In China there is a phenomenon called the dingzihu, or the ‘nail house’. Dingzihu are real estate hold-outs: homes of people refusing compensation from corporations or mandatory acquisition by the government in order to make way for development. Their houses stand stark amid the mud and rubble of the construction site: isolated by deep trenches; flanked by bitumen and concrete; shadowed by a network of overpasses. A shack stands awkwardly by the entrance to a shiny mall forecourt. A tiny cottage with a vegetable patch blocks the path of traffic on a freeway. In some cases, whole apartment blocks are demolished, save for a single sliver of plaster and brick, ragged walls trailing loose wires.
Visually striking and eminently newsworthy, the dingzihu phenomenon has received a significant amount of media coverage in China and around the world. After all, tenacious residents hold out against isolation from amenities, sabotage, harassment, extortion attempts, assaults and enormous political pressure. When, in 2007, a three-year conflict between developers and a woman named Wu Ping in Chongqing made international news, the Chinese government banned local media outlets from reporting on the story. Nevertheless, polls of the Chinese public showed overwhelming support for Wu, and bloggers around the country championed the case as an example of ordinary people standing up for their rights against the increasing power of big business. The house was eventually demolished after Wu and the developers reached a settlement. Nevertheless, pictures of Wu’s house, perched on a mound of land surrounded by 17-metre deep excavation, are still some of the most recognisable dingzihu images on the internet.
Nail houses illuminate the great power divide between rich and poor. They are the literal concrete manifestation of defiance in the name of the personal, of the intimate. Their stubborn presence is a thorn in the side of corporate logic, a middle finger to the dominance of the market over every aspect of our lives. China is not the only place where real estate hold-outs result in strange anomalies in the cityscape. In the United States in 2006, Edith Macefield’s Seattle home became famous when she refused a $1 million offer for her 108-year-old farmhouse. She died there in 2008, aged 86, the farmhouse flanked on three sides by concrete walls that dwarfed her modest home. At Victoria University in Melbourne, where I work, car parks have slowly swallowed entire blocks of residential properties save for one or two isolated outposts; in one case a house, a shed and a garden surrounded on three sides by a vast concrete wasteland, divvied up for hire at $10 an hour. Handwritten signs hang on the fence, chastising users for noise, rubbish, graffiti. Part of me can’t imagine who would want to continue to live with such inhospitable surroundings—a sentiment I’m sure developers exploit as often as possible—but another part of me thinks, if this place were the product of my hard labour, if this was where I had made my home, I probably wouldn’t want to leave it either.
The idea of home is as nebulous as it is material. It is, on one hand, a physical space with a practical function: a demarcated area, cordoned off from others; a composition of the material possessions a person accumulates throughout their life; a place to cook, clean, care, eat and sleep. At the same time, it is a sensibility, an ideal: a feeling of sanctuary, comfort, belonging, knowledge and familiarity. It is both the product of labour and its opposite; a place of rest and retreat, and a constant project. Home doesn’t have positive connotations for everyone, of course, but the compassionate among us understand that it should: that everyone has the right to feel safe and warm, to take shelter from the weather, to feel that we belong, to be surrounded by what and whom we love. This nexus of place and sensibility is more than the sum of its parts. Home, regardless of where we locate it, is fundamentally in dialogue with our sense of identity, with how we orient ourselves in the world.
The emotional labour that goes into creating a home is essentially at odds with the market while simultaneously being exploited by it. Because in order to develop the sensibility, one must first have the place. A sensibility cannot be auctioned off to the highest bidder, but a piece of land, a house, an apartment, a tin shed, even a promise—these are things on which you can put a price tag. And what better inducement for people to trade away the product of years of labour than the security of our very sense of self?
When we talk about making a home, we talk of putting down roots, a metaphor for permanence, for the best possible situation in which a being may not simply survive but thrive. A seed can travel on the wind for years before it finds ground fertile enough to support its growth and development, and allow it to expand, flower and bear fruit. To uproot oneself is fraught with risk; roots are delicate things, and not everyone copes well with an abrupt change in the fundamental conditions of their existence.
It suits developers and property moguls to have a perpetually transient population. It allows them to hike up rents, to sell and resell with increasing profit margins. Rental prices have been going up in Australia for years, and the cost of purchasing property has risen sharply in real terms. That political dialogue so often references the ‘great Australian dream’—that baby-boomer cliché, the fundamentally Anglo-capitalist, patriarchal stereotype of the quarter-acre block with its single-storey house, a Hills hoist and a picket fence, inhabited by a heterosexual couple and their three blond children—is a particularly cruel taunt to those of us who can neither see anything of ourselves in such an image, nor have the means to make it so even if we wanted to.
A friend of mine works in native title, helping Indigenous communities in Queensland—people with whom she often has family ties—reclaim some sliver of the land their ancestors knew intimately, cared for and shaped over tens of thousands of years, which has been violently wrenched from them over the past two and a half centuries. I think of them when I look at those pictures of nail houses: there is a shared sense of defiance, a refusal to countenance the idea that a dollar value could or should be placed on what we call home, and an understanding that places and people interact in ways that transcend the crude mercantile system under which we live. But that crude mercantile system produces an outcome in which, for many, a permanent home is perpetually out of reach.
In the streets of Melbourne, increasing numbers of homeless people set up camp. Semi-permanent living arrangements involving trolleys, clothes, mattresses, milk crates, boxes and blankets now populate sheltered corners and disused alcoves across the city. Support networks are overwhelmed and yet continually defunded. People sit on public-housing waiting lists for anywhere between nine months and ten years.
The house in which I now live (I have moved, on average, once every 18 months since I left my parents’ house) is wearing around the edges. One of the steps on the stairs and a number of fixtures are broken. Some of the locks don’t work. The carpet is old and worn. There is water damage in a number of rooms. The walls are so thin I hear every move my neighbours make. (Home, I often think these days, would be the place where I can always find silence.) If the house were mine—if I didn’t know that I will probably be gone in a year, that I will be forced to move again, to uproot, by rent hikes or housemates leaving or the property being sold to yet another investor—I would fix it. Instead, I wait and wait for a landlord who does not care for anything except my rental cheque, and while I do my best to make myself comfortable, to make this place home would be to pour emotional labour into a fantasy.
I don’t have children. My debts are not insurmountable. But I live on little more than the equivalent of the dole, and while I get by, it is not sustainable. Two-thirds of my income goes on rent; it is a good month when I can save more than $150. If I could, theoretically, put that aside every month, in a couple of decades I might scrape together enough for a deposit on a very small apartment. But there’s no chance of that when one needs to save for things as simple as a visit to the doctor, or a new coat for winter. The fact that I might inherit my parents’ assets after their deaths—a proposition often floated by way of excusing the children of boomers from having a material stake in the discussion of systemic poverty—is neither comforting nor certain: I am one of five children; my parents may live until I am 60; their assets may be diminished by the costs of aged care or medical bills, or one of the myriad things that can bring the moderately comfortable to heel very quickly. Their existence gives me a safety net for now, but inheritance is not a solution to a world structured against the interests of the many. And there is no comfort in the prospect of financial security contingent upon profound grief.
In particularly unbecoming moments, I find myself looking forward to the property market crash, that great leveller of economic shocks, when the charlatans and financiers—those to whom other people’s lives are as insignificant as pieces on a Monopoly board—finally find themselves on the bread line with the rest of us. Part of me thinks, maybe I’ll be okay, because at least I know how to stay warm without heating, to eat on $25 a week, to make do with op shop crockery and hand-me-down furniture. At least I know how to be poor. But then I think about the prospect of still packing those damn cardboard boxes every 18 months when I’m 80, of hauling the ephemera of my life around on crooked knees from one cold, shabby apartment to another, of wondering how the hell one can possibly afford to rent on the current age pension, and I flash between profound depression and righteous, white-hot rage.
When the drilling began for the now-shelved East West Link, for which hundreds of homes were compulsorily acquired by the Napthine Coalition government in spite of widespread public opposition, communities in the affected areas campaigned hard. They leafleted and conducted meetings; they disrupted drilling sites; they chained themselves to machinery; they physically prevented the construction work from being carried out. They were more than simply tenacious owners of dingzihu; they fought for a vision of a better community: one built on sustainability and an intrinsic respect for the places people make their homes.
My great-aunt Patty lived until she was 93 and was lucky enough to remain in the house she’d made home for more than 40 years until she passed away. She died surrounded by the things she loved: books, exquisite china objects—tea cups, vases, ornaments—and a garden full of fantastically wild rose bushes, and narcissus that broke through the winter frosts in bursts of colour. Among the things I inherited was a small paper bag of bulbs that she had set aside for the summer. I still carry those bulbs with me from rental to rental, squeezing them into plastic pots and balcony window boxes where I can, and wait for the day when I am lucky enough to have my own patch of earth in which to plant them.