Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Property has a social license, too



To a Martian observer, the public response to COVID-19 might resemble a ceremonial dance in which the participants go forward, then back, mingle, change partners, bow to one another, twirl, and finish as they began, but with a greater distance between them.

Main image: Men hugging (Dimitar Belchev/Unsplash)

One example lies in housing. Before the pandemic struck, the price of houses was rising as were rents, the wealth of the few was increasing as was the debt of the struggling, at the same time as average income and job security were declining. The rising housing market was fuelled by debt, as was public anxiety. Since public housing was totally inadequate to meet needs, people who were homeless slept in the city streets. The worst affected were people with mental illness, addictions and unemployed.

After massive public spending and embracing of solidarity in response to COVID-19, we are seemingly returning to where we began. As Government support threatens to be withdrawn, the price of houses continues to rise, rent and evictions and homelessness are also likely to rise, those with money to invest will increase their wealth, and the anxiety of those in unprotected jobs, high debts or no income will also rise. The dancing is over.

Discussion of housing usually focuses exclusively on its relationship to the economy. Housing is seen as property, and the most important questions are seen as having to do with buying and selling. Many government initiatives in the area result in maintaining and increasing the price of houses with a consequent rise in inequality. This transactional aspect is important. It needs, however, to be seen in the light of the larger human good. From that perspective housing in all the various forms it takes in different cultures is not a possession but a human need.

The distinction between housing seen as property and as a human value is embodied in the discrimination we make between a house and a home. The concept of home suggests that the place where we live is more than bricks and mortar. It is the centre of a network of relationships that lie at the heart of human flourishing. In the first place these comprise our interpersonal relationships. As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis we are aware of the strain that the uncertainty, the restrictions on movement and the anxiety about our own health and that of people whom we love can put on our relationships. The increase in mental illness and domestic violence are only two indices of this. Lack of security in housing multiplies that strain.     

The fear and reality of constantly having to seek and find accommodation also erodes the connection between stable personal relationships and place. It affects relationships to particular schools, to doctors, sporting teams and other social groups. All these relationships are related to place — the church, the parks, the shopping centre, the school, the cycling tracks and so on. Housing insecurity makes it more likely that children will learn to travel light emotionally, later having to reckon with all the difficulties this can pose to stable relationships.

Having no assured place of residence also affects our relationship to ourselves. It is the focus of our personal, family and local lives. Insecure housing affects our self-esteem, especially if we are sleeping rough, couch surfing, or living in our car. We turn from citizens, people of the city, to vagrants. This is accentuated if we cannot easily receive communications sent from government departments and businesses. With instability we also put at threat the central human capacity to dream and to shape our future. If we have no stable living place this becomes difficult. We live from day to day, not by choice, but by indigence. Fear and the reality of homelessness limits our horizon to daily survival.


'These practical remedies and their consequences are complex and open to debate. They should not however weaken the recognition that in a fair society all people must have access to assured and decent housing.'


The anxiety and isolating effects of insecure housing fall largely on those least capable of bearing them. People experiencing mental illness, prisoners released penniless from gaol, young people escaping from violent homes and people already isolated by addiction are among those most in need of stable housing and least able to cope with its lack and consequent isolation.

What can be done? Recognising the connection between the growing inequality and growing pressure on housing that have followed the pandemic and our response to it is the first step towards any answer. To remedy the threat and reality of homelessness we must address the gross disparity in wealth and opportunity between people who live securely and those living in insecurity. The current economic settings which see and protect houses as property assets contribute to marked inequality. They can be made just only by government action that looks to the good of all people, especially the most vulnerable. That must be based on seeing housing as more than property whose distribution can be left to the market but as a human good that must be available to all.

The most obvious way to do this is for governments, Federal and State, to invest heavily in social housing. Yielding to the siren call of small government in recent years they have neglected their responsibilities and left public housing on the rocks. Waiting lists far outweigh stock, with particularly dire consequences for the most needy.

To rebuild public housing in a way that enables the universal right to shelter to be met will be costly. The cost must be met from elsewhere. Given that the high price of property is due in large part to demand financed by debt, and is exacerbated by the various subsidies to house ownership, a starting point could be to remove these concessions and to tax property speculation. If done in a way that avoided unintended consequences, that might provide savings and revenue for funding social housing and perhaps lower the cost both of buying and renting houses.

These practical remedies and their consequences are complex and open to debate. They should not however weaken the recognition that in a fair society all people must have access to assured and decent housing. Property has a social license.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Matthew Perkins/Flickr

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, housing, public housing, homelessness



submit a comment

Existing comments

Excellent article. The only addition that it needs is an examination of the cost of rent as a proportion of income. For people on Jobseeker, and to a certain extent other Centrelink payments, their rent can take such a large percentage of their income that they really can't afford many other basic necessities, but they feel (rightly) that stable accommodation is their most important priority.

Anne Sheldrick | 25 February 2021  

Why are we using license ( which is a verb , as in " to license ") , rather than licence , the noun ,-" a licence " ? Americans don't know proper English , but Australians should !

Maureen Thomas | 25 February 2021  

Maureen? There's a soup in my fly? What about Australians when saying 'Gusto', pronouncing it 'GAsto', instead of 'GUsto', the U properly pronounced as the U in GlUe! How do you pronounce Gusto? Live and let live.

AO | 26 February 2021  

Maureen seeks to make a con TRO ver sy (or, is it CON tro ver sy?) by saying that Americans don’t know proper English. She is doing this because she hopes to help all of us to spell properly. Standing in the place of another to assist that person to carry out his or her function is either being a lef tenant or a lieu tenant. For example, a Lord Lieutenant is a local grandee who stands in for the Queen when she is supposed, but isn’t quite disposed, to open the pumpkin fair at Little Dorkling on the Wold. Standing in my place as a stickler for proper pronunciation (I’m not but let’s assume I am) how would Maureen pronounce the word ‘lieutenant’? And would Maureen agree that it would make better sense to spell ‘pronunciation’ as ‘pronounciation’?

roy chen yee | 28 February 2021  

Maureen, to be fair to Americans (and to be accurate), the "proper English" spelling in the US is license for both the verb and the noun - in the same way that proper Aussie English for "program" is now different to proper British English "programme". We changed the spelling. It's also interesting how both Brits and Americans are freaked out by the way us Aussies pronounce data as "darter" and pasta as "paster". Here, here to diversity! Ooops, that should be "hear, hear!" The fact that we're not concentrating on the subject of the article suggests we're probably not homeless, but housing/mortgage stress and job insecurity for me means it's always a looming issue. I've found that once I took on a mortgage, my lifestyle, priorities and attitudes changed dramatically - I'm now wedded to the bank. I'm hoping now to rebalance my life and start changing my priorities so I can be a bit more generous towards causes that are far more deserving.

AURELIUS | 01 March 2021  

‘remove these concessions….in a way that avoided unintended consequences….’ Most people know a cost as something valuable given up and a benefit as something valuable received, usually as a consequence of their own actions. They might be familiar with the word ‘externality’, in which somebody else’s action, over which they had no say, took something valuable out of their life or added something valuable to it. On a banal plane, a husband and wife who save from their joint income as cleaners to buy one investment home will most likely receive from it, when they own it outright, a free cashflow perhaps approximating a retired parish priest’s stipend, and probably less than a public service pension, both of which are received for life with no risk. Because a rent cannot equal the renter’s wage, a gross rent may equal a pension (which is usually a proportion of a wage) while a net rent almost never will. Either the cleaners get their investment property or somebody pay them a retired parish priest’s stipend for life without risk?

roy chen yee | 01 March 2021  

Is housing a social licenc/se? ‘Licenc/se’ derives from ‘lawful’ or ‘permitted’, as well as from ‘licentiousness’. Man does not live by bread alone, but integrating the word of God is difficult if obstacles to cognition, cogitation and compliance such as parasitic demons, literal and figurative, are not cast out. The duty to recognise, think about and comply with the word implies a right, not a privilege, to expect assistance to have obstructing nuisances removed. The right to expect others to be attentive becomes an obligation or duty upon them which, if it is to work in practice, resolves into a duty upon society to make civil mechanisms to which the chores of attentiveness can be delegated. The Maslow pyramid operationalises the spiritual by its hypothesis that deficiency needs require attending to before growth needs. In a Christian context, it all makes sense: charity is licensed to clear away the nuisances which prevent the frail from meeting God, the canonical ban against charging admission for masses being an example. In an atheistic context, the sense (or lack of it) is that charity clears obstacles for the frail to do what it is they want to do, licentious ‘self-actualisation’ and all.

roy chen yee | 02 March 2021  

Congratulations to Andy for kicking off this discussion and to Aurelius for getting it back on track! Hoping to downsize at the start of Covid, I was offered a home-swap by an estate agent on condition that she could sell mine for me, and I would agree to signing a contract that undervalued her home by $50 000, while depositing that figure into her private bank account. Asked why, her response was that she wished to avoid paying capital gains tax as she already owned two other houses. Advised that this was both unethical as well as illegal, her response was that many people did this without qualm or query, otherwise she'd have to bump her price up by $50 000 and risk disappointing me. If this is so, we have bred a culture in which the government covertly colludes in reducing its own revenue for the benefit of constituents hell-bent on making money out of second or third property sales. In a competitive housing market no government could ever afford to increase its public housing stock, so long as public housing is sold off and the poor are forced to rent from the private sector. Graft, plain and simple!

Michael Furtado | 02 March 2021  

Maureen has, I fear, thrown a spanner in the works and seemingly drawn attention away from the core of this article to the periphery.

Edward Fido | 03 March 2021  

The computer must have eaten the illustration of an externality on a lofty plane: ‘Eve’s disobedience made a soul a ticket to Hell. The Crucifixion restored it as a ticket to Heaven. On a banal plane ….’

roy chen yee | 03 March 2021  

roy chen yee: Don't you mean, Eve and Adam's disobedience?

AO | 05 March 2021  

AO, Tragically for El Roy, Woman must always be responsible for the Fall of Man. Would that he had a feel for the scapegoat!

Michael Furtado | 06 March 2021  

AO, the inspired text tells a complicated story of obstruction of authority by licence of will, licence usurping as well as abrogating authority, the result of which is that humans lose authority over Nature which begins to obstruct them. It is perhaps also about passive-aggression. The existence of the woman, who has no name until she has incriminated the situation, is derivative. God presents her to Adam for his approval, who mansplains what she is to God, like horse traders talking over a filly, and the first we hear her voice is when Evil, perhaps sensing a feeling of exclusion, subverts the chain of authority by discussing a major change in administration with the employee. Material creation is subverted before Adam eats the fruit for she has eaten by then. God senses the change but calls out to Adam. He only speaks to the woman to investigate a crime. God told Adam, not her, not to eat the fruit. Adam, for reasons unknown because, as St Paul implies, the serpent never deceived Adam, surrenders to his subordinate’s judgement but blames her. Men use their greater strength in extracting sustenance over the obstructions of nature as a lever to dominate women.

roy chen yee | 08 March 2021  

Michael Furtado, PhD does not use his skills to analyse the inspired words in the Genesis story. This thread is about homelessness. Eve may have felt that the Garden wasn’t completely home because she was created as a derivative and not for her own sake, but in taking matters into her own hands, she expelled herself into a greater alienation outside where material scarcity due to the obstructions of Nature enables the brute strength of males in overcoming those obstructions to be used as excuses for domination. This article says that material homelessness can cause psychological alienation. The reverse is also true with a caveat: while a person can’t necessarily shift material realities in his favour, psychological ‘realities’ are often subjectivities of the mind which can be shifted towards modes of thought, the bases of metanoia, that can produce better outcomes. Eve seems to have failed that test in a story whose relevance to social justice today is that outliers without balanced mindset can make things worse for themselves, be it in LGBTIQ* matters, church authority, or the current dogma that you cannot tell women there are crocodiles in their garden.

roy chen yee | 08 March 2021  

Hello MF. If Adam was superior 'in any way' to Eve, as some men attributing the blame to her, seem to think. Than, Adam, was more culpable for his disobedience, than Eve was for hers. And he should definitely be blamed for 'the ticket'. Instead, they were both 'equally reasonable' for their Fall. As the were both 'equally unintelligently', in agreement.

AO | 08 March 2021  

I can't disagree, AO, except to say that, like some here, I don't subscribe to the 'Fall' account, (excepting again that my heart leaps and my spine tingles during Holy Week when I hear the intoning of those magnificent words, 'O Happy Fault'). Nevertheless its my poetic proclivities that draw me again and again into crossing swords with El Roy, who this time manages to deflect my puny blows by making a brilliantly perverse case for why Adam is to blame for the supposed sin of Eve.

Michael Furtado | 10 March 2021  

Similar Articles

Fear of sexual violence pervades from our government to our homes

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 25 February 2021

The two most incisive statements relating to the allegations of sexual assault currently miring the Liberal party have come from opposite ends of its hierarchy: the junior employee allegedly raped in a defence ministry office two years ago, and the head of government who denies any prior knowledge of her ordeal.


The digital divide in a new normal

  • Nicola Heath
  • 23 February 2021

For those of us who already regularly shopped, banked, studied and worked via the Internet, it was easy to adapt to telehealth appointments with doctors and video calls with friends and family. Of course, these activities require access to the Internet — something 2.5 million Australians are without. A further 4 million access the Internet solely using a mobile connection. For these citizens, the pandemic exacerbated the existing digital divide.