What springs to mind when we think about sea and tree change is the role played by improving transport options, more elastic family and work arrangements, and the realisation that traditional sedentary (urban) living is an obstacle in itself to a utopian future. We tend to gloss over what makes the shift to more desirable living possible for many - the equity bonus enjoyed by home owners over the last five to ten years or so.
Exposing the bonus allows some uncomfortable questions to be asked by advocates for those who are missing out. While it is far from a homogenous group being left behind, it is reasonably safe to assume that many are aspirational “Howard battlers” - those that would if they could, but can’t.
In other words, those who would dearly like to buy their first home, but every time they meet the requirements, the bar gets raised a little higher. And not forgetting those that have nailed everything to their letterbox in Western Sydney and the like, and find themselves owing more than their house is worth.
Clearly we have developed into a society that not only values its own castle, but understands the benefits of putting it on the market and pulling up stumps. On the one hand this is resulting in generational change in inner-metropolitan areas that helps maintain a certain vibrancy. On the other, we entrench a class system of those who can afford it remaining within the outer-suburban “walls”, while those who can’t are locked out and forced to endure the tyranny of distance.
So the other side of the coin to the sea and tree change is the city change - characterised by less economically heterogeneous, higher income inner areas. And while this may usher in more localised harmony in terms of values and pursuits, it would appear to be deleterious to the evolution of a more diverse yet united Australia.
The question all this poses then is are we going to sit back and watch the market roll on, and Australia continue changing in front of our eyes, or are going to do something about it?
The answer to this lies in whether these changes are considered to be desirable or not.
I would suggest that the address changers think it’s great, or they wouldn’t be moving. And I would also hypothesise that the neo-urbanites are complicit, otherwise they too would go elsewhere, given the money required to “buy-in”. The question is whether the rest of us want to see this happening, and if not, do we care enough to do something about it?
Ideally, these questions would be answered at a federal election, where the major parties represent alternative attitudes to the phenomenon. However, clearly the electorate doesn’t have this luxury. The only tool at the disposal of those who’d like to change the rules about changing addresses is to focus debate on alternative Australian futures, and design roadmaps for delivering such alternatives.
While few would advocate restrictions to sea and tree change decisions, what perhaps can be done is to rein in housing unaffordability, which is the by-product of the equity blow out. And to do this, the major driver of the residential market, the high-priced inner urban areas must be targeted.
This can be done, but is too politically suicidal (or at least so we are told) to go anywhere near. Measures include making housing investment less attractive by moving from short term six-month leases to European-type longer term leases that deny owners opportunities to lock-in rent rises in-line with market fluctuations.
Winding back negative-gearing, more aggressive capital gains taxation, and a range of similar disincentives would take the heat out of “high land value” housing, while arguably having a marginal effect on down-market housing in the burbs.
The idea put forward here is to resist a divided Australia based on landed and non-landed classes. This requires winding back the real estate tidal wave that has swamped the cities, causing more than minor ripples across the country, and particularly in rapidly reshaping coastal and hinterland communities.
A “correction” to inner residential values would discourage sea and tree change to some extent, although this would not be the intent. A strategy that took housing affordability seriously, ignoring the doomsday warnings being simplistically and monotonously tossed around by housing and construction sector representatives, is arguably the best way of preserving the last fragments of what we once held to be true - an egalitarian Australia - something past generations boasted about.
Housing affordability is not so much a demand or supply problem. It’s a market - non-market problem, which left to fester will continue to rearrange pre-millennium Australia through higher priced city housing, endemic population shifts to the coast and the mountains, and a growing tenantry.