Countercultural housing

Saturday, 28 February, 2015

Recently I went to an event hosted by the Mothers Union of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. It was about parental involvement in education and it was fascinating. I don't want to go into all the content from the day here (even though there was lots I could talk about), but I did want to share one bit from the keynote speaker's talk. She's the principal of a private girls' high school, and she told an anecdote from when her children were younger and she was friends with a family that had children of comparable ages—which meant that not only were they in the same classes together, they also did a few extra curricular activities together. She would often go over to this family's house to give lifts to one of the children who did soccer with her son. The family, however, lived in quite a big house, and often the mother wouldn't know where the relevant child was. The keynote speaker said, “I cannot count the number of times I spent waiting in the foyer while the family went about searching for this child who was presumably lost inside this massive house.” She concluded by saying, “Family houses are getting too large” and made (and implied) a few points about how house size impacts the children (one of them being that parents are working so hard to pay off big mortgages, their children are losing out. She told another story involving a boy who came from a well-off household where both parents worked, however, they worked long hours—which often meant that he had to get his own dinner and put himself to bed. One day he complained of stomach pains. His parents took him to various medical appointments to figure out what was wrong, but no one could work it out. He returned to school one day after one of those medical appointments when it was a couple of minutes before the lunch bell, and asked the teacher, “Should I go to class?” She said, “No, the bell's going to go soon. How about you get out your lunch and go sit in the playground.” He said, “I didn't bring any lunch today and I forgot to bring money for the canteen.” The teacher promptly reached into her purse to give him some money to buy some lunch from the canteen, and as she did, a thought occurred to her and she asked the boy, “When was the last time you ate? Did you have breakfast?” It turned out the answer was no: the last time the boy had ate was a slice of pizza at a friend's house three days ago. He was slowly starving to death and neither of his parents had noticed).

Okay, I know that property here is complicated. Property prices in Sydney are astronomical, yes, and I feel and sympathise with the despair of those who are coming to terms with the idea that owning their very own place is now completely out of reach because property prices and interests rates exceed average salaries—even for those in white collar professions. In addition, it does make me concerned and angry about the tax breaks, financial legislation regarding pensions and retirement (which means that a lot of pensioners are holding onto properties that are much bigger than they require because property doesn't affect the size of their pensions, whereas other assets do), lack of new building projects and resistance to development that is leading to this shortage of affordable housing in the areas in which people want to live, and the value of properties meaning that a two bedroom house in the inner city can cost four times as much as equivalent real estate in Sydney's fringes. I have given up on the idea of ever owning a house (as opposed to a flat), and if you read this blog regularly, you'll know how into the Tiny House movement I am at the moment.

But I can't help think about all those times while at Uni preachers would talk to us about materialism and the Bible, and how our attitudes should not be the same as that of the world's: instead of trying to get the job with the highest salary and then buying the biggest house you can afford on that salary in the neighbourhood of where you have your job (these preachers said), why not be more gospel-focused and identify the area that needs the gospel most, then find a job there, as well as somewhere to live so that you can best minister to that area? (Granted that some of the preachers who preached this were speaking in hyperbole—trying more to make a point instead of outlining a practical way of doing things [even though it sounded like a practical way of doing things].) They said be countercultural and “shine like stars in the dark night” (to crudely paraphrase Daniel 12). But they themselves were not always completely countercultural in practising what they preached: it must be pointed out that many of these preachers at the time bought and lived in areas that are now among the most expensive in Sydney. (Maybe house prices were cheaper in those areas back then …)

Still, if you were to preach along the same lines to people of my generation now, surely the gospel-focused principle would lead you to say what this keynote speaker was saying—that the obsessive focus on the house with the garden and the kid-friendly backyard in a good school district (as opposed to a unit with no backyard where the schools are okay, but not fantastic) as the family home has gotten a little out of hand; that downsizing is necessary now, and perhaps even the best thing to do for your family so that you do not become a total slave to your mortgage, but instead your mortgage works for you; that targeting those areas in Sydney that need the gospel is a lot harder in some ways because the price of real estate can lock you out of the market, but there are other ways—ways that are less attractive and financially sensible—like buying elsewhere and renting here—or maybe the church should be looking at missionary models for reaching those areas (i.e. being proactive about sending people there, preposterous though it sounds).

Okay, now I'm starting to sound like I'm floating a lead balloon. (Context: The Briefing used to run these short articles called “lead balloons” that were ”ideas only slightly too outrageous to be taken seriously”.) I know I am coming across as rather hypocritical because we own (and the only reason why we and some of my peers own is due to parental help, which I will be eternally grateful for). Please don't feel like I'm judging you or my friends, who have recently bought their own family homes in which to raise their kids and spend the next 20 years or so. I just thought all this was interesting.

And as I watch the exodus of young families my age (and younger) from my church and my area because they can't afford to live here and they feel that, long-term, unit living is incompatible with having children, it just made me think and wonder whether 10 years down the track, there will be this massive gap in church demographics because one generation have had to go elsewhere to live …


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