Illustration by Wendy Fox

Australia is in the grips of an affordable housing crisis. Melbourne and Sydney have some of the most expensive housing in the world, behind only Vancouver and Hong Kong in the global rankings, and most of our other cities are classified as “severely unaffordable”. One of the great tragedies of increasing house prices is that it breaks apart communities. I used to live in a cluster within walking distance of a bunch of different friends. As rent has increased and our incomes haven’t, we’ve all moved radially outwards, further and further away from each other.

This disassembling of communities is pretty garbage for everyone, but it’s absolutely deadly for the arts. As economist Chris Dillow writes:

“Art and culture, as much as industry, benefits from agglomeration effects – the ability of creative people to live near each other. In the 60s and 70s countless musicians moved into rundown New York apartments where they could live cheaply whilst they honed their craft and waited for their break.”

As far as I can tell, you get good art by shoving a bunch of musicians or painters or writers into cheap flats in the same area until they form a scene and start collaborating and making incredible stuff. I mean, some people can make good art alone in a mountain cabin, but mostly that’s not how the movements that have pushed us forward have happened.

Art also requires a certain amount of free time and energy – if would-be artists are working triple shifts just to make rent, they’ll be rendered too exhausted and brain-shrivelled to do anything creative.

High commercial rent is also an issue, because artists need venues to perform, and venues need to pay rent. When rent is high, only the venues that appeal to the widest possible audience can survive. No strange little places that appeal only to niche audiences. You absolutely cannot afford to take a risk. Eventually all live music becomes cover bands, because cover bands draw a reliable crowd.

The Ramones, Blondie, The Misfits, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and a hundred other bands came out of the scene around New York’s CBGB club. In 2006, the CBGB’s landlord sued the proprietors for $90,000 in alleged back rent, on top of the $19,000 a month they were already paying. They couldn’t come up with the money and were forced to close.

The arts sector in Australia has been absolutely devastated by COVID-19 shutdowns and subsequent abandonment by the federal government. Alongside direct support, a Covid recovery plan that tackled affordable housing would help arts and culture to revive and flourish – and we’d all experience the benefits.

— Mckinley Valentine & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #65 here