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Ideas of home and ownership in Australia might explain the neglect of renters’ rights

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In Australia, when we think of home, we think of ownership. This normalisation of home ownership is reflected in the “Great Australian Dream”, the belief that it’s the best way to achieve financial security. This “dream” is based on the premise that if you work hard you will one day be able to buy a home. Home ownership is an important goal for many Australians. Home ownership implies success.

Linked to the importance of home ownership are our conceptions of home – what home means and the ways home can and should be made. Popular understandings of home suggest that feelings of home are most easily created between a house and the person who owns it.

What is home?

So ingrained is this relationship between home and ownership that in my recently published paper I argue that research rarely considers the ways non-owners make and think about home. This is problematic, given recent housing trends.

Recent changes in housing, particularly the increased cost of home ownership and curbing of public housing, have created a greater demand for rental housing. As a result, there is an undersupply of privately rented housing in Australia.

Australian tenancy laws add to the insecurity of the private rental sector. Tenancy laws and policy reflect cultural norms in Australia, where private renting is seen as a form of short-term, transitional housing.

Recently, significant media and public attention has been directed at the impact of state-based tenancy legislation. It is argued that tenancy laws need to be changed to reflect current housing trends and the needs of many tenants to have long-term, secure housing.

Rental insecurity is a persistent source of stress for many tenants. It’s a key reason that many tenants struggle to feel at home in their rental property. A person’s ability to identify feelings of home with their dwelling has been shown to impact psychological health and overall well-being.

My research findings suggest that while tenancy law affects the ways we understand and make home, likewise, our meanings of home affect how we shape and understand tenure and policy. Australian tenancy law reflects broader cultural values that associate the meaning and making of home with home ownership.

While researchers and policymakers focus on how tenancy law can negatively affect or restrict renters within their homes, the actual practices of home-making by renters are often overlooked. Current understandings of home typically reference what home means to home owners. My research points to the importance of understanding the ways private renters make home – and make home meaningful – so that any changes to tenancy law reflect the needs of tenants.

Is having a home a right or a privilege?

While there is no doubt that small changes are being made, perhaps the lack of consideration for tenants in tenancy laws and policy is indicative of our larger beliefs about what it is to “feel” at home and make a home. The “Great Australian Dream” is based on the belief that hard work will eventually lead to home ownership. Yet owning a home is becoming impossible for many people, irrespective of how hard they work.

If we understand home to be a basic right, then we will have policies that reflect this. If we understand home to be a privilege, reserved only for those who manage to achieve home ownership, then we will forever live in a country where tenure security and a feeling of being “home” are reserved for those who are able to buy a house. Consequently, our policies will continue to support the idea that, ultimately, a rental property cannot be “home” to a tenant.

The question then remains: do we consider home a right or a privilege? This issue is at the very heart of Australia’s housing crisis. Until we change our meaning of home by separating it from ownership, we will never be able to “fix” Australia’s housing crisis.

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