We’ve got a challenge for you. Tell us the value of your home without using numbers or statistics.
Alistair Sisson has shown how numbers and statistics are used to craft narratives about our housing system and how different people are located within it. The numbers that are used to talk about our housing experiences are often “presented as objective, immutable and indisputable”. While there is much commentary on our housing system using numbers, few reflect on the narrative power these numbers hold.
I (Dallas) spent the first decade of my research career talking with public housing tenants in their homes. We didn’t talk about housing numbers very often. From the early 2000s the New South Wales state government was rolling out a new approach to public housing estate management — wholesale estate redevelopment. Almost all the residents of the targeted estates were moved throughout the demolition and construction phases of these estate redevelopments. Some residents would never return to their suburb and friends.
This estate regeneration model slowly moved across the greater Sydney landscape like a steamroller, starting on the urban fringe in southwest Sydney and driving toward the city centre. The Minto estate redevelopment was announced in 2002, Bonnyrigg in 2004, Airds Bradury in 2012, Millers Point in 2014, and the Waterloo estate is well on its way to being redeveloped. Through these redevelopments, “statistics have been deployed to portray public tenants as undeserving of either the real estate they inhabit or any assistance whatsoever, and estates as pathological territories that cause disadvantage.” Far from being impartial observations, the stories these numbers support are moral statements about who is and is not deserving of housing security.
I spent a lot of time in residents’ homes in Minto, Bonnyrigg, Airds Bradbury, Millers Point and Waterloo. When I asked public housing tenants to describe the way these urban redevelopments were changing their lives, they often talked about their home as a collection of memories. The bricks and mortar were not only the physical building blocks of their homes, they held memories that helped them make sense of their world. As one resident who was set to be evicted from their home in Western Sydney told me:
No I couldn’t move because there’s too many memories like the children growing up you know and my husband and I lived here, but we’re separated now. You know it’s just too many memories. Like I just see the kids running up the hallway and their friends knocking at the doors and friends staying over and — oh, I couldn’t move.
Residents talked as if their memories had been collected and were now stored in the home itself. These public housing tenants rarely mentioned the housing market. This was not surprising. The state government owned the dwellings they lived in, and these tenants paid a percentage of their income as rent to their state government landlord. They didn’t need to see their home through the housing market.
Throughout the 2010s, I was reading and thinking about how public tenants’ experiences and understandings of their homes challenged the mathematical calculations of the housing market. The housing numbers of economists are often presented as a more valid — perhaps even the only valid — form of objective knowledge about our housing system. The residents I talked to didn’t place the hard mathematical calculations of the housing market at the centre of their reported housing experiences. Rather, their perspectives were more nuanced, interweaving the phenomenological and mathematical.
It's important to take these experiences seriously, and to soften, or perhaps even synthesise to some degree, the hard-edged dualism of mathematical and experiential space that we find in the work of philosophers such as Gaston Bachelard and Henri Lefebvre. I found the mathematical calculations of buildings alone are blunt conceptual tools for discussing the knowledge we acquire through habitation and homemaking, and the way people remember their home and life over time.
What’s the value of your house? This seems like an easy enough question to answer, right? When we talk about the value of housing, we often talk about how much money it costs to buy or sell real estate. If you own a house, you can look up the average house price and work back from there. But what are we missing if we reduce the discussion of housing value to market price? Well, as we just learnt from public tenants, most of the value it turns out.
In 2012 I (Dallas) pivoted my research from public housing tenants to foreign real estate investors. As the dynamics of the global economy changed, the Australia housing system saw a rapid injection of Chinese capital into the residential real estate sector. Much of this Chinese capital had exited the market by 2020, but within this Chinese foreign investment boom and bust the heady debates about Chinese investors were mostly framed by market logics and statistics. We heard about the volume of foreign capital, and how foreign investors were pricing locals out of the housing market and driving up housing prices.
Interviewing foreign real estate investors and sales agents, I found the way capital hits the ground in our cities and intersects with local real estate markets is dependent on who is investing capital, into what properties capital is being placed, and through which investment vehicles capital is being invested and stored. Research by Alexandra Wong conducted in 2016 showed how foreign investors were motivated by the wider social, educational, and economic opportunities that exist in Australia. Foreign investors talked about their current or future migration plans, their children’s education at foreign universities, and the social, political, and financial security that Australian real estate supposedly guaranteed.
For foreign real estate investors, the bricks and mortar of Australian homes were more than a metaphorical place to store and grow capital. Although the value of Australian housing to foreign investors included capital accumulation, these housing purchases couldn’t solely be understood in terms of economic value. As Shanthi Robertson reminded us at the time, the transnational mobilities that were enabled by these foreign real estate investments were also embedded in intergenerational relations of familial care.
What the market numbers and statistics that dominated the media discussion about foreign investors often missed was how the social values of housing was underwriting the movement of capital from China to Australia.
What the public housing and foreign investment cases highlight is the interplay between economic and social valuations of home. The home is a complex site of mathematical calculation within a housing market, but it is also a site of personal, familial, and animal relationships and care — it’s a site of homemaking.
Yet market valuations of housing often stand in for a more detailed ethical debate about what housing is for. The question of what property developers can sell and what people can afford in a housing market has a degree of policy capture because the housing market is often thought of as a rational and objective economic process. When we think about our housing system in this way, the social claims about the value of housing are sidelined as a private matter for individuals to think about in the privacy of their homes.
We know real estate agents and property valuers are key to the circuits of information between homeowners, home buyers, mortgage brokers, and banks. Susan Smith’s work with colleagues in the United Kingdom shows how housing markets are made by real estate professionals “who lubricate the flow of information between buyers and sellers”. This is especially the case for those who attach an “official” value to property through property valuation. Laurence Murphy has shown, what looks like a technical, objective and rational calculation of housing market value by a property valuer or real estate agent, and its conversion into housing prices, “is in fact an inherently socialised and creative activity”.
Talking up the economic value of real estate is a key focus of the real estate and development industries. Elevating the economic over social values of housing is a value judgement about housing; it’s an ethical position about the way we should organise society. It can be hard to see this as a value proposition when housing markets are talked about as if they are intrinsically rational, self-regulating, and good for balancing housing supply and demand. Real estate professionals don’t see themselves as affecting real estate values or customer behaviour because they view the housing market as independent of their actions.
It’s as if the real estate market is a thing that exists out there in the world, independent of the people that brought it into being and sustain it. As Susan Smith argues, the aim of professional real estate valuation is to try to “get the valuation right”, and to uncover the intrinsic value of a house in a housing market. And yet, when prices rise or fall too quickly, we often hear calls for more government or Reserve Bank of Australia intervention to return the market to some “normal” or “natural” state.
The market values of real estate are dominant precisely because of this illusionary politics. It positions the housing market as rational and objective, and the social values of home as private and subjective. The social values of housing are pushed to the side as private, subjective concerns. But what would it take to seriously consider the complex interaction between these economic and social values of housing, instead of deferring to market valuations in our discussions about the value of housing?
We’re currently researching what people value in their cities to answer this question. This is not about denying the economic value of housing or privileging social over economic values. It is about bringing these values together in the accounting of housing’s value to people. The recent three-part radio series for The Philosopher’s Zone on the value and ethics of housing is a part of this project. It uses three key features of our housing system as entry points into exploring the politics of housing’s many values. Episode 1 looks at housing as a site of care; episode 2 turns to rent and landlords; and episode 3 considers Aboriginal property development.
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These days we’re increasingly led to think of a house as a commodity, an investment to be turned into profit. But what does it mean to think of a house as a site of care, rather than an asset in a system of market exchange? This conversation with Dr Emma Power and Dr Kathy Mee re-centres people in the housing value debate.
Emma and Kathy talk about housing as an infrastructure of care. As a relational philosophy, feminist care ethics shares with Marxism a concern with social reproduction. Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher discuss care ethics as all “we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”
The way we make home is a good way to think about feminist care ethics. We spend a lot of time in our homes and many people value their homes as a place to bring up their family; it’s where we look after ourselves and others; it’s where we store and maintain the things we cherish, cook and clean, and care for pets and plants. Because of this care work, the home is widely valued as a site of social reproduction. And as we heard from public tenants above, the home becomes a place for storing memories about our lives — the home is a repository for memories about how we live, grow, repair and sustain ourselves. As Emma says:
You look around your house and you remember family celebrations, or you see photos that remind you of friends and family, you might record your children’s heights on the door frame every year, so over time your home comes to be written into your sense of family history.
We know that family and home are intricately connected and shaped by broader structural relations in society. The Australian home is shaped by the policy context within which the family and home is performed and practiced. A key policy outcome for housing in Australia has been the construction of the Australian home a repository for capital storage and accumulation.
The tensions between the competing and incommensurable economic, social, familial, and other value claims that are made about housing means housing is an ethical issue. We’re interested in the politics of these competing value claims. Consider what housing politics would look like if we required everyone, from politicians and property developers to homeowners and the homeless, to justify, in moral terms, their many housing values.
Understanding housing through feminists care ethics has “far reaching implications for the visibility and valuing of relational care work, the making of social policy” and for efforts to revalue public housing as a public asset. Within Western liberal democracies like Australia, the “cultural valuing of and political promotion of home ownership is a central governmental value and practice”.
As Hagar Kotef recently reminded us, care in the home is often positioned as an individual and private concern for consideration within the private space of the home. We need to bring this moral debate out of the private spaces of our homes and into the public domain.
Rent is one of those simple market economy mechanisms that seems almost natural, as though it's an organic outgrowth of human society. But in fact, rent has a philosophical history, and one that’s been traced in a new book by Joe Collins. Rent “is one revenue among a few in economy theory that designates flows of value through society”, writes Collins. When the “price of housing is driven up to a point that a third of the OECD population is forced to rent”, it is not just that finite land is an issue, the way the ownership and use of land is organised is a key driver of rents too.
In Georg Simmel’s classic The Philosophy of Money, published in 1900, his first move was to put the idea that objects have intrinsic value to rest. Value is not an inherent property of objects or things. Rather, value is a judgment made about objects and things by people. Simmel’s ideas still cut to the heart of housing value some 120 years later. A plot of land or a building has no intrinsic value, economic or otherwise. That’s why it’s so hard to predict how much a house will sell for at auction, because price and value are not the same thing. Price is a measurable quantity of money, while value is different. It’s more elusive, and much harder to pin down with any certainty. Value doesn’t exist out there in the world; value is brought into being through relationships between people and things. Valuation has a social life that can be investigated. While real estate price and value are often used interchangeably these days, this hasn’t always been the case. The physiocrats certainly through of price and value as distinct.
In our conversation, Joe Collins discusses the physiocrats, who were a group of eighteenth-century advisors to the French court. They’re one of the first groups to seriously think about the economy as a coherent system. They set out to find the source of value in eighteenth-century France, and what they found still holds lessons for us today.
Daily life at the time of the physiocrats was organised around agriculture. By looking at agricultural production they noted that people worked in the fields to produce crops, and these crops in turn fed the artisans who produced a range of goods. This system of land, food and goods made up the eighteenth-century economy. So, they theorised the source of value in society must be land.
But something perplexed the landowning physiocrats. If land was the source of value, and the landowner — or landlord — controlled key aspects of social development and economic production in society, this meant landlords were powerful members of society. And yet, the landlords didn’t work the fields and therefore didn’t directly contribute to the value that emerged from the land. The physiocrats realised the landlords were simultaneously some of the most important people in society while also being superfluous to it. They realised this economic system didn’t really need the landlord to realise the value of the land. The landlord, they surmised, was socially redundant.
Returning to the work of the physiocrats helps us to ask different questions about our housing system today. Instead of asking “What is rent or what is a landlord?”, we’re prompted to ask “Why do landlords or rent exist at all, and what’s the social purpose of rent?”.
Collins talks about the new rentier capitalism literature, which asks us to consider the social function and costs of rental properties in our housing system. When renters are forces to pay increasingly amounts of our income on rent this can prevent them from living close to their workplace, while also reducing the amount of disposable income they have to spend on goods and services. Key service workers — such as teachers, nurses, and emergency personnel — are finding it increasingly hard to live near their workplace, as they spend more of our disposable income on rent. Rentier capitalism is undermining the dynamism and vitality of capitalism itself, he suggests.
The housing solution is not an easy fix either. Simply increasing land or housing supply — for example, through infill high-rise rental housing — without addressing the underlying exploitative landlord/tenant relationship risks intensifying exploitation.
Familiar ideas about value, ownership, and market economics can obscure the fact that there are different ways to think about housing. In the final episode of this housing series, we talk to Graham Davis-King and Naama Blatman about Aboriginal property development and land rights.
Graham Davis-King is a board member of the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council. In 2015 the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council won a landmark claim to the state heritage-listed Parramatta Gaol site, which was built in 1835. It is an interesting case because, as Cameron Logan and Anna Simanowsky suggest, both the formal heritage and land rights “frameworks are intended to resituate places as having a purpose and shared value beyond the property right, as that had been traditionally understood, and beyond their functional land use”.
Aboriginal land rights were incorporated in New South Wales in 1983 under the New South Wales Land Rights Act 1983. The Act allows Local Aboriginal Land Councils to claim Crown Land — “that is, land in NSW that is owned and managed by the State Government”. With a few restrictions on land claims, the land is transferred to Aboriginal Land Councils as freehold title. In other words, it is transferred to the councils as private property.
Graham Davis-King says, the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council holds 200 square kilometres of land in their land council area. They plan to use this land to build Aboriginal housing projects, biodiversity stewardship areas, and more. “Of course, our main aim,” says Graham Davis-King, our “number one priority is to claim more land out here and that will enable all our community in Western Sydney, Aboriginal people, to be able to progress into the fields that we’re developing.”
One of the most interesting anomalies in this conversation is idea of private property itself. For many, private property is seen as one of the key legal mechanisms through which Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land. But what’s interesting about this case is the way the land council is using this legal instrument of dispossession, a legal category with deep colonial roots, as a way of pursuing their own material and political prosperity today.
In this conversation, Graham Davis-King and Naama Blatman talk about how Aboriginal land rights and the ways Aboriginal land councils are using this Act to revalue Aboriginal land and housing and therein turning liberal ideas of property through the market on their head.
Dallas Rogers is Associate Professor in School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney.
Cameron McAuliffe is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Urban Studies in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University.
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