Housing unaffordability no trivial matter

Ten days ago columnist and demographer Bernard Salt penned a satirical article in the Weekend Australian on the topic of ‘hipster’ cafes, middle-aged moralisers and younger people paying $22 “several times a week” for breakfast instead of staying home and saving towards a house?

This past weekend he wrote another column responding to the backlash to his original remarks.

In the response he describes his original column as a parody. The response on Twitter, Mr Salt claims, was “like watching a car crash” – feral as well as viral.

So what had happened? Basically other news sources had picked up his question regarding housing affordability and amplified it, seeking responses to the statement that maybe younger people who wish to purchase a house should stay home, skip the avo breakfast and save more.

As well as totally disenchanted millennials and Gen Xers jumping in to share a few facts of life regarding their experience of housing affordability, many economists also commented on Mr Salt’s article, pointing out that pretty well all available economic data suggests the exact opposite to Salt’s assertion – younger people actually spend a higher percentage of their income on housing than older generations ever did.

As the week stretched on social media had a ball with ‘avo-gate’ and the clever editors at Broadsheet invited café owners to share their avocado dishes and prices so we could all see that $14 is a fair price for this prince of breakfast foods.

Having created a media storm, which reached as far as BBC Radio London, Mr Salt expressed concern about the need for the social media community to check primary sources “to establish context and intent before becoming outraged”.

Read Bernard Salt’s columns:
Moralisers, we need you
Smashed avocado outrage: Avo look at what was written

Opinion: Bernard can’t have it both ways

Oh dear. Where to start with this one? KPMG partner, commentator, and News Corp columnist, Bernard Salt writes a cliché ridden article on the reason why young people can’t afford a house and then there is a social media backlash. Who’d a thunk it?

So where and how do we start to deconstruct what really happened here? There are three main issues lurking beneath this debate: hypocrisy, the role of social media and the super serious matter of housing affordability. Let’s start with the most annoying, but least important, hypocrisy.

Mr Salt really can’t have it both ways. At one level he describes himself as a demographer and social commentator and presumably wishes to be seen as a credible authority. At another level, he wants to write ‘satire’ which trivialises one of the most serious issues facing many generations (not just millennials) and that is, the sky rocketing prices of housing.

In his original column, Mr Salt claims that he can afford ‘avo’ repasts as he is middle-aged and has raised his family (one presumes his wife helped out). This remark is totally disingenuous. Mr Salt has had a senior role at KPMG for decades, has authored books, been paid as a consultant and speaker, and written a newspaper column. His remuneration for these roles would place him in the top three per cent of Australian households. So to suggest he can purchase a $22 breakfast just because he is older and his kids have grown up, would be laughable if it wasn’t so insulting to our intelligence.

The premise of his article is that those who go without and save hard reap the benefits in terms of owning a house and buying expensive breakfasts. This is only partially true. Those who save hard do often enjoy the rewards of their thrift. But many Australians, young, old and in-between, experience life course disadvantage and do not get the chance, (based on factors including education, work opportunities and health), to save enough for a home deposit. Comparing his own situation to that of others is less than helpful, and plain insulting to those who are trying to get into the housing market and are still unable to stump up the huge deposit.

Turning to social media, whinging about the response when you hurl these cheap shots out into the digital world is also rather naïve. If you want to poke your head up and make generalisations about generations, then you need to understand that the internet is a democratic playground and those generations are entitled to mock you as well. Additionally, if you wish to enjoy airtime on the radio, to have your column referred to in Parliament and to take credit for having created ‘avo-gate’ then don’t be miffed when the rest of the world points out flaws in your argument – or does not find your ‘satire’ amusing.

Which leads to the final, most important point about this whole avo debate. There is a fundamental housing crisis in Australia today. The numbers vary from economist to economist, but about 30 years ago, it took five times your average annual salary to buy a home. Today it is about 13 times. Houses are much less affordable, so fewer people can purchase them. Many factors are blamed and the Treasurer Scott Morrison is currently calling upon the states to do more in terms of increasing the supply of land for housing, whilst steadfastly resisting the far more effective scaling back of negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions.

What is needed is serious, bi-partisan policy debate. We are facing a massive challenge to the financial security of young people and older people alike. The fastest growing cohort of homeless people is women aged over 55. About 15 per cent of retirees are renters, with little hope of living a dignified life on the pittance we call an Age Pension. So to dash off a satirical piece on why Bernard deserves his avo and others don’t, has delivered back to Mr Salt exactly the reaction he deserves.

What do you think? Has Bernard Salt got a point about younger people needing to skip expensive café brekkies if they want to buy a home? What about you? Can you afford smashed avo in your local café?

Written by Kaye Fallick

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