Themes / Everyday people

Investing in homes and people

Alison Sampson

Manna Matters December 2014


Illustration by Shelley Knoll-Miller

Our financial planner is interested in chooks, gardens, and pizza; he’s a Christian and a solid, dependable member of his church. A couple of years ago, my husband and I met with him to talk about backyard fruit trees, home-grown eggs and how to extract our superannuation from the stock market. We had serious qualms about how the market operates and how our money was being invested. Therefore, we wanted to set up a self-managed super fund.

The financial planner asked us how wealthy we wanted to be in our retirement. We looked at each other and then shrugged. ‘We want enough,’ we said, ‘but we hardly need to be millionaires.’ He asked us to clarify. So we said that we saw our lives now as being at the expansive stage: we have three growing children, two growing careers and full, busy lives. But, we explained, over time we’d expect to wind down, shed possessions, perhaps move to a smaller house. We certainly wouldn’t be buying a new car or going to Europe at the drop of a hat. We talked about the Biblical precedent of ‘enough’. That is, each household has a vine and fig tree, but no more; then there is enough for everybody. So, ‘enough,’ we said. ‘Shelter, food, clothing, a bit extra for books and driving holidays.’ He looked slightly shocked. Then he said that he had been in the financial planning business for twenty years, most of his clients were Christians, and yet we were the first people he had met who didn’t long to be rich.

Like most middle-class Australians, my husband and I have investments. But as Christians, we are trying to let kingdom values shape our investments, rather than let profit be the driving force.

We began by extracting ourselves from the stock market. We are concerned by the rising wealth of those who have money, as opposed to the people who actually make things. We are horrified by sweatshops, slave labour and the environmental ravages which take place in the name of profit; and we believe that an economic system which relies on constant growth is ultimately destructive in environmental, spiritual and even financial ways. Since we do not have the time or energy to manage our own stocks and shares, and since we have been regularly disappointed by decisions made by ‘ethical’ super funds, we decided to withdraw altogether.

Instead, we now invest in property. We don’t claim this is ideal. It is certainly unfair that some people can’t afford basic accommodation while others can afford more than one house. It is grossly unjust that middle-class investors get tax breaks, which cost our country billions of dollars each year in lost revenue, while public investment in social housing has all but dried up. But we can’t fix this system and so instead we try to use our access to money (i.e. bank loans) to facilitate community.

Like many in Australia’s big cities, we live in an area of inflated house prices and rents. Many renters struggle to get long-term leases and many landlords fail to perform even basic maintenance. We know this first-hand, since my husband moved ten times in eleven years as house after house was sold out from under him, while I once lived in a house with a hole in my bedroom wall so large I could lie in bed and watch the grass swaying in the breeze! Families we know live in rental houses with no working oven, tiles falling off walls, rising damp and other issues. Becoming ethical landlords clearly meant being fair: providing secure, long-term leases, keeping rents reasonable and doing maintenance.

To begin with, we went shares with a family member in buying a very particular house. It had been renovated so that each of the bedrooms has its own bathroom and each bedroom/bathroom is located in its own small wing off a central kitchen and lounge: the perfect share house. The rent is solid, but not inflated, and we have provided long-term leases. People move out when they are ready, not because we are selling from under them. Many of the people who have lived there work in the church or community sector and the fair rent means that they have been able to live relatively near the city.

As for ourselves, we bought a house a few doors down from close friends and their parents. We’re not in each other’s pockets, but we eat together once a week and enjoy other forms of connection and support. Other friends wanted to join, so we leveraged our assets to buy another house across the street. A family member lent the deposit, because he, too, thinks investing in people and community is the best way to use money. My husband and I took on the mortgage and our friends are renting from us. We hope our friends will stay for at least five years, but if they don’t, we will find another family to rent, or will sell the house. On the other hand, if our friends decide to stay longer, we will find a way for them to buy in. We might not make the big profits that a dodgy landlord expects, but it will be more than enough.

Investing in the group house and in our street has had other benefits. Several residents of the group house have become long-term friends and the connections in the street have given us a profound sense of belonging. My middle daughter spends half her life at one house with her ‘brother’; my children call his grandparents ‘granny’ and ‘granddad’; and we all enjoy raising the youngest child. We share meals, tools, books and expertise, not to mention sorrows, hopes and dreams. Now others are looking to our street and we are wondering about building in back yards for ageing parents and younger families and…well, we don’t yet know!

What we do know is that, with a bit of creative thinking, there are ways to invest that are much more life-giving than just earning money. Investing in housing increases our assets, yes, and will fund our old age. But it can also be a way of developing healthy neighbourhoods, fostering intergenerational relationships and supporting people who do good work. Further, if we invest in housing with the people in our street, then it can also mean sharing rides to school on rainy days, not needing to cook every night, finding a babysitter when we need it and having a set of allies who will listen to the trials and celebrate the victories, even on a Tuesday.

Money will not buy happiness. But when it’s invested in people and neighbourhoods, it has the potential to make life a whole lot easier and a whole lot richer, for everybody.