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Do we all have the right to expect home ownership?

by Dr Matthew Beard
14 July 2016
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

During the election campaign Australians finally saw consensus around at least one point in the housing policy debate. The wealthier you are, the more likely it is to benefit you. On the ABC’s 7.30, Malcolm Turnbull conceded that “people on the highest incomes will make the highest gains because they tend to have more property”.

Where we still lack agreement is whether this disparity is a social problem or not. Opponents of negative gearing clearly do: they’ve been criticising the ethical basis for the policies, saying they are manifestly unfair. 

But there are lots of things the wealthy have “unfair” access to: sailing yachts around the harbour, a leisurely trip to space or being able to park your car in Kirribilli. But I still have the right to all of these, I just lack the financial means to exercise this right. What’s different about property?

Perhaps it’s that housing is essential to basic living standards, making housing affordability a potential indicator for the standard of social justice in a society.

On this measure, we don’t have the right to purchase property at any price, we have a right to affordable housing.

From a philosophical perspective, defining affordable as a “right” is significant because it means government has a moral responsibility to provide everyone – including the lowest income earners – with the ability to own a home. That’s a far cry from where we are today, but there might be evidence to support the idea.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to a standing of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing…” (the list goes on).

This suggests that housing accessibility is a human right, though it’s a big leap from access to ownership. All the same, it does provide some help when thinking about the ethics of our housing policies.

First, it tells us housing is an instrumental right. We only want a house because it provides for our health and wellbeing. A home that didn’t do this wouldn’t be worth owning. This means homes on the market, whether for rent or sale, should be in a condition that allows hygiene and safety – doors not rotted, locks functional, toilet separate from kitchen; the basics.

Secondly, it suggests housing should support our well-being, not just our physical health. This means at a minimum it shouldn’t create feelings of stress or insecurity. This would suggest greater protections for renters – longer lease periods, for instance.

And finally, the idea that housing is linked to health and well-being suggests that policies should be designed to first benefit those for whom health and well-being are real issues. At the moment we’ve got an inverted pyramid where those with the most ability to provide for their health and well-being are being best supported with access to housing. There might not be a quick fix, but seeing housing as connected to human rights helps us see it as an issue.

This is what a policy would need to do to support our basic right to housing access for health and well-being. But providing for human rights is really a minimum standard for governments. Plenty of philosophers believe the state should do more than allow citizens to survive; it should help them to flourish – to “live well”.

The “Great Australian Dream”, like the American equivalent, remains caught up in the idea of home ownership.

Perhaps this captures the real ability for ownership to help us to live well, as author Flora S Michaels described in a recent issue of New Philosopher:

“Home [ownership] was a dream of security, somewhere to be and some place to go, the promise of refuge and room to breathe, of the happiness that comes from living lightly, with a place for everything and everything in its place.”

For Michaels, home ownership generates an intimate relationship with a certain place. It gives us somewhere to plant our roots and then, to continue the analogy, to grow.

Growth without the constancy of place may teach us other lessons though. For instance, philosopher Damon Young believes exposure to the ebbs and flows of the rental market can teach us a lesson in vulnerability. Young argues that although vulnerability is an inevitable part of our lives, we should still aim to protect the vulnerable where we can.

Delving philosophically into the place of home ownership in the good life gives us a new basis, beyond fairness, to argue for a revision to housing policy. It also explains why, in the face of diminishing odds, people continue to hope for – even demand – home ownership. Whether these hopes or demands are reasonable is one question, but why they ring true to so many people is perhaps a more important one.

This article was originally published in Domain. Follow us on twitter @ethics_centre.

Join our next IQ2 debate to hear more on housing policy, inequality and intergenerational justice. On 3 August 2016, we'll explore whether Boomers owe a debt to the young at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.