Renters know they are the losers in Australia’s housing system – and as their anger rises, so will their protest vote

January 16, 2024

The Greens are looking to recruit a generation of young people who have been utterly failed by successive governments

If you thought the fight over housing policy got ugly in 2023, hold on to your hats.

Parliament isn’t back until next month but the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, has already declared “until Labor backs the Greens’ push to freeze and cap rent rises and stop giving billions of dollars to wealthy property moguls, the housing crisis will just get worse”.

Make no mistake, them’s fightin’ words.

The Greens have identified housing affordability, and particularly the fate of renters, as a potent political cause with which to recruit a generation of disaffected young people who have been utterly failed by the laissez-faire approach of successive governments to regulating the housing market.


Much has been made over the last year or so, both in Australia and in other western countries, of younger people’s bewildering refusal to become more conservative as they age.

The lack of affordable housing, along with decades of inaction on climate change and the collapse of wages and job security since the global financial crisis, is the big driver of millennial and gen Z voters staying left of centre as they age. After all, there’s no incentive to become conservative if you’ve nothing much to conserve.

Bob Menzies knew that. In his 1949 election speech, he declared that his government would amend the Commonwealth-States Housing Agreement, set up by the wartime Labor government to fund a massive build of public rental housing after the second world war, “so as to permit and aid ‘little capitalists’ to own their own homes”.

Menzies knew that converting renters to owners was key to building a large base of voters in whose interest it was to preserve the tenets of capitalism in the face of the great threat of communism in the post-war years.

The reason is simple: capitalism best serves those who possess capital. And in Australia, capital is and always has been disproportionately held in property.

It was the appalling state of prewar housing for the working classes – those without access to capital – that spurred the Curtin government to establish the Commonwealth Housing Commission, which made the case for government to build public housing.

Its 1944 report proclaimed “a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit”.

To anyone trying to rent a decent, affordable home in Australia today, the notion that no one seeking a home in our current housing market “should be exploited for excessive profit” is laughable.

For the better part of a decade, experts have been warning that the conditions that gave rise to such poor housing for the masses in the 19th and early 20th century are reasserting themselves and have already reached the point at which almost two-thirds of non-home owners believe they will need a large inheritance if they are ever to buy their own place.

Given that most Australians now inherit in their late 50s or 60s, that’s no solution for young people who are trying to build a life now. Without a secure home or the hope of ever having one, people aren’t confident enough, or able, to take on the responsibilities of adult life: many young people are even deciding not to have children due to the uncertainty of their lives.

Renters have never been the beneficiaries of thoughtful housing policy in Australia.

Unlike in Europe and the US, where renting for life is a viable choice, our focus on supporting home ownership since the 1950s means that renting a home is seen as a temporary measure while people save to buy, or the sad fate of the very poorest in society.

Renters’ rights are among the weakest in the developed world and the structure of our private rental market prefers the property rights of landlords over the human rights of tenants to a secure, affordable home.

While Menzies’s ideological successors flail around looking for quick, if economically discredited, ways to restore home ownership to 1970s levels – while ignoring their own culpability in forcing their decline – Labor and the Greens are, at least, apparently able to recognise that around a third of Australians now rent their homes and that this proportion is likely to grow.

If renting for life, or at least into middle age, is now a permanent feature of Australia’s housing market, we must get serious about providing more affordable, higher-quality, longer-term rental homes, located close to good jobs in the communities in which people wish to live.

The Albanese government is walking a tightrope on this.

While measures to invest in more social housing and incentivise the construction of more affordable private rentals are welcome steps towards reclaiming an active role for government as a shaper of the housing market, they won’t take effect quickly enough to quell the growing anger of hundreds of thousands of young professionals, trapped in substandard rental properties in our inner cities.

Hence the popular appeal of the Greens’ call for a rent price freeze.

Much of the evidence provided to the recent Senate Inquiry into the Worsening Rental Crisis in Australia made the same arguments against a hard rent freeze: it would be unable to account for the differences between local markets; may, in the absence of other regulation, drive more owners into the short-term rental market, further reducing the supply of stable long term rental housing stock; and would lead to a decline in the maintenance and provision of rental properties for low-income tenants.

Some form of rent control or stabilisation measures might work to prevent huge rent price spikes, but would need to be implemented by state and territory governments according to local market conditions. There is no simple answer to a problem decades in the making.

The problem is there’s not much else on the table, and renters know they are the losers in our housing system, now more than ever: new Per Capita research shows the share of total federal housing expenditure going to property investors has risen from 16.5% to 61.4% over the last 30 years, largely due to tax concessions for landlords.

The material conditions of those locked out of home ownership today may be beginning to resemble those of their slum-dwelling ancestors, but in political terms they have an advantage: the vote, which working men and women in the 19th century did not have.

They can and will use it, so as their numbers grow, the fight over their rights – and their votes – will only intensify.

We can but hope that a real effort to find and implement effective policy solutions will follow.


Originally published in the Guardian Australia 16th Jan, 2024.