We need to talk about really affordable housing and real wages for real people
Willow Aliento | 24 August 2017
Isn’t it fascinating how developers spruiking affordable housing credentials talk about “key workers” and name-drop nurses, police, teachers, firemen and other professions that have an air of nobility and greater social good about them?
Not to dispute the social good of these professions, but there’s a whole bunch of people who keep a city running who often can no longer afford to live within cooee of their workplace.
Just imagine for a minute you show up at the coffee shop near the office for a quick espresso to take to the desk – using a keep cup of course – but there’s no one there, except the cafe owner who is beyond stressed because there’s no staff.
They ran out of people willing to work for an average of $37,000 a year before tax that could afford to live close enough to the cafe to make the expense of commuting, plus rent, plus food, plus power bills, plus everything else like a phone, clothing, personal care items etce, economically viable.
Fun fact – a one-bedroom flat in the middle-ring suburb of Preston, Melbourne is now costing around $500 a week or more.
That’s $26K a year or so of the income gone right there. And the after-tax pay according to the Australian Taxation Office calculator was only $33,133.60 in any case.
So the average full-time barista paying average mid-Melbourne rent has all of around $7133.60 left for everything else over a year. A few cents over $137 a week for food, transport, electricity, phone, clothes, hygiene products, medical expenses, self-education…
But let’s go back to the hunt for a coffee.
It gets worse. Disgruntled, you head for the supermarket to pick up some coffee pods. But not only are there none on the shelves, there is no one to serve you even if they were.
According to Payscale – a shelf stocker at Woolworths is paid an average of $21.19 an hour – but it is generally not a full-time job.
A cashier is paid an average of $17.12 an hour – and again the majority of roles are not full time.
A deli clerk is even more lowly on the income totem pole – just $14.74 an hour on average.
There was simply no one to take the jobs that would make money after housing and transport costs. They all moved to places like Bendigo, Wagga Wagga, Toowoomba, Fremantle and Hobart.
So – you couldn’t get coffee but decide to drop a suit in for dry cleaning on your way to your fabulous activity-based working office.
But only the business owner is there. Turns out none of the workers on the Fair Work suggested wage can afford to service either rent or a mortgage and commute in from the ‘burbs to work and pay childcare and eat anymore.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the start of your day, you head to your office only to find – it stinks of overripe banana skins, tuna sushi and something you don’t even want to think about.
Sadly, at just over $20 an hour, and working at times when anyone with responsibility for children has to have free childcare at home or pay for informal child care or have relatives on tap because few formal services are available at midnight, plus the commute – and since the exploitation of foreign students hit the headlines – the firm the asset manager subcontracted out to clean and empty the bins just can’t get good staff.
There is a whole body of commentary that points out younger people are staying at home longer, and where they are staying at home in inner or middle ring suburbs, perhaps that works in terms of being able to work in these jobs and still have a life.
However, it is ridiculous to suggest that jobs like shop assistant, short order cook, barista, cleaner or dry cleaning assistant are confined to the young.
There is also the conflicting narrative from many in the property sector that ageing home-owners in the inner and middle ring should be looking to sell up and downsize so the home’s site can be redeveloped for density. So they kick the adult kids out, and then?
Where do those in the low-paid but essential jobs find a place should they want to [or need to] leave the nest and make a family?
Where do those in middle age in these occupations that are now expected to work until near 70 or past 70 before they can claim a pension find housing that is family-flexible, affordable and accessible?
How do those younger people having kids ensure their children have the space, both interior and external, that children need to thrive?
Children are a major missing element of the conversation. It is simply not realistic to expect that every shop assistant, cafe worker or cleaner will be happy to squeeze into a studio apartment for the rest of their working lives – and hand over half or more of their income for the privilege.
What about people that decide to have children, with or without a partner?
Children are generally regarded as a bit of a key performance indicator for a society’s survival. How is the densification practice doing with that?
Will a sky-high lounge area and lap pool in a 30-storey tower be enough? Will other residents appreciate the presence of youthful exuberance and noise in the common areas? They all love the sound of a toddler in meltdown in the “exclusive residents rooftop retreat”, right?
At ground level, is there space to learn to ride a bike or kick a ball? Does the masterplan care?
Even if a household with children is in a position to secure a one or two bedroom place, having a job with some kind of security is becoming less likely, according to recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The stats say full-time roles decreased by 20,300 in the month of July 2017 alone. Monthly hours worked in all jobs decreased 14.4 million hours (0.8 per cent) to 1.69 million hours.
So where does that leave the invisible worker?
We hear a lot about “recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent”. There’s even a whole new arm of advertising devoted to the “employee value proposition” (yes, really, that’s a thing) to hook those stars into the company firmament.
Let’s not forget, though, that the majority of people in our towns and cities do jobs that don’t get the EVP treatment.
They do the kinds of jobs that attract next to no attention or prestige, low wages, uncertain conditions, and an EVP that amounts to: “I can do this and you’ll pay me something and hopefully I can keep a roof over my head.”
So when are the mainstream developers and others going to stop the narrow-cast language about what a “key worker” is, and actually present liveable, family-friendly solutions for all the workers that keep their city a pleasant place to live and entertain investor clients in?
This is not something that can be resolved through small measures like planning mechanisms that allow for density uplift in exchange for 10 per cent of the dwellings being dedicated to “affordable” housing.
Too many people are in need. What is missing is an overarching engagement with finding workable solutions on the macro level.
We need an approach that takes in not only housing but also stability of employment, fair wages and working conditions, transport, cost of living issues and a genuine appreciation for the needs of people of every age and level of physical ability.