Investing in the great Australian dream

Why we need to rethink our housing aspirations

Human geographer Charlie Gillon finds the great Australian dream of a block of land and house in the suburbs has transformed

As a young pizza delivery driver, Charlie Gillon dreaded call-outs from new housing estates.

He grew up in Camden, south-west of Sydney, the fastest growing local government area in New South Wales, earmarked in 2005 to help cope with Sydney's population explosion.

"Housing estates with new road systems were popping up everywhere, sometimes faster than my GPS system could keep up with, so it meant a lot of random door knocking and luke-warm pizzas," Gillon says.

Fast forward nearly a decade and the pizzas are gone but housing estates are still very much on Dr Charlie Gillon's mind as an urban cultural geographer at University of Wollongong's School of Geography and Sustainable Communities.

A housing estate under the microscope

As an original approach to his PhD thesis on un-packing the great Australian dream of home ownership and the tensions arising from the growing reliance on the family home as a financial investment, Gillon spent four years tracking the progress of a premium coastal development called Greenhills Beach.

Located on the Kurnell Peninsula near Cronulla in Sydney, just two minutes' walk from the sea, it was once part of a massive sand dune system. The dunes were used by filmmakers to portray a desert village in the 1940 film Forty Thousand Horseman. It was also the setting for scenes in Mad Max 2: Beyond Thunderdome.

With the developer's consent, Gillon began research in 2013 while the estate was still under construction.

He interviewed members of 21 households to explore their values, motivations and the development of homemaking routines, and how they all sit, sometimes uneasily, with financial expectations.

Gillon started with a broad-brush idea of putting this type of premium estate by the beach under the microscope and witnessing first-hand how it formed over time.

"As with most research you start out with a hypothesis but you always want to unearth a few surprises, and mine did," Gillon says. "And of course as soon as I got out there on the ground talking to people it took on a stronger, more physical form."


Finding individuality amid uniformity

The thesis structure flows chronologically, tracing the estate as it develops.

At the centre, Gillon says, was an attempt to tell a story that does justice to "place" because housing estates are tarred with a brush of being placeless, and are often dismissed disparagingly as McMansions and cookie cutter houses:

"People might think they look the same and yes, you do get a template design from a range of project home builders, but total uniformity in architecture on these types of estates is a thing of the past.

"There is now plenty of room to shuffle things around like room sizes or to upgrade bathrooms and kitchens to make it responsive to the needs and wants of your family.

"I would get tours during each interview and I found people were really proud of their homes and the individualised personality they put into each one. It was nice to do the one-on-one interviews to see what these people did and how they took ownership of something that can start out as a template."

Creating community

While the interviews were the primary source of research, Gillon also clocked up some kilometres along the NSW coastline photographing housing estate billboards and glossy brochures that commonly featured smiling families gathered around and talking in glowing terms about community.

''The strength of that rhetoric is more about recreating a sense of nostalgic community, returning to the 1950s and '60s when kids played on the street and people had street parties," he says.

"With concerns about security these days and with more people working full time, community now forms in other ways." He raised the issue with selected residents who agreed to follow-up interviews and found community ties were there but in their infancy.

"It wasn't an estate that had a lot of community facilities like halls or playgrounds so the energy for community gatherings had to come from the people themselves." He found community was not instantly achievable despite the hype, but it can and often does happen over time.

Charlie Gillon's research uncovered a pervasive emphasis among residents on the investment value of their home.


The family home as investment

The biggest surprise, however, was the pervasive emphasis among residents on the investment value of their homes in terms of risk and reward.

"I wouldn't say there were struggles but the land was very expensive because of its location, and it was evident every decision when buying and building a house comes down to money," Gillon says.

In findings from the recently published thesis in the journal Emotion Space and Society, he argues that a strong form of "financialisation" has developed in modern owner-occupation in suburban Australia where a house can't be just a family home, it must also be a good investment.

As a result, the home functions less as a space of shelter and refuge, and more as a site of financial calculation which can be viewed dispassionately - often by suppressing emotions - as one of many other potential investment vehicles.

This suppression of emotional attachment to home is vividly captured in Gillon's interviews. Lily, for example, described her family's decision to buy at Greenhills as a temporary measure, to reduce over time the pressure of a large mortgage.

"It's lovely living here. It really is. And I mean, you take the good with the bad. But it certainly would be nice to think that you could live here forever … But look, we'll look at a couple of years. What we've waited for, we're going to enjoy for a while before we do. But we've always had the intention of never staying here permanently, to buy, and obviously look towards being mortgage free."

Some residents were more emotionally attached to their homes than others were, but that bi-focal split still exists as shown in this comment by another resident known as Luke:

"It'll be, if things turn to shit one day, then there is an option to sell. You're sitting on significant equity; you can go and buy in the same area … and have no mortgage. But right now, we don't look at this as an investment. You go to sleep at night thinking, "Oh, that's kind of a cool thing that just happened".


A new dream for Generation Rent?

Gillon says these "contradicting emotions" reveal that even ideal homes in premium coastal locations such as Greenhills Beach are marked by compromised expectations.

His thesis forms part of a growing sense of urgency to re-think our housing aspirations. "More attention needs to be given to the lived experience of owner occupation and the different ways we capture housing tenure."

For his generation, in their 20s and 30s and dubbed "Generation Rent", the nostalgic version of the housing dream on a block of land in the suburbs has become a heavy weight.

"We need to start re-defining that dream or ditch it all together because the achievability built into the narrative has slipped away and for many it has been replaced by disappointment and anxiety," Gillon says.

Footnote: Names of residents have been changed to protect their identity.