What is Housing Justice?
Housing justice acknowledges the fundamental injustices of Australian society. It traces the origins of the housing crisis to the theft of First Nations lands and waters.
Invasion brought colonial worldviews which made land into a commodity rather than a relationship. Capitalism made housing about profit margins and market speculation. Now, over a hundred thousand people are homeless on this continent alone, with a million more living in substandard housing. If you’re “lucky”, secure housing comes with a mountain of debt.
Housing justice is about everyone living with dignity, regardless of income, without working away the best years of your life. The ultimate goal is to treat housing as a right, not a commodity.
Housing Justice Poster
Check out this great poster illustrated by Emily Kate Hicks envisioning what a neighbourhood with housing justice might look and feel like (Creative Commons). Scroll down for more information about each of the ten ideas included in the poster.
Download the Housing Justice Poster here!
10 Visionary Ideas for Housing Justice
1. Housing is a right, not a commodity. Land is a sacred entity, not private property.
On this continent, Housing Justice begins by acknowledging that so-called Australia is an entrenched invasion built upon occupied First Nations territories. There are hundreds of distinct First Nations, and none have ever ceded their sovereignty.
It’s common to hear First Nations people say “you can’t own the earth” or similar. This is because First Nations people had/have a non-proprietary relationship with country/land . As Kombumerri philosopher Dr Mary Graham explains: “The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity.” From this perspective, land is not a commodity, but a sacred body which is the source of all meaning; one has a relationship with land, one does not own, trade, or speculate on it.
When the British invaded this continent, they brought their colonised worldviews with them. For colonisers, land is not sacred; land is a commodity to be fenced in, privately owned, and used to accumulate wealth. Colonisation was justified by what Goenpul scholar Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes as “white possessive logics” – a mode of rationalisation grounded in patriarchal white supremacy that makes white land ownership, white domination, capitalism, and nation-states seem natural and normal.
White possessive logics explain why the British colonists claimed this continent was terra nullius – a land belonging to no one. In truth, the land belonged to hundreds of sovereign First Nations who treated their country as a sacred being rather than private property. The act of stealing First Nations land transformed this non-proprietary relationship with land into a proprietary relationship. Redressing this original theft and returning to a non-proprietary relationship with land must be core to the Housing Justice movement.
Whereas the common anarchist maxim “property is theft” suggests that “property” pre-exists “theft”, Robert Nichols argues “theft is property” is a more accurate description. This is because in the colonial context, theft is the mechanism which creates private property in the first place. It was only after the land had been stolen that First Nations people were retrospectively described as “the original owners”. This explains why there is no contradiction when First Nations people make clear they are rightful owners of this continent while simultaneously explaining that no one can own the earth.
Transforming land into private property paved the way for housing injustice. UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, describes the “financialization of housing” as a phenomenon where housing is treated as an investment in wealth accumulation rather than a basic human right. The financialization of housing is premised on land being treated as a commodity rather than a sacred entity. Globally, real estate now accounts for 60% of global assets. Farha argues this “vast amount of wealth has left governments accountable to investors, rather than to their international human rights obligations.”
2. Non-profit affordable community housing or public housing available to all.
In Australia, public housing is only available to the most marginalised within society. This model tends to create a more segregated city. The wealthy live in enclaves while public housing is relegated to the fringes of society. Although it prevents some people from becoming homeless, living in public housing is stigmatised which can end up compounding the effects of poverty.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Vienna, the capital of Austria, roughly 60% of residents live in publicly owned homes. These well designed and maintained apartment buildings exist across the entire city and are well connected with public transport. They often incorporate medical clinics, libraries, laundromats, local shops, child care, and other public facilities. Rental controls cover over 90% of households in Vienna. This ensures housing costs have remained affordable even as rents have skyrocketed across the rest of Europe.
Vienna’s approach to housing could work in Australia. The Australian Greens have a plan for 1 million publicly-owned homes to be built over 20 years and the Queensland Greens have detailed a plan to build 250,000 homes over 10 years. The goal is to have 20% of all housing stock public owned and available to ordinary working people. Residents would enjoy lifetime rental security with rents capped at 25% of their income or market rent, whichever is lower.
3. Reparations and land rights for First Nations communities.
As Tanganekald and Meintangk legal Professor Irene Watson argues: “In general, the descendants of a robber are not guilty of his or her theft but they are also not entitled to live off that same theft. The monies are to be returned. While it was previous settler generations who stole First Nations’ land, those descendants continue to live off the income of our stolen lands.” This is why there can be no housing justice on stolen land.
Reparations for First Nations communities must go further than simply returning the land which was stolen. As Gamilaraay lawyer Natalie Cromb argues, the Australian state is also liable to pay “damages for massacres, rapes, child removal, slave labour, trans-generational trauma and environmental damage.” If the government won’t act, then settlers have a collective responsibility to support First Nations movements for reparations, self determination, and for their sovereignty to be respected. As the chant goes: "Always was, always will be Aboriginal land!"
However, as a 1970s Queensland Aboriginal activist group wrote: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. If you have come because your Liberation is bound together with mine, let us walk together.” Housing justice must be grounded in respecting First Nations sovereignty. Not because of any paternalistic urge to “help” First Nations people, but because the colonial system that oppresses First Nations people is the same system that creates housing injustice.
4. Caps on rent increases, no unjustified evictions, and a right to longer term leases to ensure renting is secure and affordable.
Brisbane Renters Alliance believes the two most fundamental and essential reforms to Queensland tenancy laws are to introduce tight rules against unjustified evictions and limits on excessive rent increases. If tenants are less afraid of unjustified evictions or drastic rent increases (which can be used as a “backdoor” to evict people), they will be better positioned to assert their other rights and negotiate effectively for more favourable lease terms.
Ultimately, a landlord has the power to make their tenants homeless. This power is far stronger than soft legal protections tenants may or may not be able to access via confusing and bureaucratic appeals and tribunal processes. Unless we shift this power imbalance and make it harder for landlords to jack up the rent or end leases without justification, other rights and reforms will be virtually impossible for tenants to insist on in practice.
One jurisdiction with such protections is Germany, where half the population are long term renters. In Germany long term leases are the norm and many people feel they are better off renting than owning. Strong renter’s rights are premised on a universal right to secure housing, which works to challenge the treatment of housing as a commodity.
5. Renters have a right to own a pet, and to make minor changes like painting the walls, putting up shelves and planting a garden.
The outdated model of housing in Australia views renting as a transitional phase for young adults between moving out of home and buying their own house. But increasingly many people are being priced out of the housing market and renting for longer, perhaps forever.
With more people renting long-term, it makes sense that we adapt our view and treatment of renting so that people can feel at home in their rentals. This means making renting more secure by stabilising rent increases, allowing for longer term leases, and preventing no-grounds evictions. It also means giving tenants the default right to own a pet and enabling themto make minor changes to their houses such as painting the walls, hanging pictures on nails, and planting a garden.
In 2021, the Queensland government passed legislation that introduced minimum standards (such as functioning locks and latches) and the right to own a pet. However this legislation failed to end unjustified evictions and cap rent increases, so many of these “rights” will only exist on paper and not in practice.
Making it easier for tenants to own pets is meaningless if the landlord is still able to retaliate by refusing to renew the lease. Legislating for minimum standards is hollow if the landlord is able to retaliate to maintenance requests by jacking up the rent. While the new legislation notionally bans landlords from retaliatory actions, as Tenants Queensland notes, this will be almost impossible to prove in practice.
6. Abolish tax breaks which encourage property investment.
Tax breaks like negative gearing and the capital gains tax (CGT) discount encourage property investment and the treatment of housing as a commodity. These tax breaks effectively funnel wealth from low to high income earners. They make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
The Parliamentary Budget Office found that 57% of negative gearing deductions go to the top 20% of earners. Meanwhile, the top 10% of earners claim more in CGT discounts than the bottom 90% of earners. Roughly three quarters of these deductions go to men.
These tax breaks entrench wealth inequality and contribute to the housing crisis. The (stolen) wealth this creates is also premised on the continuing occupation of First Nations land. Abolishing negative gearing and the CGT discount would be a step in the direction of housing justice.
7. A vacancy levy to discourage investors from leaving good homes empty.
Housing should be built to house people. However because it’s treated as a commodity, some investors regard housing like any other speculative investment and leave perfectly good homes sitting empty. These investors are gambling on housing prices continuing to skyrocket. They expect the capital gains they’ll make when they sell the property will greatly outweigh the income they might have received on rent (the CGT discount exacerbates this problem).
Introducing a vacancy levy for investors who leave homes sitting empty would increase the supply of housing without having to build any new houses. Even if some investors continue to leave properties empty, a vacancy fee would raise funds that could be used to build more publicly owned housing. This is a tried and true mechanism that has been used in cities like Melbourne, Paris, and Toronto.
Homelessness is increasing all over the continent. At the same time, there are thousands of perfectly good homes with no one living in them. A vacancy levy directly addresses this problem by pushing investors to make their homes available for rent; it also directly challenges the treatment of housing as a commodity by recognising that the primary purpose of housing is to house people.
8. Diverse range of co-housing projects to provide alternatives for empty-nesters and counteract social isolation.
Co-housing describes a range of living arrangements that exist in the space between traditional share housing and private housing. In general, co-housing residents have their own self-contained private homes while sharing common facilities such as backyards, entertainment areas, and laundries.
As Cr Jonathan Sri explains: “Cohousing models create stronger local communities, are more resilient in times of crisis, and can save money through shared ownership of assets like carshare schemes and collectively-owned solar power systems.” The success of projects like Nightingale show there is strong latent demand for co-housing in so-called Australia.
Homesharing is similar to co-housing but instead works by matching young people with older people who own homes with spare bedrooms. Typically the younger person completes tasks like housework, grocery shopping, and cooking in exchange for cheap or free rent.
Not for profit co-housing projects challenge the treatment of housing as a commodity by encouraging a more collective, community minded approach to housing. Co-operative co-housing models take things further by giving residents democratic control over the management of the project – helping create vibrant and publicly engaged neighbourhoods.
9. Community control of neighbourhood planning.
The treatment of land – and by extension housing – as a commodity is extremely anti-democratic. Private corporations are free to develop huge swathes of land, profoundly changing the shape and character of a neighbourhood, without gaining support from the broader community. As Dr Natalie Osborne explains: “Decision-making processes about the city are seen [by many residents] as exclusive, undemocratic and unjust, and urban planning is understood primarily as the ‘handmaiden of neoliberalism’.”
Community control of neighbourhood planning challenges the treatment of land/housing as private property by acknowledging “owners” do not have the unimpeded right to develop however they wish. Instead, developers must work with local residents to ensure their projects are in line with community expectations.
Some people might be concerned that giving communities control over neighbourhood planning might result in more “nimbyism” (not-in-my-backyard-ism). While an understandable concern, “nimbyism” is actually a symptom of capitalist planning systems that systematically disempower residents. With almost no control over how their neighbourhoods are changing, it’s little wonder that when residents have an opportunity to provide feedback, many say a flat “NO!”
Both “nimbyism” and “yimbyism” (yes-in-my-backyard-ism) are features of anti-democratic planning systems that shut residents out from making meaningful decisions about the communities in which they live. Hidden behind the false dichotomy of yes or no is the possibility of coming up with an entirely different option. For example, residents could be engaged in a collaborative community-led design process.
Ultimately, giving residents control over neighbourhood planning empowers residents and results in a more robust decision making process. In Cr Jonathan Sri’s experience: “The more decision-making power you give ‘ordinary’ people, the more responsible and thoughtful they become about exercising it.”
10. A fairer system that offers secure housing without taking on a lifetime of mortgage debt
This final point speaks for itself. We think everyone should be able to have stable, long-term, well-designed housing without going into severe debt and having to worry constantly about interest rate rises and property value collapses.