When the Volkswagen Kombi rolled into Australia in the 1970s, it brought with it a whole new lifestyle. The campervan movement has taken on many a skin in its lifetime, but mobile living is a true subculture of home life. Futon couches, handcrafted drawers, camp kitchen appliances and battery-powered setups are synonymous with van culture, and as it has evolved over time, many of these elements have remained the same.
In a post-covid world, the life of a nomad is restricted to one’s regional surroundings. With state governments closing their borders at one point or another through 2020, it's been made more difficult than usual for those who circumnavigate the continent on a whim. Irrespective of this, the working from home movement has entrusted people with an opportunity to move away from the office, and this can easily end up on the road, with the handbrake pulled up anywhere between a national park and a public toilet block.
Dr Hazel Blunden, research fellow for the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, says the pandemic has untethered employees from their workplaces, and made them rethink their approach to worklife.
“If you can’t afford a mortgage, or don’t want to take on huge debt, you could choose to live this way, with the benefits of mobility and travel,” she says in an interview with UNSW’s media arm.
“For people on lower incomes, in particular, it can be a viable option to purchase a vehicle, which is typically a lower cost than buying a house or even renting.”
Long term though, the negatives begin to outweigh the positives. A lack of assets and a true place to rest headline a long list of potential issues these modernist nomads must face. As Blunden argues, purchasing a van can often be a way for aspiring homeowners and youngsters to have a definitive say on their living arrangements, despite being locked out of the property market.
There is also the opposite end of the spectrum, with elderly couples selling up and moving their life onto four wheels. With minimal overheads and the kids grown up, the want to break away from the societal norm is something people do address in their twilight years.
That said, the immediate focus surrounding the concerns of mobile living is to do with youth and young adults spending their life between the double lines. Despite the freedom it possesses and the ability to have a ready made holiday just behind the front seat, when stacked up against the space of a house, there is a considerable difference. Blunden says many who embark on the mobile living journey eventually look for more stable housing options.
“For some, it’s an affordable living choice, but I wouldn’t call it an affordable housing choice.
“I think you’ll find after a while when the van starts to break down or begins to feel cramped, you hear people say they would like to buy some land or move into a house, and so they’re looking for something more permanent.”
Blunden touches on the stereotype that is living within a car as opposed to a fully fledged camping vehicle, and that while people are relegated to their cars for unfortunate personal circumstances, it is very rare that it is ever a permanent solution to the residential problem.
“There is a negative side to mobile living when people are forced to live in their vehicles. For example, many homeless people live in their cars, or women escaping from domestic and family violence live in caravan parks.
“For many people, living in a vehicle is not a hipster lifestyle choice – it's a necessity.”
Australia’s housing affordability is a major issue that continues to plague potential first home buyers, and is certainly a major reason why some look to living their lives in the back of a van. Debilitating debt is also typically at the forefront of the mind of those who look to purchase any home, let alone their first. The 2016 Census outlined a 10% drop in Australians that own their home completely from 1996, which now sits at 31%.
For years, the ongoing issue of housing affordability has not been addressed by federal governments. While low interest rates have alleviated some stress for potential homeowners to buy, negative gearing continues to plague Australians irrespective of their place in the market.
“It’s a big problem in Australia. We know that young people are already less likely to be able to purchase a home and we know homeownership has trended downwards among all households, and especially amongst 25-44-year-olds since the late 1990s,” Blunden says.
“The dominant business model now is to keep people pretty much in a state of constant debt – whether it is a big mortgage, credit cards or Afterpay.”
Blunden’s proposed solution is one that has been met with opposition on both sides of the aisle.
“What we should be doing is building more social housing, which we haven’t adequately invested in for a long time. We could also set aside some affordable housing in new developments through standardising inclusionary zoning requirements. We could increase means-tested housing for sale schemes.”
While state governments look to create affordable housing in the future throughout both metropolitan and regional areas, many of these slated developments are typically a decade down the track.
The need to create affordable and livable spaces for first home buyers is an immediate issue that will only continue to plague young adults. Alternatives, as time goes on, become increasingly cumbersome. Some turn to renting, others sacrifice luxuries to spring themselves into the market, and some put their keys in the ignition and make their way onto the open road.