City Futures Blog

News and research in housing and urban policy, from Australia’s leading urban policy research centre.

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They know where you go: dockless bike sharing looms as the next disruptor – if key concerns are fixed

Posted by on December 7th, 2017 · Bikes, Cities, Data, Transport

By Christopher Pettit, UNSW. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. The ConversationDr Simone Z. Leao created the Bicycling Dashboard shown in this article.

Beyond the benefits of dockless bike sharing for people’s mobility and health, these services are producing an ever more useful byproduct: journey data. Mapped through global positioning system (GPS) devices on the bikes or via Bluetooth using GPS data from users’ smartphones, the journey data that operators collect could be a powerful tool for city planners and policymakers, possibly even a valuable commodity.


Each trip taken on a dockless bike is recorded in a database. At UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre, we have been working with Bicycle Network’s Riderlog app data. We have mapped more than 120,000 journeys and are exploring how the data can be both used and protected.

We have been able to create Bicycling Dashboards for all the capital cities of Australia, an example of which is shown below. The dashboard can show riders’ behaviours and movements across each city.

Bicycling Dashboard: visualising cyclists’ behaviour across the city.
Created by Dr Simone Z. Leao, City Futures, UNSW, Author provided

Dockless, the next big disruption?

Dockless sharing schemes use bikes that are self-locking and tracked through GPS. Using a smartphone app, riders can pick up a bike, use it, then essentially leave it at their destination.

In an era of smart cities and ubiquitous computing, dockless bike sharing adds another layer of connection through digital platforms and smartphone apps to navigate and interact with the built environment. Our dependency on these new and useful technologies is driving their disruptive impacts.

Technology-based services are reshaping how city residents and visitors access essential services such as transport and housing. Bower and Christensen first coined the term disruptive technologies in 1995.

The two disruptive technology pinups are Uber and Airbnb. Uber has disrupted the business model of the taxi industry, while Airbnb has disrupted the short-term accommodation market. In the last 10 years both have exploded globally and now hold formidable market shares in more than 100 cities across the world.

The new kid on the block is dockless bikes.

A key advantage in bike sharing

An interesting point of difference to other city disruptors is that there is not one dominant dockless bike market leader. In Australia, over just a few months, we have seen the arrival of at least six operators: Reddy Go, OBike, ofo, mobike, Earth bike and Airbike.

To use the oBike, riders download the app and use it to scan the QR code on the back of the bike.
Tyrone Siu/Reuters

All dockless bike schemes allow the rider to leave the bike in public spaces close to their destination. This is the key difference from docked bike-sharing systems, which required the rider to pick up and return the bike at dedicated docking stations. Having hired such bikes in Chicago and Glasgow, I can attest to the challenges of finding the elusive docking station and then returning the bike to a station that is not as close as I would like to my destination.

The dockless bike can provide an important link in the “mobility as a service” value chain, whether it’s used for the “last mile” commute or the tourist experience. Either way, having more bikes on our roads must encourage more cycling, which can only be a good thing, right?


Smart but revealing

Our work at City Futures makes clear just how much the collected journey data can tell us about the users. Across Australian capital cities, we have mapped more than 120,000 cycle journeys by 7,600 users over three-and-half years.

Through cleaning and visualising this data, we can start to understand at a fine scale where and when people are riding through the city and where they are not, and what age and gender the cyclists are.

As the Bicycling Dashboards show, this is a rich source of information for city planners and policymakers. If linked to other data it could just as easily be a valuable commodity in its own right.

So one might speculate if collecting fine-scale mobility data is part of the dockless bike operators’ business model.

The collection of personal mobility data also raises questions about its security and anonymity. The data visualised in the Bicycling Dashboard has gone through a process of formatting, cleaning, validating and, importantly, anonymisation.

Safeguarding personal data is essential. It should be of paramount concern to dockless bike operators as they collect detailed information about each individual’s movements. Other personal information typically collected includes the cyclist’s phone number and credit card details.

Aggregating this information to understand mobility patterns is valuable for city planners and policymakers. However, the individual traces of a person as they travel the city must be guarded for reasons of privacy and personal security.

Every user of a docked bike leaves digital traces of their journey around the city.


Guidelines to getting it right

Data collection is but one of the opportunities and challenges facing dockless bike operators. Many also see visual clutter as a key drawback. China has bike graveyards filled with dockless bikes; in Melbourne, dozens of dockless bikes have been dredged from the Yarra River; and in Sydney, six inner-city councils (Inner West, City of Sydney, Randwick, Waverley, Woollahra and Canada Bay) developed bike-sharing provider guidelines, giving operators three months to comply.

The guidelines are sensible and importantly include “data sharing” between bike-sharing operators and councils as one of seven key principles.

However, dockless bikes are still having a marked impact in Sydney. In the recently released draft Future Transport Strategy 2056, TransportNSW identified bike sharing as part of the solution to people’s transport needs.

We can see dockless bikes as the next link in the chain to mobility as a service. I hope the operators can get it right, so more Australians can get on a bike and realise the health benefits of active transport.



Government guarantee opens investment highway to affordable housing

Posted by on December 5th, 2017 · Affordable housing, Finance, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Social housing

By Julie Lawson, Honorary Associate Professor, RMIT University; Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Vivienne Milligan, Senior Visiting Fellow – City Futures Research Centre, UNSW. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian governments have stepped into the market at critical times since the late 19th century to encourage and channel investment in affordable housing. With rising housing stress in Sydney, Melbourne and other areas, the Australian government has now done just that.

On Friday, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar slipped into the National Housing Conference in Sydney to announce a government guarantee on investment in affordable housing.

The announcement went largely unreported, but it was significant. The guarantee is a crucial piece of the affordable housing policy architecture, complementing the “bond aggregator” (or intermediary) mechanism announced in the budget. Treasurer Scott Morrison and Treasury officials have been working on this intermediary, a National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, over the past 18 months.

These combined measures should create an efficient private investment pathway into social and affordable housing for super funds, insurance companies and other entities hungry for low-risk returns.

The government’s Affordable Housing Working Group outlined this approach, drawing on a number of our reports commissioned through the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI). These assembled powerful evidence from a range of countries of the proven record of government-backed financial intermediaries and debt guarantees in affordable housing finance systems.

Judging from responses to the Treasury consultation paper, the guarantee enjoys strong industry and political support.

This development could also catalyse efforts to build a national housing accord backed by industry, civil society and welfare groups to expand affordable housing for the growing number of Australians in need. A campaign in support of this, Everybody’s Home, was foreshadowed at last week’s conference.

New model based on an old principle

A government guarantee to back bonds issued by the new NHFIC marks a welcome return to the Commonwealth’s former role of actively enabling investment in housing for low and moderate-income households. Historically, this involved reshaping circuits of investment to increase supply, improve quality, deliver better-planned suburbs, ensure returning soldiers were housed, broaden access to home ownership and provide security for households not served by a failing market.

The government support for investment will guarantee access to cost-effective private finance for community housing providers. It will be backed by a secure cash flow from rental income supported by Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

Affordable housing includes not only rental housing geared to income but also below-market-rate rental housing and home ownership. This offers a refuge for households unable to afford housing at market rates.

Coupled with dedicated public funding, the guarantee could turn what has been a trickle of short-term and costly bank debt into a hugely increased flow of longer-term and lower-risk investment.

Why invest in social housing?

Our AHURI-funded international research has found that long-term and patient capital makes an ideal partner for affordable rental housing. Instead of capital gains from sales, the steady cash flows from rent revenue offer secure returns. This is what makes it attractive to pension funds.

Combined with public co-investment and not-for-profit management, secure affordable housing outcomes are more assured.

This investment ultimately saves us all money. Too many Australian households are one step from homelessness, which is devastating for any family. The costs of homelessness to the nation are also huge.

But it’s not just a matter of cost. Homelessness is an affront to the Australian values of compassion and a fair go, often underestimated by political leaders.

Lessons from overseas are clear

The government’s re-engagement with efforts to boost affordable rental housing is in tune with moves in other similar countries.

Just last month Canada released its first national housing strategy, highlighting housing as a human right. The aim is to increase the supply of moderate rent and supportive housing by at least 100,000 homes over 11 years. A National Housing Co-investment Fund will provide A$16.5 billion to repair and expand the affordable housing stock.

Also last month, the UK government announced a new round of debt guarantees for “build to rent” development, alongside A$15.7 billion in direct investment and increased borrowing caps for social housing.

It is true the most effective affordable housing policy levers available to governments are land supply and direct public investment. This was the approach taken in early postwar Australia.

But since the 1990s Australian governments have shown no inclination to re-adopt this model. As an alternative, international best practice combines the most cost-effective long-term investment with strategic public investment in well-regulated not-for-profit landlords.

Finland offers an example. In a country one-fifth the size of Australia, 9,000 social housing dwellings are built each year. This is financed by low-cost government-guaranteed loans via a public intermediary, with interest subsidies and conditional grants to not-for-profit providers.

Finland has the lowest rate of homelessness in Europe. Young Finns leave their parental home and become independent earlier than anywhere else in the European Union. It’s a clever housing system, not based on the luck of the market or family fortune.

Now to tackle the public funding gap

Australian governments have long talked the talk of decent homes for all. But they have struggled to align policy on land development, property taxation and social security accordingly. Our political leaders have simply failed to reform our planning and tax systems to favour affordable housing.

The social housing investment guarantee represents an important return by the Commonwealth to leadership in housing policy and investment. It will bring in a large and willing industry super sector, delivering not only returns for policy holders but also real gains for society at large.

However, enabling more cost-effective private finance can narrow but not eliminate the shortfall in funding for social and affordable housing so that the books balance. As the government’s own advisory body made clear, this policy framework can realise its potential only when government commits the funding needed to bridge this gap.


Visioning varieties of “mixed tenure” development  

Posted by on December 1st, 2017 · Affordable housing, Construction, Housing, Planning, Social housing, Strata, urban renewal

The reasons for mixing tenures that are supported by evidence are often not the histrionic or paternalistic ones around avoiding neighbourhood “blight” that get media coverage and political traction.

First of all, it turns out people in subsidised housing aren’t just waiting for a banker to move next door to provide them a role model in how to pull up their socks. Second of all, it turns out there is little appetite for directed social integration across classes – even among lower-income households – because different cultural preferences and lifestyles keep people apart as much as geography.

As we might expect, however, research shows that lower-income households will benefit from residing in neighbourhoods that are serviced by major infrastructure (whether school, hospital or transport), close to job opportunities and free from historically bad reputations. And these neighbourhoods are often those beyond the means of lower-income households. So there is a strong foundation for planning and development policy that limits the segregation of populations by income at a metropolitan scale.

When designing mixed-tenure projects, realising community satisfaction and cohesion lies in the detailed urban design. We recently analysed the published evidence of mixed-tenure developments, to improve these outcomes in future Australian housing renewal projects. The work was commissioned by Frasers Property Australia, to help guide their, ultimately successful, tender for the Ivanhoe public housing estate redevelopment in Sydney’s northern suburbs.

mixed development Ivanhoe

Spot the difference

All the evidence suggests the most important guiding principle in mixing tenures is “tenure blindness”. That is, it shouldn’t be possible to distinguish one tenure from another simply by physical appearance. However, the focus of this principle is often the built form – making sure the buildings look the same from the street. But there is also a need for comparable upkeep by each occupant and maintenance by each owner to ensure this is retained over time.

One concern identified in historic mixed-tenure schemes has been cost-cutting in the subsidised housing – like providing less off-street parking and private open space. This was not “visible”, so not considered a breach of the tenure blindness principle. However, it was associated with a greater reliance among subsidised housing occupants on public alternatives, such as street parking and public open space. In turn this led to a division in community value placed on those amenities, along with their management and funding.

An urban design feature often advocated in support of the ‘social integration’ ethic of mixed tenure is to scatter dwellings of different tenures among each other, rather than have them clustered together. Called “pepper-potting“, this approach has been applied here in Sydney – for example, in the Bonnyrigg renewal project in Fairfield. However, having subsidised housing distributed like this can make service delivery from government or NGOs less efficient. And less effective social services for in-need households has the potential to increase other problems down the track. Problems that can adversely affect neighbours.

mixed development

Mo density mo problems

Pepper-potting in high-density developments can be more problematic. House-by-house mixing (as at Bonnyrigg) could be seen as translating to building-by-building mixing of apartments. Beyond this, it can be embodied in unit-by-unit mixing within a single structure (as shown in the diagram above). Such an arrangement, however, raises questions of practicality and marketability.

Unit-by-unit mixing in apartment buildings means complicated strata ownership structures. Strata management can strain neighbour relations at the best of times, but here there is also a financial risk to the (typically not-for-profit) provider of subsidised housing. The housing provider often can’t control strata scheme levies, as strata laws limit the power of a single owner. And the provider agitating for changes to building management has in the past meant subsidised housing tenants can suffer the ire of their disgruntled neighbours. Any semblance of tenure blindness is unravelled. Private partners also translate these risks to their bottom line, as such schemes are often seen as having a more limited market.

One solution is to divide a building into different parts, under different management. This approach has been employed in one new building constructed as part of the public housing renewal project at Riverwood North, in south-west Sydney. This overcomes any challenges caused by differing expectations of building amenities and services, and so ongoing costs. But it retains the potential economies of integrated development and design. Even here, though, there are risks if the different parts remain in stratum (floor-by-floor mixing) and so are subsumed under a complex building management committee. And there is reputational risk, with similar arrangements overseas derided by some as introducing a “poor door” and entrenching stigmatisation of subsidised housing.

Another solution to the building management problem is single-owner rental buildings. This not only allows for a more controlled building management, it can provide a channel for subsidised housing providers to cross-subsidise from market rental revenues. This “build-to-rent model” has taken off in the UK, and is starting to get traction here.

Each of these variants has pros and cons, with the most appropriate choice dependant on the development context among other factors. Importantly, finer-grain unit-by-unit mixing often doesn’t contribute to achieving the possible benefits of mixed-tenure, which are a function of co-location more than integration. Tenure-specific buildings still keep subsidised housing occupants close to the same infrastructure and jobs, and growing local community. As such, building-by-building mixing is often a preferable middle ground. It avoids these issues of building management at one end. But it also avoids the geographic demarcation that arises in mere block-by-block mixing across a development.

Buildings do not a community make

Finally, it must be stressed that design decisions are not the only factors shaping the success of a tenure-mixed community. As already mentioned, sustainable regeneration calls for effective ongoing building management, and an enduring commitment of resources to ensure a steady development of community connections. This is true of any new neighbourhood, as social capital will need to be built up from next to nothing. But it is particularly true of mixed neighbourhoods, not only mixed in tenure but age, cultural background or household type. In these neighbourhoods there will be different demands and additional barriers to community cohesion that will require good governance to overcome.

There are other policy implications too. Inclusionary zoning mechanisms may be about to become more commonplace across Sydney. So understanding the neighbourhoods that these mechanisms generate is important. If nothing else, this research suggests that, in medium or higher density settings, policy should favour the inclusion of subsidised housing in separate but integrated buildings, rather than individual apartments scattered throughout the private development.

Ryan van den Nouwelant is senior research officer, City Futures Research Centre at UNSW.

Professor Hal Pawson is associate director, City Futures Research Centre at UNSW.

Vanguarding Newcastle

Posted by on November 23rd, 2017 · Cities, Guest appearance, Planning, Public space, urban renewal


By Dr Ori Gudes, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, Emily Davies O’Sullivan, Willana Urban, Newcastle, and Associate Professor M. Hank Haeusler, Computational Design, UNSW.

Earlier this month 50 rising urban planners and leaders from cities across the globe converged in Newcastle, NSW, for Vanguard Australia. Organised by NextCityOrg, this was the first of its annual Vanguard events to be held outside North America. The conference was run in partnership with the NSW State Government and Newcastle City Council.

The overarching aim was to stimulate innovative ideas for Newcastle, to help the city to thrive and compete in the global economy. The selection process for attendees was competitive and there were more than 200 applications in which 50 participants were selected. From our faculty, two participants were selected, Associate Professor M. Hank Haeusler from Computational Design and Dr Ori Gudes from City Futures. UNSW Alumni also included Rachel Cogger (former tutor of the BPlan), John O’Callaghan (Tutor of the BPlan and CoDe) and Emily Davies O’Sullivan.

During the conference, participants were introduced to the work done by Revitalising Newcastle  and the University of Newcastle. They also met with business owners and local leaders such as Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Newcastle, a not-for-profit company that has facilitated more than 70 new creative projects in more than 40 once-empty buildings in the Newcastle CBD. They also met with other Novocastrians who shared their inspirational stories of renewing Newcastle.

The conference culminated with an urban planning challenge. Six planning teams were challenged to plan two iconic sites in Newcastle CBD (the old Post office building and the old train station). The groups comprised of mix of thinkers and planners from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Therefore, three planning teams were working on each site. A panel of judges including the Lord Mayor of Newcastle selected the most innovative plans.

The winner of the Vanguard challenge for 2017 was the group facilitated by John O’Callaghan (JOC Consulting Pty Ltd) Australia and included the following Vanguard members:

  • Rachel Cogger (RPS Group, Australia)
  • Subeh Chowdhury (University of Auckland, New Zealand);
  • Tyler Caine (DCP Architecture PLLC, USA);
  • Tara Mei Smith (Extra Terrestrial Projects, Inc., USA);
  • Jasnam Sidhu (PWC, UK);
  • Lindsey Scannapieco (Scout, USA);
  • Essence Wilson (Communities First, Inc., USA); and
  • Ori Gudes (City Futures, UNSW).

The presentation of the wining project (e.g., the train station challenge) can be found here. The conference was also well reported in the local media.

Perhaps the most significant takeaways from the conference were hearing the stories of the other Vanguards.  Tenacity was a trait widely displayed in their place making, administration and urban planning pursuits. We had Vanguards from New Zealand who have been instrumental in rebuilding not just Christchurch physically but socially and culturally.  We had representatives who challenged us to always think about countering disadvantage when making change in communities.  We had representatives who focused on the possible when everyone else would have deemed a scheme impossible.  It was working, learning and hearing from these amazing individuals that led to a general feeling of striving to do more for our own communities and be the change we want to see in the world.

Another major take-home was witnessing international and interstate perspectives on processes and culture here in Australia, New South Wales and specifically Newcastle. At each of the presentations to the Vanguards, the delegates challenged the perspective which had been long held and well recited. Poignant questions raised by the Vanguards, often met with no tangible answers, will hopefully be the start of wider conversations with the local circles of the presenters.  This outside perspective forced us locals to critically evaluate things such as inclusion, the notion of equitable access and the role Aboriginal Culture plays in modern society and how ongoing urban renewal plays out in relation to retention of Newcastle’s unique character.  All very relevant points for rising leaders and urban planners to consider more thoughtfully.

Did this get you inspired? More information about the next Vanguard conference will be available here.

Facts sink glib housing supply mantra – the focus must be on affordable rental

Posted by on November 21st, 2017 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Cities, Finance, Government, Housing, Housing supply, Social housing, Sydney, urban renewal

By Hal Pawson, UNSW. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As everyone supposedly knows, fixing housing unaffordability is simply a matter of boosting housing supply. But wait! With their just-published report on house-building and population growth, ANU academics Ben Phillips and Cukkoo Joseph have blown yet another hole in that sacred claim.

By comparing housing demand and supply at a sub-regional level, their analysis highlights evidence that in many parts of Australia – not least inner Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – house-building has been running well ahead of local household growth for the past few years. Yet these are hardly areas where prices have dived.

In the City of Sydney, for example, overall median apartment prices rose by 52% in the five years to March 2017. On the ANU analysis, this area has recently been oversupplied relative to population. Yet apartment prices here still rose at the same rate as across Greater Sydney, a region with some areas of undersupply.

Politicians’ worn-out excuse

Previous commentaries have highlighted the recently strong positive correlation between rapidly expanding housing supply and property inflation (yes – where rising supply parallels rising prices). But these correctives to the popular wisdom have failed to gain traction.

This is partly because of the continuing seductive appeal of the common sense claim that rising prices reflect gross shortage. So, it’s reasoned, expanding house building will moderate the market.

As my Sydney University colleague Peter Phibbs recently observed, this “supply mantra” works for politicians seeking to connect with voters because “everyone is an economist now and more supply will bring down prices”.

Heaven forbid that anyone might draw attention to the special features of housing as a commodity. As noted by Ben Phillips, these mean such supply “rules” do not apply; at least not in the simple form applicable to bananas.

More importantly, though, governments use their unqualified faith in equitable housing market solutions to get off the hook. It absolves them of the responsibility for playing an active role in managing and shaping these markets to deliver housing that meets everyone’s need for shelter. Instead, they facilitate development for speculation.

Calls for a policy rethink

This critique is not exclusive to academics and affordable housing campaigners. It is increasingly coming from other stakeholders, including in the finance industry.

In a recent report, Industry Super Australia (ISA) lamented the “haphazard approach [to housing policy] … across all levels of Australian government … What was a serious problem a decade ago is becoming a crisis after a further ten years of policy gridlock”.

We recently advocated for a re-established National Housing Supply Council (NHSC). Echoing this, ISA calls for government to set up “a co-ordinating body to identify the extent of regional shortfalls in [affordable] housing”. This would require “reinstatement of a rigorous housing supply forecasting capacity to underpin effective city and municipal level planning”.

As advocated by ISA, the body’s membership and functions would closely mirror those of the NHSC. However, again consistent with our proposals, there would be greater emphasis on the position of renters on low to moderate incomes.

No-one disputes that, with continued population growth nationally and especially in our capital cities, maximising new house-building must be part of the policy mix. But the idea that this can be any kind of silver bullet for unaffordable housing – especially for the lower-income renters who are really doing it tough – is fundamentally flawed. As ISA puts it:

Simply increasing overall housing stock will not ensure that more assisted [affordable] housing becomes available. Instead, increasing the supply of assisted [affordable] housing specifically is required.

What is needed above all is “a comprehensive, long-term commitment to addressing the supply of affordable rentals for low to moderate earners”.

Australia sailed directly away from this essential goal with the Abbott government’s 2014 scrapping of the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

Moves to repair the damage

Recent policy moves in Canberra just may have set a course towards repairing the damage.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has backed a new mechanism to channel low-cost construction finance to community housing providers. The Commonwealth is also starting to pressure the states and territories to develop “credible housing strategies”. This would be in return for ongoing national funding for public housing and homelessness services.

Crucially, such strategies should include state and territory commitments to the robust use of land-use planning systems to hard-wire affordable rental housing supply into the normal private house-building process. This would emulate and build on recent proposals by the Greater Sydney Commission, which the New South Wales government is considering.

The ConversationFor the states and territories, this model could be a major element of “their side of the bargain” in a serious push to secure an enduring affordable housing supply. Only with some form of matching federal “development subsidy”, however, do such strategies stand a chance of making a real difference.

Living rooms for rent by the minute outsource the whole idea of home

Posted by on November 15th, 2017 · Cities, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing conditions, Marginal rental
File 20171110 29345 1coe87t.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A living room rented by the minute and another room shared for sleeping – the age of the ‘distributed’ home is upon us.

By Christian Tietz, UNSW.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Zifferblatt with double f and double t is a German and Russian word for a watch face. Ziferblat with only one f and one t is a home you can rent by the minute. The missing letters are a clue to what you get – not the whole deal.

In a time when rents and rental insecurity are high and people are sharing rooms with strangers just to have a bed for the night, it is worth looking at this new “home as a service” enterprise. Ziferblat originated in Moscow and spread from there to St Petersburg and other Russian and Eastern locations via Ljubljana to Manchester, Liverpool and London. Around the world, there are currently 14 Ziferblat venues, described as places for cultural and social engagement.

Russia has had a cultural precedent for communal living. After the 1917 revolution, komunalkas emerged to provide collective living arrangements in response to an acute urban housing crisis.

The Ziferblat concept seems a perfect fit for those who share a room at night but don’t have a place to call home during the day. Each venue is open from 10am to midnight and offers a place to relax, read, cook or work – you can even have a nap. It is fully furnished and the website shows your companions performing poetry and playing piano, arty bohemian types – and perhaps as a result unable to pay the high rents in city locations.

At Ziferblat you pay by the minute. That’s right, you have a living room by the minute. The tag line is: “Everything is free except the time you spend here.”

And the minutes are cheap, a few cents only, and like every good deal it’s capped. So once you spent three to four hours, there’s no more to pay for the day.

The top rate is about A$15-20 per day depending on the country. For this, besides the comfortably furnished space, you get free coffee, tea, water, juices, fruit, vegetables, snacks and facilities like a kitchen and bathrooms.

Deconstructing the idea of home

Is this sort of commercial enterprise a further step towards deconstructing our concepts of home and domestic living? After all, a flat can be compared to a car. It sits idle most of the time when we are at work and really is used only at the edges of the day.

Yet we work hard to pay for our home and hope to make up the difference when we sell it. Wouldn’t it be much smarter to outsource the whole idea of the home? To have a home only when you need one and be unencumbered by it when you don’t? Why pay for it when we are not even there most of the time?

This makes even Airbnb seem old school, because with Airbnb I am still paying for my accommodation even if I am out sightseeing.

All that is missing to complete this new decentralised home is a mobile storage service. But all I have to do is send a text message and they pick up (or bring) and store my precious belongings. It’s physical cloud storage for distributed living, modernism 3.0.

This concept opens up a whole new perspective on urban development. Could it be that the current approach to high-density living is missing this new 21st-century trend? Will we be burdened with inappropriate outdated infrastructure that is not used as intended?

What’s more, the new approach will be nearly impossible to control and regulate – unless we accept invasive forensic examination of our private utility bills.

Has urban living changed more than we know?

I estimate, based on advertisements on Australian websites only, that at least 10,000 people are sharing rooms in Sydney. Yet we also have to consider rooms to share in Sydney being offered online in countries like China, India, the Middle East, etc … to new arrivals before they even leave.

A picture starts to emerge of room sharing that may be an underground boom going on right now. Instead of 10,000 people being technically homeless here in Sydney, the number may might well be closer to 50,000 or 100,000. That means a population ranging in size from Strathfield to the combined suburbs of Mosman and North Sydney may be sharing rooms!

Has the horse bolted? Has the game changed so much that is it time to confront these new realities of urban living?

The owner of Ziferblat calls his guests micro-tenants, slicing the pie into ever thinner portions. Ziferblat and other versions of the distributed home might well play a big part in the future of urban city living. We just haven’t realised it yet, because we are too busy and preoccupied with paying off the home we can’t really afford – while our ten roomies in the three-bedroom flat next door have already moved on metaphorically and literally.

The ConversationYou may ask, what about neighbours and a sense of belonging? But isn’t there a virtual reality app for that?



Federal Government’s affordable housing reforms need a social housing investment plan

Posted by on November 13th, 2017 · Affordable housing, Finance, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing supply, Law, Money

By Julie Lawson, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. City Futures Research Centre is collaborating with Dr Lawson on the AHURI Inquiry ‘Social Housing as Infrastructure‘.

The Centre for Urban Research in its submission concerning the National Housing and Finance Investment Corporation to the Federal Treasury provides evidence to support an appropriately governed and skilled NHFIC, alongside a complementary but independent capital investment strategy to supply social housing to address growing Australian needs.

The NHFIC is a mechanism to reduce financing costs but will not address the funding gap. However, it can certainly improve the terms and tenor of debt finance for Community Housing Providers, especially when combined with a guarantee and capital investment programs providing targeted and conditional grants for housing supply.

Financial intermediaries such as the NHFIC and the UK’s Housing Finance Corporation (THFC) which it draws on, never operate in a vacuum, they complement rather than steer and ensure outcomes.  Experience shows that the deeper the grants the greater the social outcome. Since major cuts to capital investment grants In England there has been very limited new social housing provided in 2016-2017, declining from 36,700 units in 2010 to less than 1,100 in 2016 (but no officially collected figures any more). Social housing has been largely replaced by affordable housing and sales though right to buy have also vastly outpaced new supply (Williams and Whitehead, 2015).

Of course Australia once had a reasonably large capital investment program for social housing under decades of Commonwealth State Housing Agreements CSHA. These agreements produced 8,000-14,000 units per year between 1951 and 1996 (Troy, 2012). Since the mid-1990s the proceeds from transfer payments have been less easily accounted for. Indeed, performance benchmarks such as affordability were impossible to obtain given both limited resource and booming price rises.

Now we have a draft bill before Parliament on the National Housing and Homeless Agreement known as the Treasury Laws Amendment (NHHA) Bill. This provides a another framework for bi-lateral agreements but no guaranteed national capital investment payment. Rather conditional housing and homeless assistance payments will be tied to targets specified in state housing strategies. However, the Bill does not specify any specific frameworks, standards or targets that would ensure nation-wide and comprehensive housing outcomes.

Important targets could concern the adequate allocation of supply, the capacity of young people to achieve housing independence and reducing levels of homelessness. These are all measurable indicators which can use easily accessible data.

In our RMIT submission we provide several examples of complementary capital investment programs elsewhere which have made progressive inroads to these goals. For example Finland’s ARA Munifin model (Averio, 2015), produces 9,000 units per year (22% of supply) and for many years has the best record in Europe for reducing rates of homelessness (Feantsa, 2016) and along with Denmark and Sweden,  enables young people to leave their parental home before their mid-twenties and achieve housing independence via the social, secure rental or ownership markets.

All the more reason for AHURI associates to step up to the plate with evidence and expertise in needs based modelling and program design to underpin a more comprehensive affordable and social housing investment strategy.

We will be making a presentation on these at a session on Social Housing as Infrastructure to the AHURI National Housing Conference in Sydney later this month.

Wayfinding at night: a review of research and best practice

Posted by on November 8th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Public space, Sydney, Transport

By Aida Afrooz, City Futures Research Centre.

Finding your way through a city, especially at night, can be daunting. Across the world many governments have sought to facilitate ‘wayfinding’, by making cities more legible and pedestrian friendly.

To inform its understanding of wayfinding, the City of Sydney recently engaged a team of researchers from City Futures Research Centre (Aida Afrooz, Parisa Kalali, Simone Zarpelon Leao, and Chris Pettit) to review the research on best practices in night-time wayfinding. In our ‘Wayfinding at Night’ report we:

  • Outline the common wayfinding practices based on national and international practices;
  • Highlight the new and emerging technologies in wayfinding; and
  • Identify wayfinding strategies and components which could enable different users to navigate through the built environment more effectively at night.

The report is a comprehensive review of comparable national and international wayfinding practices, with 54 practices and plans reviewed and 24 comparable cases to City of Sydney described, across five contextual urban elements: namely, streets, intersections, parks and waterfronts, squares and landmarks. A wide variety of wayfinding components are considered to enable wayfinding systems to be inclusive and meet the needs of different types of users, including residents, visitors, commuters and users with disabilities.

Although daytime navigation tools are usually used by wayfinders at night, there are many other reasons why people get lost at night-time specifically. Applying smart technologies can be a potential solution for overcoming wayfinding difficulties. In this regard, the report offers a synthesis of an ample variety of strategies with a specific focus on smart lighting system and emerging technology. Such technologies also have benefits in addressing safety concerns which are more prevalent at night-time.

From our review of the wayfinding research, we found that there is a lack of a comprehensive framework to integrate performance metrics to benchmark wayfinding systems for the built environment, with the existing studies that include performance metrics very limited in scope and applying to small samples. Some reasons for this gap can be attributed to the fact that most wayfinding projects focus on specific wayfinding approaches, particularly signage design, rather than considering the integration and interplay of varied aspects of wayfinding, such as the interaction between people and the built environment. Most strategies only consider one of these categories; either the design of the built environment or the target users.

We also found that it is not possible to set out a hierarchy of applied strategies as recommended by existing research and practice. For example, we cannot determine that the strategies being implemented in London outweigh those in Toronto or vice versa. This is because of a missing connection between wayfinding studies in a broader context. In our report sought to partially overcome this limitation by setting out a matrix to assist readers to select the most suitable strategies for the purpose of their projects based on a limited set of criteria, rather than rating the applied strategies. Finally, we recommended a benchmark for evaluating wayfinding practices.


Room sharing is the new flat sharing

Posted by on October 13th, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing conditions, Marginal rental, Public space, Sydney, Wellbeing
File 20170927 24212 1rn6iil.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
“Looking for one girl to share a master room with another 3 girls.”
Screenshot from Gumtree ad, August 19 2017, 11:58 , Author provided.

By Christian Tietz, UNSW. Originally published on The Conversation. Christian’s exhibition of new work – DENSA: Exploring New Urban Equipment for Denser Living – will be on display throughout the Red Centre Building until the end of October.

High rents and short-term rentals are driving people to organise themselves to share rooms with strangers in order to live in the city. Room sharing outside a family environment is also occurring in some professions. This includes airline stewards and submariners, nurses on shifts, or hospitality workers in remote or seasonal locations, to name a few.

There are precedents where this arrangement is not unusual. Youth and backpacker hostels offer room sharing as a budget option.

In the cases of the workers above, however, the roomies are part of an organisation and are colleagues. This ensures some vetting has taken place and that their conduct is expected to be in keeping with their paid position and contract.

Youth hostels have management to handle complaints and to keep an eye on things. But what about when you are sharing a room and found your roomie through a website? Who is in charge? And how do you really know with whom you are sharing?

City living costs are driving people to organise themselves to share a room with strangers so they can live in their required location. It’s harder than ever to afford your own bedroom to sleep in.

Various websites list hundreds of offers to share rooms in central Sydney. Beds are available from about $150 to over $230 a week. Room sharing also happens in suburbs like Double Bay, Mosman and Marrickville.

A recent article, “How short-term rentals are making Sydney’s housing crisis worse”, calculates that about 6,000 properties are removed from the rental market and offered to higher-paying tourists through “sharing economy” sites like Airbnb. We have an indication what the potential tenants who can’t afford to rent a flat anymore are doing – they are room sharing. I estimate thousands of people are room sharing right now in the inner city.

Exceeding capacity causes many problems

Overcrowded apartments, beyond interfering with the amenity of strata owners, have a number of other implications. One is that these packed living arrangements raise basic health concerns. Historically, 19th-century New York tenements come to mind. How are facilities like bathrooms and toilets – the health hardware – going to hold up when used by multiples of the occupants they were originally designed for?

In Australia today, we know relatively little about the extent of chronically overcrowded housing. But research has looked at its impact on those Indigenous householders for whom it’s a fact of daily life. In some cases, up to five people share one bedroom and up to 30 people use the services of one house.

It’s not because they like it, but because there are not enough houses that perform well. Product selection is not fit for purpose and goes hand in hand with a lack of maintenance. Award-winning research shows this makes it virtually impossible for these householders to carry out basic healthy living practices.

Architect Paul Pholeros talks about practical housing design fixes to “stop people getting sick”.

Appliances, fittings and fixtures are engineered to cater to household, commercial, industrial or military performance demands. Fit-out quality selection has direct implications on product life and therefore performance. If these products fail because they are not suitable, this has impacts on health and wellbeing.

The research shows that this is not the fault of the residents, Indigenous or otherwise. Now these well-documented issues are being reproduced in dense urban settings.

Who is going to repair the cheap and non-compliant fixtures when they fail? The poor occupants? What kind of replacements can be expected? High-quality commercial fittings to suit the 500% higher use, or cheap replacements that will predictably fail again in due time?

Can a shared room be home?

Lack of personal space and privacy are other problems. The images on the websites clearly demonstrate practical day-to-day concerns. Where do you store your things? There is no existing furniture product category that meets the requirements of sharing with strangers.

A seasonal worker in the Snowy Mountains told me the workers left damp clothing lying on the floor between their bunks. But even if you can hang your things up somewhere, how do you ensure they are still there when you come home? Internal doors generally don’t have key locks and nor do cupboards. Tenants can’t even hang a picture, so how can they secure their space?

Ikea offers furnishings for small flats and some of their products are thoughtfully designed to make small spaces more effective. But they don’t have products for these room-share settings. Renting means you are not allowed to drill holes to install shelves or even hooks.

It appears that the precarious life of the roomie, who lacks a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control their living space, meets the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition of homelessness. A bed alone does not make a home.

Private life in public space?
Image by C. Tietz, Author provided


Christian Tietz, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Design, UNSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


New report maps the route to affordable housing expansion

Posted by on October 4th, 2017 · Affordable housing, Finance, Government, Housing supply, Social housing, Uncategorized

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre.

Important new steps towards expanding Australia’s affordable housing were mapped out in a hard-hitting official report, published last week. The paper, by the Affordable Housing Working Group reporting to the Council for Federal Financial Relations, draws substantially on recent City Futures Research Centre findings. Its main purpose is in spelling out the ‘complementary reforms’ needed to support Scott Morrison’s affordable housing bond aggregator as first announced in the May 2017 budget. This vehicle, as the report reminds readers, is a mechanism to ‘lower the operational and capital costs for [community housing] providers, with these efficiencies available for reinvestment into further social and affordable housing’ (p1).

Citing statistics drawn from our AHURI-funded research on affordable housing industry capacity, the report opens by acknowledging the recent growth of Australia’s not for profit housing sector. Nevertheless, as emphasized NFP-provided social housing still accounts for under 1% of national housing stock within a total social housing provision of only 4.3%.

Factoring in projected population growth and average household size, the report estimates that five million additional dwellings will be needed across Australia between now and 2055. Maintaining social housing at its current share of all housing calls for a net increase of 230,000 social rental dwellings over that period – or 6,000 per year (p8).

While it is no more than a simple statement of fact, recognition of this reality in an official report puts down a useful marker. This is especially true since current rates of social and affordable housebuilding are probably running at only around 3,000 (statistics for public housing construction can be deduced from ABS Cat8752 Table 33). And, with much of this output involving redevelopment and replacement of existing estates, net growth under prevailing investment approaches will be even lower than this – as indicated by Productivity Commission figures (Table 18A.3) showing 2013-2016 annual growth in social housing averaging less than 1,500 homes.

The case for the bond aggregator and the funding gap challenge

As in its inaugural report from late 2016, the Working Group stresses that the proposed bond aggregator is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for affordable rental housing growth:

Since the bond aggregator is simply a vehicle for achieving cheaper and longer tenor financing, the bond aggregator by itself will not lead to substantial growth in affordable housing (p1)

Fundamental here is the affordable housing provision funding gap defined in the report as the gap between the operating cost and revenue associated with social and affordable rental housing provision. The report therefore recommends that governments ‘examin[e] the levels of direct subsidy needed for affordable low-income rental housing…’ (p2). Moreover, it argues that no single tier of government can be relied upon to bridge the funding gap. Rather, this ‘will require greater contributions from all levels of government …. or the private sector’ (p14). As argued in the report, developer contributions (dwellings or levies in lieu) mandated through the planning system should be given specific consideration.

Building on its initial paper, the Working Group’s report draws on evidence from recent mixed tenure redevelopment projects by the Western Australian Government to illustrate the funding gap. For affordable housing rented at 75 per cent of local market rents, the estimated revenue shortfall in relation to costs is $3,100 p.a. For social housing where rents are income-limited the shortfall, after available subsidies are applied, is $8,850 p.a. However, although a useful contribution to the debate, these figures need to be ground-truthed to reflect a greater diversity of development locations and financing options. Forthcoming CFRC research, due for publication later in 2017 or in early 2018, will do just that.

Utilising the bond aggregator to fund estate renewal

The Working Group’s report advocates that funds accessed via the bond aggregator be utilised in the renewal of existing public housing estates. It argues that this could be one important means of ‘ensur[ing] the scale [of debt issuance] sought by institutional investors’ (p15).

The report’s proposal here would be different from the NSW Government’s Communities Plus model of large scale estate renewal because in that instance the renewed social housing within a mixed tenure redevelopment is funded entirely from land sale for private housing with the social homes being owned directly by the NSW State Government (although CHP-managed). No debt is raised.

Under the AHWG model, by contrast, this replacement social housing would be CHP-developed and owned. The cost would be partly supported by CHP debt accessed through the bond aggregator, with the funding gap being bridged through land sale receipts (e.g. passed on to the CHP by the state government in the form of capital grant).

Enhancing community housing regulation

Again citing our recent AHURI report on affordable housing industry capacity, the Working Group declares in much more explicit terms than previously the importance of stronger community housing regulation, particularly for those CHPs wishing to access funds through the new mechanism:

To facilitate the successful introduction of the bond aggregator, there is a need to strengthen and achieve national consistency of the regulatory framework for community housing. [This] will provide a stronger signal to institutional investors of the viability of the sector and promote the expansion of CHP activities in Australia (p1).

Similarly, the Working Group echoes our research findings in concluding that:

‘for larger CHPs that are involved in property development and ventures beyond tenancy management, the NRSCH [National Regulatory System Community Housing]is unable to offer either governments or potential investors with the confidence they require’ (p22).

Once more consistent with our argument it is noted that – given their growing scale and importance – the dearth of published CHP performance data constitutes an ‘accountability gap’ (p23). Thus, the publication of such data ‘provides an opportunity for enhancing the current system’ (p23).

Noting that ‘the bond aggregator’s first issuance may occur as soon as late 2018’, the report emphasizes the urgency of regulatory reform to ‘ensure stronger financial reporting and risk management from CHPs, as well as oversight of governance arrangements’ (p24).

More broadly, and again endorsing our findings, the officials’ note a need for reforms to enhance consistency in regulatory application of the National Law across jurisdictions within the NRSCH. This is about enhancing the regulation of community housing more generally, not limited to provisions relating to CHPs wishing to access private finance via the bond aggregator.

The Working Group sees scope for enhancing the current NRSCH through negotiation between the Commonwealth, states and territories, so as to ‘build stronger standards around CHPs’ finances into the National Regulatory Code’ (p24). The NRSCH is in any case due for a five-yearly review in 2018 and this process could prove especially timely.
In considering reform options, the report also floats the possibility of establishing a new national regulator at Commonwealth level. It is acknowledged that this could be at variance with state and territory preference to retain the significant degree of control they have under the current system as administered through registrar offices in each jurisdiction. It is also recognised that such a proposal would pose challenges given that it would:

‘represent a substantial expansion of the Commonwealth’s role in the sector, including into aspects where it has traditionally had no role (such as the management of CHPs’ tenancy activities, tenancy support services and complaints management)’ (p25).

Ultimately, the report recommends that efforts should be initially focused on enhancing the current NRSCH since this will be ‘less resource and time intensive’ than creating a completely new framework. This should be progressed through a collaborative process involving the community housing sector itself, as well as Commonwealth, state and territory governments. For consistency with the planned launch date for the bond aggregator itself, resulting measures should be implemented by 1 July 2018.

It must be hoped that this collaborative process is kicked off without delay.