Hey, newly married Christian couples, ever thought of shacking up with another Christian couple? Okay, the headline looks spicier than the reality, but with a recent report showing that Australia’s housing shortage is set to get even worse, a great opportunity presents itself to model Christian community in a way most Aussies have never contemplated.
The stats on the housing shortage in this country make for alarming reading. Seven of the country’s top 20 council areas experiencing a housing lack are in my home state of Western Australia, and considering we are roughly ten per cent of the national population that’s a serious problem. Of those seven, one is the shire of Swan, where our church plant, Midland Providence, just happens to be. Each day as I run around the Midland town centre I have the mixed feeling of seeing another old house being bulldozed, to make way for about ten apartments. I say “mixed” because I love the character homes of old Midland, but recognise it’s probably one of the last affordable places in the Perth region, so more houses means more affordability for young families, migrants and key workers who are priced out of the inner and coastal suburbs markets.
(Actual CBD, actual couple and actual house may vary)
But what about shacking up, you ask? When are you getting to that? Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The Australian national psyche over the last fifty years has not been about house-sharing (not once you’ve gotten yourself married/partnered/in the family way), but more about the private quarter-acre block with a house plonked firmly in the middle of it. That’s how I grew up, with the requisite lemon tree, almond tree and gum tree in the back yard of our post-war fibro 3×1. The amount of grass we had to mow was ridiculous, and the smell of the horse that resided in the backyard of the neighbouring house behind us was not the most pleasant olfactory memory I have. Our old house is now gone. The block remains of course, with about eight double storey apartments on it. So much for all that lawn care.
And that’s the pattern. The old days are gone for good. Even with individual residences, block size has shrunk, reflecting both the land price and the desire for busy people to be freed up from looking after large gardens in a drought-ridden part of the world. Families have shrunk too. Houses, of course, have not shrunk, and with the average young person staying at home much longer than in the past (the world tour at 18 with a two year London stop-over is so 1975), dwellings are much more akin to two or three mini-houses clustered around a large central open-plan living dining.
Which is where shacking up comes into it (Finally!). With a little bit of imagination two or three Christian couples who wish to do community life and do gospel good to their part of the world, could buy a block and design a house that has two or three quite separate bedroom/bathroom/small living areas, and a larger communal living area. Design it all around a private balcony each and a communal garden area, and voila, you have three families living in affordable housing, with the seeds of a Christian community to boot.
There are other upsides to it (and some downsides I will get to later). A young married Christian couple at my run club are now sharing a house with another young married Christian couple. Separately each couple was able – barely – to afford a fairly small standard dwelling in what is a super-heated section of the rental property market. But together? For less rent each, they avoided the long waiting lists at the bottom end of the rental food chain, found somewhere bigger, with separated bedroom/bathroom areas and a communal living space. All happy? Well, yes, eventually. As my friends said, it took a while to deal with all of the differences between couples that crop up. As Christians, however, they had to deal with these issues up front and in a gospel manner, rather than doing the old group house “passive-aggressive post-it-notes on the fridge” gig that is so intolerable. In other words it tested their sanctification. It made it necessary to resolve conflict between the couples, and between themselves. It gave permission to speak into one another’s lives. It enabled them to model living for Christ not just themselves.
What are the other pluses of such a move? It frees up money. It frees up money to be generous with! It gives you more living space, living space that can be used to enjoy by yourselves and with others in community, whether that be Christians or local friends. It models Christian micro-community to others. It gives couples the chance to work out their differences in ways that don’t stay hidden and toxic.
Now of course these couples are only renting. It’s a step up to buy land with other people and build a house together. A step up, but not impossible surely, and not impossible for Christians for whom the owning of their own home is not their ultimate dream anyway – and even if it were, it’s way beyond them.
I recognise too that it’s not for everyone, so it would have to be a decision made very carefully – and with legal prerequisites in place for eventualities such as people wishing to end their contract. It will also require a certain matching of personalities, keeping in mind whether people are extroverts/introverts or a mix of the two. And of course, sin must be factored into it all as well, meaning clear privacy boundaries, a pre-planned disputes resolution process, and a commitment to self-sacrifice within your home, not simply self-serving. That’s all just another way of saying we don’t get two versions of “being Christian”; the public one and the private one. Christ calls us to live a joined-up life home and away.
Now, having read this, the whole concept might fill you with horror, and it’s probably not my cup of tea to be honest – not now anyway. From where I sit: low-mortgage/affordable housing/fifteen years into paying the thing off/about-to-be-teen daughter, it’s easy to dismiss it. But what do the stats say? 50 thousand dwellings short in Australia – per year! The whole gist of the article was to encourage investors (read: older people who own their own home and are making money off rentals) to sign up to further property investment – all at the expense of those who would like to own their own home, but cannot. And if you are in that “about-to-be-married” category and are Christian, then the biggest financial weight around your neck over the next thirty years, and the one that will cause you most stress, threaten to burn you out, decrease your opportunities to be financially generous, and ensure you can’t give too much time to church life, will be that all-encompassing mortgage.
In light of those realities, shacking up Christian style is worth a shot, I reckon.