Holdsworth, L 2007, 'Just renting': the experiences of sole mother non-home owners living in northern NSW, PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.
Copyright L Holdsworth 2007
The goal of owning one’s home, as opposed to ‘just renting’, is deeply ingrained in Australian culture. Indeed, home ownership in Australia is seen as ‘natural’ and has been adopted by the majority as the tenure of choice. People have accepted assumptions that have shaped housing discourse which normalises home ownership as hegemonic. In this thesis I argue that the prevailing attitude is that home ownership equates with social and personal attributes such as success, belongingness and stability, giving the home owner greater status, power and choice compared to renters. In addition, despite the various pressures faced by many home owners, home ownership can also facilitate an increased sense of community because it enables long term and secure housing. This in turn contributes to the notion of ‘home’ and sense of identity which comes through allowing people to put down deep roots and to express personal tastes.
Property ownership, as the key determinant of class in Australia, separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’. However, property prices have risen beyond the means of many low income households resulting in a housing affordability crisis. This crisis has excluded some groups from achieving the sought after goal of home ownership and has left them vulnerable to the vagaries of the private rental market. Others have entered into the housing market and face financial hardship due to massive debt. Consequently, this situation has served to challenge the widely held assumption that Australia is an egalitarian society. As well, property has largely taken on the instrumental purpose of an investment opportunity rather than a place that provides the basic needs of shelter, security and a sense of belonging and wellbeing. Thus the very nature of the meaning of ‘home’ has altered in light of this situation with housing increasingly seen as a commodity.
Low income, non-home owning sole mother headed families constitute a social group that is particularly vulnerable to, and disadvantaged by, their housing situation. This qualitative study draws on a critical feminist approach and utilises in-depth interviews to explore the housing experiences of thirty-two sole mother renters living in Northern NSW. Critical feminist research endeavours to present the views – the ‘voices’ - of those participating in the research. In so doing, the study fills an important gap in current housing research and facilitates a greater awareness of what it means to rent on a low income in contemporary Australia. This approach is markedly different to many utilised in housing related research which often results in the particular concerns of vulnerable social groups being indistinguishable from others that are faring well within the neo-liberal, ‘free market’ approach to housing.
By also examining contemporary housing policy, such as the push towards rent assistance at the expense of social housing, along with the promotion of home ownership for those who can afford it, underlying assumptions and hidden power imbalances are made apparent. The study has found that for many of the women such policies work directly against their perceived interests as well as social and personal aspirations. A key finding is that this group is excluded from a socially desirable resource and are rendered invisible, while simultaneously being subjected to high levels of surveillance within an institutionalised culture of watching and noticing. It is argued that the challenges faced by this group of women need to be acknowledged. Policy needs to be introduced that recognises that the main function of housing should be to provide secure and stable homes for all, which after all is both a basic need and a right.