From the outset, Peter Mares’ book ‘No Place Like Home’ seeks to remind us that the primary function of a house is to provide the fundamental human need of shelter.
He questions when it was that houses stopped being treated as homes, and when they became seen as simply another way to make profits.
Mares provides the reader with hard hitting facts and figures. For example, at some point in their lives at least 2.5 million Australians have been homeless. He couples this with the real-life situations of people he knows or met during his research, making the book an easy read.
Mares stitches the different aspects of the housing crisis together to make a very convincing case that things urgently need to change at a systemic level.
He begins with the abundance of apartment towers being built in CBDs such as Melbourne and Sydney’s, and explains that they are not so much places for people to live but rather investment boxes or “global wealth congealed into tower form”.
He moves on to the outer suburbs where houses are the most affordable for ordinary people. The problem here is that these estates are not being built as part of a sustainable plan for our future. They are built as cheaply and quickly as possible, often with no links to public transport and services, and far from people’s jobs.
From here, Mares starts to draw out the broader impacts that leaving housing to market forces has had. He argues that housing is not being planned in the best interests of society, but rather with a narrow focus on maximising profits. This has been to the detriment of society and the environment.
Mares delves further into the societal impacts of housing through his research at Frontyard Youth Services. The underfunded workers say that “housing affordability is the number one issue” facing the people they assist, which is not helped by inadequate Centrelink payments.
They are also forced to deal with all the complex flow-on effects to people’s health and wellbeing that come from not having a safe and stable place to live.
What remains of public housing in Australia, Mares argues, is now effectively “welfare housing” – housing only for the most vulnerable. He agrees with the reports that say hundreds of thousands of homes need to be built to solve the homelessness crisis. But he goes a step further than most by saying that good quality public housing should also be available at affordable prices for ordinary working people.
The so-called ‘Great Australian Dream’ of home ownership and the subsequent treatment of renters as second-class citizens is questioned by Mares, who used to live in Germany. He draws a stark contrast between the situation for renters in Australia and those in Germany, where elements of rent control and longer-term leases exist.
He describes the reality here that you have more rights when you buy a toaster, than you do as a renter. Here he points to the same issues that are the focus of the Socialist Party’s Renters Fightback campaign, such as “the absence of control over rent hikes, inattention to repairs and faults, and the lack of any security of tenure.”
Finally, Mares addresses how to pay for all the changes that he believes are required to fix the housing crisis. Some of the reforms he puts forward, such as repealing the capital gains tax discount and negative gearing, socialists wholeheartedly agree with.
But Mares acknowledges that even winning these modest reforms would require “political activism by citizens”. Despite also acknowledging the possibility that “chronic homelessness and housing stress… are a constant and necessary by-product” of the system working as intended, Mares has misplaced faith that the capitalist system can be repaired.
Socialists agree with his conclusion that we need a “coherent national housing policy” that links together “land use, housing, transport, and urban design with livability and environmental sustainability.” The problem is, that capitalism puts profits before all else. The needs of people and the environment are an afterthought.
The kind of far-sighted planning we need is only possible with a total restructure of society where the profit motive is removed. In order to be able to really implement a ‘coherent national policy’ we would need to own and control the key parts of the economy.
On the basis of public ownership, you could begin to democratically plan the economy. A socialist government would be able to direct investment into housing and other areas of need.
While the conclusions Mares draws are not adequate to deal with the scale of the crisis we face, his book is nevertheless well worth the read. It gives us a good picture of the problems, which are rooted in the market domination of housing.
Reviewed by Kat Galea
No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis
By Peter Mares
368pp, RRP $32.95