Why we subconsciously still desire the ‘Great Australian Dream’

A still from the ABC’s documentary series “The Making of Modern Australia”

What compels Australians to desire a house of their own? What makes housing affordability a daily news item? Why are the suburbs continuing to sprawl, yet apartments left vacant? Why are our housing options still only the ‘house vs apartment’ dichotomy, and why do we still favour the house?

Let’s try to understand the nature of housing since the post-war period in order to place our obsessions in context.

WWII efforts impacted the nation in many ways:

  • economically, a period of austerity was put in place to focus funding towards war efforts.
  • socially, men were displaced for a period of time, many whom didn’t return. For those that did, a baby boom occurred.
  • skilled worker levels were significantly down, leading to an large immigration plan that brought Europeans over to fulfil the need.

Therefore, all of these reasons led to an unprecedented need for housing — up to 300,000 homes in 1945, with the government setting targets for 700,000 homes to be built within 10 years after the war. The commonwealth left the delivery of housing required to the state; here in Victoria, the Victorian Housing Commission was established in 1938 and really came to the fore post-war, helped provide mechanisms to build ‘as many home for as many people in the shortest time.’ Part of its role also was to form the Slum Abolition Board, which identified areas in Melbourne as ‘slum’ (now shown to be through unethical assessment methods), cleared tracts of land for erection of high rise social housing. Australia does not have a great history of high density typologies, so this was one of the first large scale developments of apartments.

example of housing designated as ‘slum’ and marked for demolition

Again, to set the scene, in the years immediately after WWII:

  • there were continuing austerity measures, limiting availability of materials, house sizes were restricted to 12 squares (111.5sqm), skilled labour wasn’t readily available
  • rent controls were in place since during the war, which capped rentals at pre-war levels with only a marginal increase per year.

This incentivised renting over owner occupation, despite the housing stock being of low quality (think ‘slums’ in the inner city).

As the years rolled on, a few things happened:

  • rent controls were released in 1950, allowing the market to decide cost of rentals
  • austerity measures were lifted
  • the state-based housing commissions coordinated the release of tracts of land to new suburban housing projects. These were seen to be clean and fresh — signifying optimism to a great future nation. “Here is the very core of our wellbeing…a sturdy roof to live under, a patch of ground, trees and the fresh clean wind. There is much to be done before every family can enjoy a ‘home of their own,’ for that is their birthright” — this was the subtext underlying every family’s future aspirations.
  • the process of slum abolition and creation of high rise social housing towers had begun
high rise public housing at the Atherton Gardens estate, Fitzroy, Melbourne
image depicting ‘The Great Australian Dream’ in 1950s

This, conversely, incentivised owner occupation; as a result, 50% of dwellings were owner occupied in 1950s, increasing to 75% by 1966. There was now a sense of stability in housing, home owners continued to extend their properties or build new — space and technology in the home were now the demonstration of wealth and status. As time progressed, the great ‘towers in the sky’ of social housing towers became known as dangerous places to be — essentially these are gated communities for those requiring welfare assistance.

The children of this baby boomer generation borrowed the ideals of home ownership, not knowing what their future might look like — it was a time of the 1973 oil crisis and the Vietnam war.

Now, however, we are 2–3 generations removed from this, having only the ‘recession we had to have’ and the GFC as economic blips on the radar. We have seen how our parents and grandparents have paid for their housing, and now it is almost a right that we should have the same housing available under stable economic conditions.

Many first home buyers seeking to get into the market have adopted the ideals of the Great Australian Dream of separate houses on sizeable lots, rather than a new typology for living in smaller sized dwellings, e.g. apartments, townhouses, maisonettes. I believe the ideals adopted from previous generations underly their purchasing psychology, namely:

  • that Australians still view housing as commodity (shows like The Block and advertising from Rams demonstrates this) not as shelter. We choose to purchase and dispose as our needs adjust, rather than commit to long term occupation
  • some still see space as status

The difference is that our socio-economic climate has changed and is changing, demonstrated by:

  • generation Y’s desire for flexibility and transience over long term occupation, mainly due to the nature of work having more turnover and being less location-dependant. Purchase of housing however, suggests it is a long term exercise (e.g. CGT implications, buying/selling costs, large stamp duty contributions relative to cost of dwelling)
  • and therefore, unwillingness to enter into other options that are longer term solutions; these are often the exception rather than the rule (Nightingale, deliberative housing)
  • new apartment developments are typically designed for investors rather than owner occupiers, demonstrated by poor internal amenity (hence the need for apartment standards), limited dwelling diversity for demographics other than singles and couples, and high purchase cost for those that are 3 bedrooms or larger.
In short, the ideal borrowed from the post-war era of ‘space as status’, the poor amenity found in recently built apartments, and the preference for flexibility and transience by current first home buyers all contribute to the retention of the ‘Great Australian Dream’ by many Australians.

Do you agree? Leave your comments below.

“Architecture is not simply a platform that accommodates the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. It precedes and frames its occupant “— Adolf Loos

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