The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Australia’s housing crisis. With almost a million workers either stood down, fired or losing hours, many are now finding it even harder to cover their housing costs.
Frustration is rising with one petition calling for a freeze on rent and mortgage payments gathering 500,000 signatures! Another petition calling for a rent strike has 17,000 names.
For working class people things were tough before COVID-19. Years of stagnating wages, low-paid, insecure work, and decades of attacks on public housing and welfare have increased poverty.
Housing insecurity has long been on the rise with a fifth of households paying more than 30% of their income towards their rent or mortgage.
Morrison’s Jobseeker and Jobkeeper payments will give people a bit of relief, but this is not the government’s main concern. The aim of these payments is to funnel money to landlords, big real estate firms and the banks to prevent a total collapse of the system.
State government ‘rent relief’ measures are minimal, and mostly just handouts to landlords. In Victoria, of the $500 million announced, $420 million will be used for land tax and other concessions to landlords. This comes on top of $4.6 billion of federal funding funnelled to landlords every year through rent assistance.
This money would be much better spent on public housing, helping to wipe out the long waiting lists and provide affordable housing options. But both the major parties are backed by real estate moguls who view housing as a source of profits rather than a basic right for all.
Growing numbers of people are now being forced to choose between essentials like food or paying rent. Governments are telling tenants to negotiate with landlords, but individuals have little bargaining power when dealing with estate agents that collect commissions and have no incentive to lower rent.
The rental market is beginning to see increased vacancies with a 19% increase in advertised rentals nationwide. Rents have fallen up to 5% in some cities. Nevertheless, faced with requests for rent reductions, estate agencies and landlords are determined to resist.
We can’t rely on ‘market forces’ or the decisions of individual landlords to push rents downwards. We need an organised movement of people to exert pressure on landlords, real estate agencies and governments alike.
The nascent movement calling for a rent freeze, and the idea of a rent strike, is a step in the right direction. While the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker payments mean that a layer of people are covering their costs for now, the government has plans to bring these to an end.
This, combined with an economic crisis that will be drawn out, will likely mean that more financial stress will be put on people. Many thousands of households could find themselves in a position where they just can’t afford to pay. The idea of a rent strike strike can get a much wider hearing.
States have introduced temporary bans on evictions but these only cover limited circumstances. Even in the short term we could see landlords attempting to throw those who can’t pay out onto the streets.
A recent action in Sydney that temporarily delayed a woman’s eviction shows that even in lock-down conditions there is potential for people to come together and push back against attempts to kick people out of their homes.
But for these sorts of actions to succeed in a more widespread way organisation is needed. Tenant committees based in particular neighbourhoods, or even around certain real estate agencies, could draw up plans to defend people threatened with eviction.
If linked up on a state and national basis these sorts of committees could be the bedrock of a political campaign to demand that governments introduce more far reaching protections for renters.
In addition to a rent freeze, demands could include waiving all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. We also need to fight for permanent rent controls with rents capped at 20% of a tenant’s income.
But ultimately we need to take housing out of the hands of the private market. We need a massive expansion of public housing and a crack down on dodgy landlords.
A determined, organised movement of working class people could win all of these things and ensure that housing is seen as a basic right for all and not something to make profits from.
By Ben Convey