Housing for All with Chris Martin

Money on the Left is joined by Dr. Chris Martin to discuss Modern Monetary Theory’s vital importance for the struggle to provide adequate housing for all. A Senior Research Fellow at the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Martin is a long-time tenant’s rights advocate in Australia with scholarly training in law and heterodox political economy. He is closely familiar with the rhetorical machinations–or “contrivances,” as he calls them–that attenuate the effectiveness of national housing policy in Australia and beyond. In 2023, Martin and his team of co-authors (including Julie Lawsome, Vivienne Milligan, Chris Hartley, Hal Paswon, and Jago Dodson) published a report that argued the government can and should provide adequate housing for everyone in Australia. Titled “Towards an Australian Housing and Homelessness Strategy: Understanding National Approaches in Contemporary Policy,” the report makes several noteworthy contributions to housing-for-all discourse, including figuring social housing as an integral part of a nation’s infrastructure. We speak with Martin about this report and its reception in Australian housing policy debates. We also ruminate about what housing-for-all movements in Australia, the US, and across the world stand to learn from each other.

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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Chris Martin, welcome to Money on the Left.

Chris Martin:  Good day, Scott. Good day, Billy.

Scott Ferguson:  We’ve invited you onto our show to talk to us primarily about this co-authored report that you published, along with many co authors, titled “Towards an Australian Housing and Homelessness Strategy”, in which among many things, you offer a strategy to address the multifaceted crises of homelessness through a public money, or MMT lens or framework. Before we get started in our discussion about this report, I was wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit about yourself, about your background, about your training, about your professional work and what brought you to this topic?

Chris Martin:  Well, I’m coming to you today from my home in Dharawal country. I’m in the southern edge of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. The Dharawal are the traditional owners of this part of the world. So I pay my respects to that community who never ceded the property here and never ceded their sovereignty, like other indigenous people throughout Australia who have never ceded their sovereignty or property. At the other end of Dharawal country, I grew up in a town a couple of hours down the coast from Sydney, where my parents owned our house, and it was a comfortable, unremarkable upbringing. I came to Sydney after high school to study a law degree at University and also a political economy degree. Coming out of that I had a bit of an exposure to heterodox economics. That’s a slightly notorious degree, the Sydney Uni political economy degree. Occasionally, you find other people who have done it, and you give them the secret handshake. Through that degree, and through my law degree, I was getting interested in housing. Also having moved to Sydney and I just had a couple of housing scrapes and lived in crummy houses as people do. That becomes a bit of a dinner party story, but I was also conscious that there’s a bit of survivor bias in that. There’d be young people who experience crummy housing and move out of home who don’t want to talk about it at dinner parties or who aren’t getting invited to the dinner parties. So I was getting interested in housing, and after law, my first proper job after uni was as a tenant advocate. I’ll tell you a bit more about this particular sector of tenant advice and advocacy services that we have in New South Wales. I was a tenant advocate at a local tenants advice service in Sydney. I was representing tenants in the tribunal and giving them advice. After a couple of years, I went to the tenants union of New South Wales, which is the peak tenant organization for the state. I was their policy and law reform officer for 13 years. It was in that time that I did my PhD which led to the academic job I have now, but also that’s where I was starting to reread again political economy and particularly after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and started looking again for a framework that cohered and put some of those little bits of heterodox thinking and literature that I picked up along the way and made it cohere. It was in that early 2010s blogosphere space that I found I was reading New Economic Perspectives. There was Bill Mitchell’s blog, so I started to read about modern money, and that’s when so many of those little bits that I picked up along the way from uni and other places started to cohere. This conception of money as a system of credit that is governed by states, and can be governed for democratic, public good purposes. I was at the tenants union when I was starting to frame some of my advocacy around this. Then, subsequently nine years ago, I got my current appointment at the University of New South Wales at the City Futures Research Centre. I continue to work on researching housing and advocating for housing reform that does justice, particularly for people who don’t own their housing, particularly for renters.

Billy Saas:  So you came to heterodox economics before the GFC. Any recollection of sort of what drew you to that esoteric direction?

Chris Martin:  That was a bit of a fluke, really.iI hadn’t done economics in high school, so I didn’t have the prerequisites to get into the standard economics courses at university. So, I did the Political Economy course as part of this combined degree with law, which is what you do in Australia. If you do a law degree, you do another degree. It was a little bit of a fluke, but it was an introduction to things like social surplus approaches to economics and we had some of the proper Keynesian and post Keynesian lectures, as well as some, some Marxism and Neo Marxism and monopoly studies and things like that training. I majored in things that were to the side, I majored in urban history. I was getting into housing, in that respect, but I came out of that without a really complete or coherent worldview or operating system for economics, and sort of had a an idea of the intellectual history and the different ways in which economic problems had been thought of over time and the different configurations or problematization of economics that has a way of thinking about the progress of policy in different areas, including in housing. But in terms of having something that was a more connected and coherent scheme for understanding the contemporary economy and for proposing reforms. It was really through reading those blogs and also the research literature around that, and particularly around modern money, and some of the fellow travelers as well. So I remember after the GFC, I needed to read about Keynes, and there was hardly anything on the shelves at that point. And I ended up with Robert Skidelsky’s biography and read that instead. So, I think just in terms of the proponents of modern money and also those other nearby neighboring voices or fellow travelers, if you like, like another Australian, Steve Keen, was quite a prominent commentator and helped get a more critical public discussion going around economics and money. The level of the public conversation is a lot better than where it was pre GFC.

Billy Saas:  If you’d gone the economics route, you would have probably learned lots about macro and micro, but you took political economy. It sounds like with the heterodox-specific education, you learned how to sharpen your knives a bit. I feel like a lot of the heterodox econ literature and pedagogy is oriented toward a critique of the mainstream. So if nothing else that helps you to become more skeptical and a better critic. I think, to that extent, it’s no surprise that when you find the Billy blog, I think it was called at the time, alongside New Economic Perspectives, that you have an openness to it.

Scott Ferguson:  My question is about the reception of your work in your field. I see that you collaborate with all kinds of people, whether directly or through convening interviews and surveys. I’m curious, because I think a lot of us run up against real barriers in our own disciplines and areas, either full-on hostility, or a kind of “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s weird to me, and I really don’t want to have any part of it.” But it seems like you’ve made some friends. I’m curious to hear about how that process has gone for you?

Chris Martin:  Sure. Well, I think we’re now talking about this report that came out last year “Towards an Australian Housing and Homelessness Strategy” report. That’s a report that some colleagues and I wrote, which was commissioned by an agency called the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, and they fund a lot of housing research in Australia. I think it’s safe to say that the first AHUR report to mention modern money. I’d slipped a few of the ideas into some previous AHUR reports on social housing as infrastructure. That was a report talking about the value of investing in social housing, and in particular this, it was a little bit of a rhetorical idea at that time. Can we frame it as infrastructure? Governments love infrastructure. Can we frame social housing as a type of infrastructure? So that was also a prior piece of research in which I got to rehearse the modern money stuff without speaking its name. But yeah, you’re right. There is still a disreputable quality about it, which is unfortunate, but I think the fact that my five colleagues on this were prepared to tolerate my modern money speculations in this report says something about the the preparedness of researchers and hopefully of policy makers, because that’s a big constituency for research like this, to rethink the conventional wisdom about money and finance. To be a little more open about the Rethinking because we’ve seen so many instances of this rethinking and a reform of practice happen, particularly in response to the COVID shock, particularly that early period of lockdowns and the income shock that followed. Some really quite extraordinary government operations around money and supporting, on the one hand the incomes of households, but also supporting the wealth, the assets of financial institutions in that shock. That involved a big and quick rethinking and re practice, reform of money by a government. So it does happen, and I think we can, as researchers, and as advocates for housing policy reform, we can help inform a redirection of governments as they rediscover their power in relation to public finance, to be productive and that advance housing justice in particular. I’m thinking back to when I worked for the tenants union, so in the non government sector, in the community sector, where you’re making proposals to the government for policy reform, in particular, for housing policy reform. This will be familiar to American listeners. Like the US, our the Australian public housing sector, the social housing sector, is this tiny residualized sector of housing that used to be bigger and accommodate a bigger market share, the biggest share of the housing sector, and housed more people and was for more people a basis for them getting into homeownership, in many cases, but also for having a stable place where they put down roots and flourished a bit. That’s been residualized, minimized, and so few people realize the benefits of social housing now. So investment in social housing, getting our social housing sector growing again. I say social housing, to clarify, in Australia, we talk about social housing being the umbrella term for public housing, which is the state owned, and managed rental housing stock. We’ve also got this sector of community housing, which is owned by non government organizations that provide on a fairly similar basis, which is affordable rental housing for low income people. Those two things together are social housing. So we need to get our social housing stock growing in line with community needs for affordable housing. It’s been on a starvation ration for decades. The advocacy for it is all about the government being prepared to spend to build the houses and also to subsidize the ongoing rental operation of those houses so they continue to provide a decent standard accommodation for people on low incomes, if their ability to pay falls short of what it costs to run the system. Those two big basic claims for housing reform in Australia: capital grants to grow our social housing stock and to properly backdoor social housing providers that their operating costs will be met. That’s been the mainstay of housing advocacy and you have to make this proposition for governments to spend again on social housing. Too often, there’s been this feeling that we need to balance the budget in order to do that, and how are we going to pay for it? That’s been the constant refrain that I’ve heard from tenants union days and through to today. Policymakers or politicians, how are we going to pay for it? The simple answer to that is that it gets paid for by government spending. Modern Money is a useful framework for backing up the claim that you can just decide to pay for this. On the other hand, there are aspects of housing policy that also don’t involve government spending. I think modern money also helps us think through these other aspects of housing policy and in particular, how governments can shape or intervene for the public good. I’m thinking in particular of housing finance. Although our social housing sector is starved of money, other parts of our housing system, the problem is, to put it boldly, too much money. There’s too much money being borrowed and thrown by households, principally at bad housing. We should be talking about the taxation of housing. But not in this, how do we pay for what we want to spend on social housing. But instead to think about taxation of housing in a way that shapes behavior and how do we get the sort of behavior outcomes that we want from a public policy perspective? So less speculative borrowing and spending on housing as an asset to hoard. And how do we get more…well, there might be more opportunities for first-time buyers relative to households already wealthy in housing, advancing their position, buying more housing, as rent goes up. How do we shape our housing investment settings to bring on the new housing supply that we need? The additional housing being built, that a population like Australia’s needs, which grows every year. So I think modern money helps us also think through those other aspects of housing policy that aren’t about government spending, are in fact about governments either taxing or about the way they regulate the provision of credit for investment in housing.

Scott Ferguson:  This is something I really appreciated about the work of yours that I’ve been reading recently in preparation for discussion today is that you and your co authors are very attentive to not just problems that need fixing and that fixing requires public money to be spent. But the problems are multifaceted, cut across different categories and domains, and very often it’s the legal construction of the monetary system in the private sector which is creating all kinds of negative feedback loops with the public sector and vice versa. I sense in your analysis, what sometimes in the MMT world we think of as being a consolidated balance sheet or a consolidated fiscal analysis in which it’s all part of the same system is just a question, how is that system designed? And what kinds of pro social effects are there? And what kinds of perverse effects are there, and how are those things related to one another?

Chris Martin:  The report that we’re talking about, this particular piece of work that we’re talking about is titled, “Towards an Australian Housing and Homelessness Strategy: Understanding National Approaches”. This has been a bit of a theme for our current federal government here in Australia. We had a change in government two years ago, and a new government, led by Anthony Albanese, and his labour party, came to power and they promised a national housing and homelessness plan. We were in the process of doing this research when the Albanese government came to office, and made this commitment to a national housing homelessness plan. There is a commitment, at least, by the government to having this more strategic approach where previously Australia, we actually haven’t had a national strategy as regards housing. As we detail in the report, the way housing strategy gets done, it’s really fragmented by different government agencies, and working in their own spheres, across different levels of government. Like the US, we’re a federation. States and territories in Australia have constitutional responsibilities in relation to housing, as well. As you say Scott, that makes it a complex field for policy making. Despite that complexity, we have lacked an overarching strategy for bringing it all together. One of the areas that I think we should be thinking of as housing policymaking and an institution of housing policy, are our financial regulators. They make housing policy, they conduct housing policy, I’m talking about our reserve bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, which is the supervisory institution that regulates banks from a financial stability perspective. Those two institutions wouldn’t call it a housing policy, but they run a housing policy and they are independent. Those two institutions insist on their independence and the government of the day always says they’re independent institutions, despite them being established by an act of parliament, and ultimately they should be regarded as part of the array of institutions that a democracy operates through, and governs through. They run a housing policy. In particular, before the COVID financial crisis, we had a situation where, coming in the years after the GFC, we had quite a boom in Australia, especially in investment in apartments. We had lots of apartment buildings and we had lots of people borrowing to spend on apartments, particularly as landlords. We had government reviews into the financial stability concerns that this boom in apartment investment was posing risks to financial stability according to the reviewers. From the late 20-teens APRA introduced macro prudential tools that, for the first time in decades, effectively discriminated between borrowers for owner occupied housing and borrowers for investors and had the effect of increasing interest rates for investors. Also decreasing competition amongst our banks for housing investment. The RBA also took care to say that it wasn’t targeting housing prices, but it did say that it was concerned about housing prices. Its monetary policy was setting interest rates at a higher level than other circumstances might have indicated in its usual ways of thinking because it had a concern that our house price growth was threatening the effectiveness of monetary policy responses. That if house prices kept growing the way they did, then the RBA’s ability to fine tune the economy through interest rate adjustments would be put at risk because the tuning wouldn’t be fine. If the debt got too big, there would be a risk of trying to fine tune and you’re getting this outsized response. So that was the RBA thinking. But all of these things operate through housing markets and housing costs. It’s a housing policy. It’s something that isn’t governed and isn’t part of a coherent national strategy. We were making the case for exactly that: a coherent national strategy around housing and homelessness. The current government is preparing what it calls its national housing and homelessness plan. All of the indications so far from the consultation exercises that have run, the issues paper that it put out. All of those indicators are that it’s shaping up to be a very, very narrow plan. A plan that doesn’t encompass all of these diverse areas of policy. We had an issue paper that didn’t mention tax, and it didn’t mention finance. It says that’s not the coherent, ambitious strategy that Australia needs to tackle its housing problems. We’ve now got, coming out of that report, a bit of activism taking place around trying to promote the idea of legislating a basis and a requirement for a national housing plan. We’re calling on parliamentarians, calling on the government in the first place, but other parliamentarians, to legislate for a national housing plan. To have a to require that the government of the day will have a plan, and that it will be a plan that meets certain broad objectives. That has, as its overarching objective, the realization of the human right to housing that everyone should have adequate housing. We’re proposing institutional arrangements for informing that plan and keeping the government of the day accountable to that plan. That piece of legislation, that framework we’re proposing doesn’t run on modern money. But I think you can legislate for a national housing plan without subscribing to the modern money view of the world. I think it’s a way of setting up for the government a much more ambitious and ultimately effective housing policy, a housing and homelessness strategy that encompasses all of the policy areas touched by housing. I think that sort of ambition in public policy is something that the conversation about modern money is also helping to support. It’s another way of encouraging governments to be properly seized of their power to marshal financial resources and real resources in the economy to to create public goods and public projects for positive ends.

Billy Saas:  Another thing that modern money theory can do for anyone who investigates it is to help you to come into contact with the question of, do the politicians, do the legislators know this stuff and act as if they don’t? Or do they not? Is it ignorance or is it evil? I know that you’re invested in ongoing policy-crafting deliberation. But it’s hard not to, from my perspective in the US, look at decisions that are made around significant social issues and conclude that even if they did recognize that we could pay for it, that it wasn’t about balancing the budget, that there are interests that are invested in keeping it just so. Keeping things the way they are. What’s your read of the situation politically, economically, in Australia, in terms of the odds of this activist-initiated push for a more coherent national housing and homelessness strategy being taken up? Or are the forces arrayed against it in terms of people who are invested in the system as it is so entrenched that they might be an obstacle to overcome?

Chris Martin:  It’s tricky. So in briefing MPs on the need for a national housing and homelessness plan, and to be ambitious about it, we do encounter a lot of MPs and their policy makers who I think are really on board. That we’ve got big problems in our housing system. Housing policy has been in the media and in the public discussion in a way that hasn’t been just over the last few years in Australia as house prices really took off after the pandemic, but in particular, there’s been a welcome focus on our problems in the in the rental sector where we’ve had extraordinarily rapid and large rate increases in Australia over the last couple of years. Also, there’s a real sense of people missing out on, despairing of the opportunities and the sort of choices that previous generations had in relation to housing. I think that is really quite keenly felt amongst MPs and policymakers. When it comes to questions about growing the social housing sector again, that is also something that I think we’ve made important ground on the necessity of doing that. Unfortunately, we still get this question of how to pay for it and some weird contrivances, especially in housing. So I said we had this new government come to power two years ago. As well as proposing a national housing and homelessness plan, it also said it wanted to increase investment in social housing. Good. And it said that it will do so through the establishment of what’s called the Housing Australia Future Fund. Instead of just paying the housing authority or making available a system of grants to the community housing providers, the government instead established the Housing Australia Future Fund, which means not paying for housing, it means going out and buying a whole lot of financial assets, and the returns on these financial assets will be distributed to social housing providers to make good the operating deficit that I told you about earlier.

Scott Ferguson:  Government becomes the ultimate entrepreneur, speculator.

Billy Saas:  Government as well as property investor subjectivity.

Chris Martin:  Well, it’s not even buying houses, that’s the trouble. It’s going and buying a whole lot of shares and bonds and things. We’ve got a bit of practice doing it. It’s sort of that sovereign wealth model. We’ve got a bunch of these. That’s not the first one. We’ve got a bunch of future funds in Australia that have been set up by governments over time, that go and buy financial assets from various financial assets from the private sector, and the returns on those are dedicated to funding various purposes. It might be medical research, or it might be social housing subsidies, none of which should turn on the returns that particular financial assets are being realized in these funds. We’ve gotten that contrivance. It’s reflective of that continued thinking of, well, where do we get the money for this? Where do we get the money for these public projects like social housing? We have to get it from chaps in suits. Through investments in finance.

Billy Saas:  We have to earn it, right? It must be earned.

Chris Martin:  Instead, we could do without that contrivance and we could have a properly planned expenditure on state and territory housing authorities. We could go directly to community housing providers, and expenditure on properly assessed housing needs in different communities, in different parts of the country, for them to make their investments in housing and run their housing businesses. We could spend that money. Not to raise money for that purpose, but because we want different sorts of conduct happening in our housing system, we could be reforming our taxation arrangements, particularly around land value taxation. We’ve got land value taxes throughout Australia, but we exempt all owner occupiers and we also exempt a whole lot of landlords as well. We could have a different taxation, particularly of land, as a way of discouraging speculative hoarding of land, encouraging underutilized land to be brought to the market for development as housing, whether that’s as owner occupied housing or as, hopefully, social rental housing. We could have a properly considered policy around lending and credit conditions for different sorts of housing investment, whether they’re owner occupiers or people or firms who want to invest in rental housing. That’s the sort of thing that a wide-ranging housing policy would contemplate, and instead, at the moment, we’re still not talking properly about tax, not talking about finance, insisting that that’s an independent thing that we need to leave to the RBA to sort out itself. We get these weird contrivances around funding for social housing. We can and should be a lot more ambitious and clear on what governments can do. Just being a little optimistic about it. As we’ve mentioned in the report, there is some thinking around governments making big plans and the advocacy around a Green New Deal from a few years ago, I think, made gains in terms of government’s preparedness to think about big plans. I think the work that Mariana Mazzucato is doing on public investment missions or mission-oriented investment and mission-oriented public policy. That’s finding an audience amongst policymakers. The Australian treasurer has had meetings with Mariana Mazzucato, and she’s got quite a following. So there’s ways in. I do think politicians and policymakers are hearing and are interested in these calls for big plans, for missions, for governments being possessed with their ability to prosecute big projects for the public good, and increasingly to be possessed of their powers as the issuer of the currency, as well.

Scott Ferguson:  So I’d like us to jump into the report a little bit more. There’s all kinds of wide ranging analyses and consequences in this report. Maybe one place to start would be to get you to talk a little bit about the survey of other national homeless strategies, specifically from Canada and Finland, I believe, and Scotland. Did I get that right?

Chris Martin:  Yeah, one of my colleagues, Julie Lawson, she’s sort of Australia’s international, roving housing policy correspondent. She’s based in Europe, and this is very much a thing. Canada is an interesting case because, like the US and like Australia, it’s a Federation. So they also have this complexity in their governance of housing policy. Like Australia, its federal government had largely been absent from housing policies for some time, and it came back into housing policy a few years ago, in 2017, with a national housing strategy. So that was something we had a look at. There’s lessons for Australia and other countries from the Canadian experience, good and bad. I think that the good lesson is having a legislative basis for a housing strategy because that has put some obligations on the federal government and the housing minister to report on the progress of their strategy. It’s given out a profile that housing hasn’t previously had there. It has started to build up some institutions that can inform policy making in Canada in a way that hadn’t happened previously. The bad lesson is that too much of this strategy is narrowly focused. Again, it largely misses taxation and finance questions. It’s about the subsidies and operating arrangements of their affordable rental housing sector, largely. It has helped in restoring expiring subsidies to some of that sector, but it has ended up being quite a narrowly focused plan. That said, it’s on the agenda in a newly prominent way in Canada, and hopefully, some of those institutional foundations and the legislative requirement for a plan will mean that better, more ambitious, and more comprehensive plans are made in the future. And really, that’s where we’re at in Australia, as well. That’s why we’re advocating for a National Housing and Homelessness Plan Act that sets up some accountability and policy governance measures and sets up some new institutions that can keep informing government and improving its policy performance, as regards to housing, instead of leaving it to be this fragmented and ineffective business that it currently is. Looking further, Julie’s work shows, particularly a couple of European examples, where countries have gotten their housing systems in order, relatively, and have a coherent structure to their housing system, and to the delivery of subsidies to parts of the system that work for low and moderate income households, particularly rental households. Austria is a great example of that. They’ve such a long standing model of what’s called limited profit rental housing provision with a dedicated subsidy that funds the limited profit housing companies that build and operate rental housing there. Finland’s another example where there’s these long standing housing institutions, government institutions, that provide a consistent and coherent subsidized housing development pipeline. They have done that for a couple of decades. We mentioned Scotland in the report, too, because that’s an example of a country where there’s an unusually dedicated tradition of reviewing housing policies and criticizing housing performance. I know in the US there have been some moves to big plans around housing. I’ve picked up that there’s an expansion of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit that underpins affordable rental housing provision in the US. I understand, too, that a Renters Bill of Rights was on the agenda, as well. It does seem to be a time for making big plans in housing. I don’t think the US is any closer to having a coherent national strategy than Australia is.

Billy Saas:  No, we’re probably taking notes and offering our own contrivances. What do you regard as your most important contributions or innovations to developing for Australia, but then potentially a place like the US a coherent national housing strategy? What are the two takeaways that you would like policymakers to walk away ready to go tell their constituents about?

Chris Martin:  Okay, well I guess the main takeaway from that report is, we need a plan. Housing and homelessness are complex in that they’re issues that run across different policy areas, and across different levels of government. Housing affects everyone and touches people’s lives in a really basic way. It’s also a key dimension of our economies. I mean, it’s a $10 billion asset class as well as a fundamental human right. So it’s a complicated area in which to make policy and so you need a plan. The second point would be that we need to be ambitious about it. Let’s have at the center of it the right of everyone to have an adequate home. We can call that a mission, if you like, a mission for governments to ensure that everyone has an adequate home. There’ll be a bunch of subsidiary missions that governments need to prosecute, to make sure that core mission is achieved, as well. Just getting a coherent strategy, a coherent framework for all of the different policy reforms that are needed, whether that’s in funding social housing properly, or regulating properly the lending for housing investment by the private sector, or getting our taxation arrangements so that we have less inducement for people to hoard land unproductively and to instead bring land and housing to the market. Residential Tenancy law, my spectral subject, is something that needs more of a plan and more coordination than we’re currently seeing because in this moment of increased interest in housing policy and increased critical attention particularly on how renters are doing, how renters are suffering in the current circumstances. There’s been lots of interest by governments, state and country and also our federal government in reforming residential tenancy law, and it’s still a little bit all over the place at the moment. I can do a whole podcast on tenancy law, but talking about some of the similarities and parallels to what’s happening in the US, as well, where there seems to be a parallel in some rising activism and rising tenant movements that are demanding reform. Just from observing social media, that seems to be happening in the US and it’s happening here as well. Governments are making some movements to respond to that, but it lacks coordination. There are still problems with a real reform agenda in Australia. That’s another area of policymaking where we could just be getting our act together and being a lot more coordinated and really getting some crucial reforms implemented on the statute books.

Billy Saas:  I would submit that another one of your critical contributions you alluded to earlier, and that’s the contribution of the idea of social housing as infrastructure, right? Changing the conversation, shaping the conversation that way. In the report, you have a selection here it says: housing, or more specifically, social housing can justifiably be framed as infrastructure. That is an asset that generates a social good, not as a residual problem resulting from a malfunctioning system.” What I like about that is a couple of things. One, infrastructure, I think, is broadly an appealing term. It’s legible to multiple audiences as something that people could get excited about investing in. It’s not the conventional way of thinking about it. That’s a benefit fit, as well. But I think the other thing is that last part, not as a residual problem resulting from a malfunctioning system. There’s an agency there that I think gets lost in the chicanary that comes with it, the contrivances as you put it. These evermore complex solutions to a problem that is just there to solve. So I wonder if, alongside infrastructure, or do you agree that that is a critical contribution, an important, essential contribution to this report? And are there any other kinds of rhetorical innovations that you’re up to here or in other work where you feel like, if we do need to educate or re-educate folks on how the fiscal and financial systems work at the federal level, here’s one way that we could approach talking about things differently?

Chris Martin:  I have mixed feelings about social housing as infrastructure rhetoric. Not mixed feelings about that report, which is terrific, and everyone should read it. But it really was a rhetorical maneuver. Not just by us, I mean, we were responding to this maneuver that housing advocates, and to be honest, housing policymakers were themselves making. We’ve had this problem of social housing being on this starvation ration for years, but we do have social housing agencies, and we have social housing policymakers, and they do from time to time make the case to the central agencies, of the Treasury, for a greater investment in their business. They thought, all of these infrastructure agencies are the talk of the town, can we pitch ourselves as infrastructure as well? And so we had a bit of a wave of advocacy and research for that matter about thinking about housing more broadly as infrastructure and social housing as infrastructure. I think that’s productive, exercising in getting people to think through the myriad contributions that housing makes to living well, and for individuals and households and neighborhoods and cities and national economies. But on the other hand, getting housing on the infrastructure agenda was also a rhetorical maneuver. To be honest, infrastructure itself is a bit of a sticky wicket. That enthusiasm for infrastructure that governments embraced in the 2000s and afterwards 2010. That turn to infrastructure was also going to be privately financed and there were so many contrivances or the infrastructure investment supposedly for the public good that were really about a privately financed investment and shoring up returns to the private sector owners of these assets. So we’ve had a bit of an investigation and honestly it becomes a stumbling block, this idea that how do we get big financial institutions to invest in social housing? We don’t need them to. The answer should be the most straightforward one. Well, how do we, in the first place, assess the community’s need for a particular form of infrastructure or additional infrastructure in the form of housing or whatever it is? And how do we mobilize resources towards attending to that need, in the context of all of the other needs that communities have for the fixed capital assets that make life possible and more enjoyable? And not about how we get the chaps in suits to buy housing that is going to be rented at less than what they could otherwise get in the private market. So that’s why I have a mixed feeling about that rhetorical maneuver of how social housing is infrastructure. It may be that infrastructure as a policy area isn’t actually a whole lot more friendly to social housing policymakers. Getting on that agenda may not actually be a great alternative to simply making the case that this is something that governments should be investing more resources into, because it makes life better for so many people.

Scott Ferguson:  Some of your research has been into the constructions of subjectivity around the private speculating housing market. You shared with us this one really great article titled Clever Odysseus Narratives, and Strategies of Rental Property Investor Subjectivity in Australia, in which you look at this industry of seminars and books and social media accounts and websites, and analyze through a critical lens, but nevertheless, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey, and I’m wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit about your analysis and your conclusions.

Chris Martin:  Scott, this is probably as close as I’ll get to your area of expertise. So the genre of the property investment seminar. Yeah, that was a project that was a couple of years ago. It was part of a bigger project on who’s investing in rental housing. In that late 2010s apartment boom in Australia. We were investigating who’s investing, and I was looking at all of these property seminars and sources of advice for the individual investors. I’ll do quotes around investors because that’s a very conscious terminology that’s used here. Like the United States, Australia’s private rental sector is similar in size. A bit more than a quarter of the population rents privately. It’s mostly owned by other households by so-called mums and dads. The difference here being that it’s almost all owned by — you’ve got some significant sector of corporate landlords and corporate landlords have only just got a toehold in Australia recently. So our rental housing is almost entirely owned by the household sector, by mums and dads. They variously call themselves mums and dads or investors. They do not like being called landlords, although that’s what our Residential Tenancies Act calls them. A good thing too, because that word landlord, it’s a gift from our history, and we should cherish it, and not give it away. But as we’ve got this industry that produces a particular genre of property investment advice, I went to a bunch of these seminars and took it all in and identified this common theme, or trope, which makes this genre particularly legible to people. As you said, it very directly references the hero’s journey where you’re in the dreary workaday world. The way this genre talks about work is quite particular, as being this horrible slog that people go through, and you wouldn’t want to do it if you didn’t have to. So you, the investor, who seizes your opportunities and who develops your own capabilities, who chooses a sound mentor, the investment guru, who’s selling you the CDs, and the books and boot camps and all the rest of it? They’re the Obi Wan to your Luke Skywalker as you set off on your property investment journey. In a way, it’s a very legible text, and it’s a way of getting people to quickly switch on to what they’re selling in these seminars. So it’s flattering to think of yourself as this heroic figure who’s breaking out of the workaday world into financial freedom. Really, that’s the endpoint of the investment journey: you become financially free. You don’t have to work anymore and you create this legacy for your children. Not just the legacy of the rental properties that you might give to them as a beneficent, heroic hero, but also the lessons imparted about making your way in the world. As well as just this sort of flattering, heroic figure that people might like to identify with it. Those seminars offered particular ways of thinking about approaching rental investment and ideas about money, ideas about debt. There’s a real theme in these books and seminars and things around a rethinking, I think, of traditional caution about debt. They often use the figure of other people’s money. Which is interesting, because as I understand it, that particular phrase, other people’s money, was originally a bit of a caution against irresponsibility. But in these property investment seminars, you’re enjoined to use other people’s money. It’s other people’s money, and it’s there for you to use, and if you can grab it, and that is to say, borrow it, and accumulate housing assets, that’s you getting ahead. It also works to get past or to minimize, or to put down anxieties about debt, because it’s other people’s money, it’s not your money. That’s one. There is a rethinking of debt that goes on in these property seminars that I think is really interesting. The other figure, or way of thinking that keeps coming up is around thinking strategically, and having a strategy. I’m conscious that I’ve just been talking about the government having a strategy and being coherent about this, but the strategic thinking of the property seminar is a bit different. It’s about being attentive to how an investment properties’ rental income is going, and also its capital growth, encouraging you to be a very active participant in your investments. Not necessarily to do a whole lot of property flipping, but to be mindful of when the market has risen. That’s your opportunity not to flip the property, but to go back to the bank and refinance and set up a line of credit that becomes a deposit for your next property investment. So it’s attentive and ties into this rethinking and reorientation towards debt as something that you want to take on debt, it’s other people’s money, you want that and you want to keep working to expand and to grow your property empire. There is something significant going on in those seminars and books and they leak into mainstream media. In our mainstream media, a big part of their historic business model was real estate advertisements, and the real estate parts of the businesses are spun out and become even bigger than the media parts. But they still carry these little stories, these little vignettes about people who invested who have gone on the journey. They all talk about going on the journey. These ways of thinking spread.

Scott Ferguson:  You point out that there’s even somebody who got churned up and spat out and wrote about it from a critical point of view, but she, too, still tells it according to the framework of a journey.

Chris Martin:  Yeah, that’s right. She went on her own particular sort of journey. That’s the power of that framework, isn’t it? I read just a couple of weeks ago, another take on the property investment genre. I thought it was a terrific insight into how gendered it is. There’s another article out now about property investment texts, particularly for women, and instead of the hero’s journey, which is implicitly a masculine trope, instead, there’s this genre that uses the feminine trope of the makeover. So a financial makeover through rental property investment, so there is a gendered aspect to this as well. For aficionados of property investment genres, there is a gendered reading as well, which is around the makeover. In terms of how this spills ,they’re into a wider politics about money. In the property investment discourse, and outside of it, there’s this really cynical and disparaging take on work, which is interesting. But there is also a really bleak depiction of post-work life. So your life in retirement, if you don’t have rental property assets, is depicted as being very grim indeed. There’s a real disparagement of the pension in Australia. Our social security, we have a state social security system. This is an instance where we’ve dispensed with the contrivance that the United States has. We don’t have a notion of an insurance fund that pays the state pension here. It’s just paid out of the government. But the age pension is a big part of retirement incomes for people post-work. There is all this speculation in the property investment literature, and frankly, outside of it as well, about the future where the pension doesn’t exist, or governments will run out of money and they won’t be able to afford the pension. There’ll be too many old people, they won’t be able to afford the pension if you don’t have a rental property, you’re cactus. That’s something that people outside of the property investment literature also participate in that discourse, that the age pension it’s somehow unsustainable. Again, no, we should be saying pensions are great. The pension, a publicly paid pension, is the democratic way of ensuring that people who are no longer producing goods and services, how they get a decent share of society is production. That’s what state pensions do, and they’re good and they’re democratic, and they’re absolutely not unsustainable. So that’s another argument where modern money can hopefully help win the day.

Scott Ferguson:  Meanwhile, having a de facto macro housing policy that is predicated on a hero’s journey toward passive income is going to undercut the productivity of the society and eventually or in aggregate, undercut what any pension might be able to pay for.

Chris Martin:  Yeah, exactly. In this telling of the story as the population ages, we have this increasing body of post-work people to sustain. Yeah, the other part of the conventional story is, ah well, those working aged people who have to sustain this growing, non-working population, we’re going to have to tax them even more to pay for the incomes and the health care and everything for that older group. Again, no, what we should be saying in response is: now, what we really need to be doing is making the productivity enhancing investments, that means that the working group, that their efforts go so much further, and produce so much more. That means investing in productivity enhancing investments or assets or capital. And that means making investments and not taxing people.

Scott Ferguson:  I’ll ask one more question. We didn’t really get to speak much about the multi dimensional political vectors that this report takes up. It’s not taking up housing in a narrow sense, but it’s connecting the politics of housing to any number of political questions and problems and contestation. There’s a discussion of indigenous homelessness and indigenous politics, there are questions of disability, and health, incarceration, and also ecology and environmental justice. I was wondering if you’d want to speak to some of those dimensions of the report?

Chris Martin:  Sure, okay. That’s the complexity of housing policy, that it does cross over into so many of these areas. The last point you made first, there’s a big issue about the environmental performance, especially the energy inefficiency of so much of our housing stock, and so there is a need for not just building better into the future, but so much of our future housing stock already exists and needs to do better in the future. Investments in retrofitting. We’ve got lots of little bits and pieces of sorts of programs, but that’s still an area where a lot more strategic work needs to be done. Here in Australia, within disability policy we’ve made, in the last 15 years, a concerted national effort at reforming disability service provision, and we do have a national disability policy and a new institution set up on insurance lines for funding disability services. And a different conception of how those services should be funded by funding packages for individual people with disability and then they go and buy their disability services in the Disability Service marketplace. That’s an area where we have made some big national reforms, but we’ve done so without a lead agency for steering those reforms, and also the interface between disability and housing is also something that is still underdeveloped. We’re still not building new properties in New South Wales, new properties that are going to be accessible for people with disabilities. We’ve got a criminal justice system that is closely tied into homelessness and housing instability in that most people who leave prisons in Australia don’t know where they’re going to be living when they leave. At the other end, we have so many people entering prison from homelessness, as well. So that connection between incarceration and homelessness is something that’s very costly in terms of services, services in inverted commas, but also just the human misery that goes with incarceration and victimization, as well. Again, we’ve had commitments to not exit into homelessness, but that doesn’t happen. It’s still regular, it’s still standard that a person will exit prison, and not know where they’re going, so it’ll be homelessness or some sort of temporary accommodation. Investment in housing can achieve savings and beneficial outcomes in the criminal justice area. Without this holistic or comprehensive view of housing policy, we don’t see those benefits, and housing policy makers don’t really get the credit and don’t get to make the claim for investment, because it’s a criminal justice payoff that housing investment can make. All of those things that you said, Scott, are aspects of the complexity of housing and homelessness policy. That’s why, to get on top of that complexity, we should have a strategy and it needs to be ambitious and have at the center of it adequate housing for everyone. That human right to housing is, I think from the research we’ve done and the conversations we’ve had, a great starting place for getting policymakers together. And also to make the case to the public that a government has ambitious plans for making housing better for the general public.

Billy Saas:  Chris Martin, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.Chris Martin:  No worries. I’m very happy to join you. Thanks a lot for having me.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)