities. It is a mindset we must treat with caution.

Importantly, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has identified a gap in Australian research around gentrification and issues related to displacement. Initiatives such as this will help to address the complexity of providing affordable housing for all Australians, and to inform appropriate Commonwealth, State and Local Government approaches and interventions into housing markets.

As the economic climate darkens, and interest rates drop, we need to find ways to ensure everyone can afford a place to live, not just those looking for a bargain during tough times.

Ben O'MaraDr Ben O'Mara is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives (Victoria University). His work explores the use and application of information communication technology in the promotion of culturally sensitive messages of health and community wellbeing.

Topic tags: ben o'mara, gentrification, migrants, housing, home ownership, rental market



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Existing comments

I thought the focus in the article was very capital-city centric, and failed to look at the positives of 'migrant, refugee and emerging communities, such as the Sudanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders' aiming to go to regional cities and Country towns that might or might not hug the coast.

There are plenty of examples of earlier immigrant flows going out of the capital cities and makeing good lives for themselves and their families EG: The Germans, the Greeks, the Italians, the Chinese etc. Maybe there should be more Govt resources to help people move out of the Capital Cities. Generally the Regional Cities and Country towns are very welcoming. I would welcome a response from the author.

John Hayes | 04 May 2009  

I was searching for a petrol station the other day - remember when they were 'service' stations and they all had accessible toilets. Anyway, it hit me that as the number of 'service' stations has declined, the number of real estate offices has increased.

Is real estate seen as the new pot of gold? Some twenty years ago a teenager went into accountancy to make a lot of money quickly - more recently it's been encouraging people to buy/move/sell/buy/move/sell/....

What does this do to family and locality stability and sense of community? Or has 'community' become an empty word these days, suitable for commercial 'we support the community' hype? Who has written at length on this since the 1970s?

Frank Bremner | 04 May 2009  

I am working with a refugee-led organisation, two of whose prime concerns are refugee mental health and housing.We would be grateful for copies of other articles you've written on IT and culturally sensitive messages, particularly in relation to refugees and any housing programmes you know of for refugees.

Elizabeth Clements | 17 May 2009  

Then there is 'reverse gentrification'. Where former lovely gentrified towns albeit with aging and dying populations (Blackwood for example, only 60 km from the Melbourne CBD) become settled by the 'tattood and toothless' (courtesy of a wide range of grants which can be well upwards of $50,000) from the Western Suburbs that YOU displaced. Thanks for nothing!

Alexander Malejew | 22 January 2011  

I live in an area which in 10 years has moved from state housing to almost completely rebuilt and local government and services receiving more taxes from zoning infill. No room for children except indoor games. Garden suburbs have gone and plant nurseries now provide unit sized. I scrimped and saved and own. I see others who spend on travel over seas on welfare and complain about lack of affordable housing here. The young need to save and purchase where affordable. Authorities and developers have moral obligation to provide affordable housing.

Mary | 17 October 2014  

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