Themes / Home economy

Reflections from an urban renter

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters June 2010

‘Unless God builds the house, the labourers work in vain.’ Psalm 127:1

 Recently I was interviewed by a young man conducting research on ‘simplifiers’ – people who have made choices to ‘live simply’. After a long discussion about the personal benefits and goodness of living simply, he asked me if there were any conflicts or tensions for us in the choices we have made. Without hesitation I said, ‘Housing’.

 We moved to Footscray (in Melbourne’s inner west) in 2002 because there was rich network of friends and companions who shared our hopes and desires to follow Christ in the world, and that is one of the principal reasons we remain. Living on a low income, moving to Footscray also made sense because rent was still comparatively cheap at that time.

 One of the big questions facing people who want to make choices about how they live based on the gospel, is whether to rent or buy. We have not come to any particular ideological inclination towards either renting or buying; much more important for us has been to ask, ‘What is the cost of our housing choices?’.

 All things being equal, we would prefer to own our own home – it makes more financial sense and it gives you much more scope to improve the sustainability of the house and land. However, when we moved to Footscray we had a strong sense of call to combine a number of elements in our lives: simple living, raising a young family, building community and Christian ministry. This meant living off part-time work and low incomes. At the same time, the housing market had taken off (prices had trebled over the previous decade), and for us to have attempted to buy a house would have meant sacrificing either our call to Christian ministry or the time we both wanted to invest in the early years of our children’s lives. For us, this cost was too high and remains too high, so we continue to rent.

 While we feel entirely happy about our choices and would do the same again, it means that now in 2010 the possibility of entering into the housing market here is more remote than it has ever been. In the five years between 2005 and 2010 the average house price in Footscray has more than doubled, from around $260,000 to over $580,000.

 Our experience of renting has been entirely positive, but we have also been lucky. The house we moved into had been successively trashed by previous sets of tenants and the yard space was highly degraded, so we moved into a house with fresh plaster and paint and a dispensation from the landlord to do whatever we wanted with the yard. For his part, he was happy to have regular paying, gardening, wall-preserving tenants, and he has only put our rent up twice in almost eight years.

 The conventional wisdom in Australia is that if you are renting, there is no point expending energy to improve the property. However, we have been instructed by the Biblical idea that all forms of land occupation are, in effect, tenancy (see article on p.2) and that we still have an obligation to care for the land. In our case, with a yard that had suffered years of neglect and abuse, we had a chance to contribute to healing the land.

 With the agreement of our landlord, we have been able to undertake a large amount of work and changes to the property without spending much money. Our shed, chook pen, cubby house and garden boxes have all been made with scavenged timber and roofing (we have discovered that there is very little need to ever buy new timber). We have been able to raise most of our native trees and plants from seed and even managed, with the help of a host of friends, to salvage a fully grown plum tree that was going to be destroyed by a housing development. We had to bring in a substantial amount of topsoil to establish a native garden in the front yard, but managed to convince the landlord to pay for it if we supplied all the plants, timber and labour. With the now-scrapped Federal Government insulation rebate, we were able to have the house finally insulated (it hasn’t burnt down yet), and with one of the $900 handouts we got from Kev last year we were able to purchase and install a 3300 litre water tank to water our expanding vege garden.

 We have derived immense joy from planting trees, improving soils, growing veges, building sheds, cubbies and chook pens, and watching a small patch of land brought back from a wasteland to a place that is mutually enriching to, and enriched by, our presence there. 

 Nevertheless, we do from time to time feel the limitation of being renters. There is much that could be done to our house to make it more energy and water efficient, but this would require significant structural work. We would like more room to expand our vege garden, however this would now require major and costly changes in the backyard. Perhaps most tellingly though, we are aware of the fundamental insecurity of renting, especially in a place with a volatile housing market. We have friends who over three years were forced out from as many rental properties due landlords selling out.

 If our landlord decides to sell out, we will have some tough choices ahead of us. Rental prices here have closely followed house prices, so if we wanted to rent another house similar to what we now live in, it would cost us at least $200 more per week than what we are currently paying. While we still feel called (I am using this word carefully) - for reasons of family, community and ministry - to live here,  if we were evicted we probably could not afford to stay. Likewise, we would love to be inviting others to come and live near us as part of the amorphous community of Christians in Footscray that has been so important to us, but the cost of housing is now prohibitive.

And this brings me to my point: not only is housing affordability an issue which can create stress or tension for households, it is an issue which has a significant impact upon people’s (especially young people’s) ability to make certain discipleship choices.

Central to Manna Gum’s message is  a vision of Christian communities characterised by people making counter-cultural choices which are a living witness to ‘the Kingdom of God and his justice’ (Matt 6:33). One of the choices we encourage people to consider is to choose to live on lower incomes and to give more time to living well and working for healing in the world, whatever shape that may take. However, for those who live in the city, the cost of basic housing (whether bought or rented) is making an increasing claim on the amount of time people need to spend earning an income.

 Currently, this is an individual challenge for anyone wrestling with these issues. However, within the Christian church, this should be a communal challenge, and there are a number of ways in which we could think creatively around this issue:

  1. The most obvious, and perhaps the hardest, is to re-think where we locate ourselves. The Seeds communities (see that have chosen to live in and serve the disadvantaged suburbs of Long Gully (Bendigo) and Norlane (Geelong) are under much less pressure from house prices. I hope that this movement of Christian communities into the abandoned places of our culture will be something we see more of in the coming years.
  2. here are some options in-between private rental and home ownership, such as cooperative housing, where property is owned by a cooperative (a not for profit organisation) and provided as a long-term, secure and affordable housing option for people on lower incomes (eg. see Common Equity Housing - However, access to cooperative housing is tight, and there is a need for vastly more than currently exists. Which brings us to the next point …
  3. Established Christian congregations collectively have enormous resources at their disposal, which are mostly never thought of as resources that could potentially contribute to the life of the community. I am referring to the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars locked up in investments of various forms, from term deposits to share portfolios. With a bit of creative thinking, collective action and the help of some discipleship-minded accountants, this money could be redirected to assisting others to attain decent and secure housing. This is literally an investment in community, however it would require a significant overhaul of attitudes to personal savings and investments, and would also require people to accept lower rates of return than they can get on the market. Manna Gum hopes to do more in coming years to promote concrete models and examples of this – if you are or have been involved in such an expression, please make contact and let us know.

 Finally, I think it is incumbent on people of faith to think hard about how and why we enter the property market. If we take seriously the words of Jesus, then we simply must reject the assumption that we should try to achieve the maximum profit (ie. personal benefit) from property. If there is a single cause of the housing affordability crisis, then it this attitude. In particular, I think it is worthwhile Christians re-thinking the use of auctions to sell houses, the sole purpose of which is to extract the highest possible price that the market will offer. This will be seen as sheer folly by almost everybody, which is a clue that there might be something in it. For those Christians who are landlords, there is an urgent need to reject the prevailing attitude that this is just a commercial investment – being a landlord is a relationship which involves peoples homes, and it brings enormous responsibility. Of course, in the end there is only one lord of the land, if only we can remember …