City Futures Blog

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

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With better data access, urban planners could help ease our weight problems

Posted by on July 11th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Demographics, Planning, Wellbeing
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Increasing access to health data and more readily available analytical tools offer some opportunities to tackle the ever-growing rates of obesity.
AAP/Dave Hunt

By Alison Taylor, UNSW; Christopher Pettit, UNSW; Ori Gudes, UNSW, and Susan Thompson, UNSW

A recent episode of ABC TV’s Ask the Doctor pointed to poor urban planning as a major culprit in worsening obesity rates and associated lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. The show highlighted suburbs without footpaths, fresh-food outlets or exercise opportunities.

Built environments are important contributors to our health and wealth. Urban planners strive to create the best environments, but many describe the results as “obesogenic” – that is, places where fast-food outlets abound and there are few opportunities to be sufficiently physically active.

Increasing access to health data, along with the powerful analytical tools needed to interpret these data, provides an opportunity to develop a real fix for this worsening situation.

How far planners have come

Urban planners have come a long way in supporting healthy and active living. Internationally, this goes back to the late 1940s, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined health as much more than the absence of disease.

The subsequent and ongoing development of the WHO Healthy Cities movement, the declaration of the Ottawa Charter, and the publication of the social determinants of health and the related settlement map, further reinforced the importance of urban planning and design in creating places that support health and wellbeing.

Recently, the UN Sustainable Development Goals cemented this focus on healthy built environments.

In Australia, this global recognition has brought built environment and health professionals into a closer working relationship. For example:

How health data can help

Despite this progress, some health indicators continue to deteriorate. The numbers of children either overweight or obese is a global public heath epidemic. In Australia, around 25% of children are overweight or obese.

This trend is worrying, as obesity in childhood and adulthood is strongly linked.

Being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Globally, more than 420 million people have type 2 diabetes, and these numbers have quadrupled since 1980. In Western Sydney alone, 60% of adults are overweight or obese.

But increasing access to health data and more readily available analytical tools offer new opportunities to tackle ever-growing rates of obesity.

The Heart Foundation has published comprehensive design guidelines and a website linking research evidence to good practice.

In NSW, the Healthy Urban Development Checklist assists health professionals to comment on the extent to which urban planning proposals will support health. In Victoria, Community Indicators link practitioners with communities to create healthy places.

Other tools include Healthy Built Environment Indicators and the NSW Integrated Planning and Reporting Framework to get physical activity and healthy eating into local council community strategic plans.

Beyond these approaches, geographical information systems (GIS) and other analytical tools can help tackle obesity. South Australia’s Department for Health and Ageing used GIS to plot gaps in built environment facilities and resources that impact childhood obesity. One study established a link between obesity and access to fast-food outlets.

Another initiative provided insights into the spatial patterning of health issues by developing a diabetes map.

Using these tools is a step in the right direction. But challenges remain, particularly in terms of access to health data. The release of datasets such as the National Health Services Directory and the National Deaths and Mortality database is encouraging.

Greater ease of use improves implementation

Increasing user-friendliness of analytical tools, such as GIS and online portals like the AURIN workbench, and walkability planning support systems offer more powerful means of understanding the relationship between health and the built environment.

However, to seize these opportunities, we need enhanced data analysis, interpretation and presentation skills for planners and policymakers.

It takes skill to communicate the stories in the data and clearly identify the implications and required policy responses. Practical and policy-relevant research is critical.

Enshrining the need for planning healthy built environments in legislation will help planners in their fundamental role of promoting healthy lifestyles. Planners can be taught the theory. But putting it into practice requires a strong policy framework to support principles, maintain standards and withstand cost-cutting pressures.

The ConversationWith the increasing democratisation of health data and better access to analytical tools such as Australian National Data Services, AURIN and others, spatial thinking, data-driven approaches and collaborative action can fast-track plans for new and renewed environments that enable healthy living.

Alison Taylor, Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW; Christopher Pettit, Professor of Urban Science, UNSW; Ori Gudes, Research Fellow, Cities Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Susan Thompson, Professor of Planning and Head, City Wellbeing Program, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

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

Tenants’ calls for safe public housing fall on deaf ears

Posted by on June 28th, 2017 · Government, Housing, Housing conditions, Social housing, Tenancy

By Gemma McKinnon, UNSW.

I have worked and researched in housing law for one-third of my life. When news of the Grenfell Tower fire broke, our network of tenant advocates and housing researchers was heartbroken and angry, but not necessarily surprised.

People who know public housing in New South Wales (including the residents themselves) know that many of these homes are desperately in need of repairs and maintenance.

The Grenfell Tower fire is an example of the potentially tragic consequences of failure to keep rental properties in a safe and habitable condition. Watching the surviving Grenfell residents finally get to express, in national and international media, their frustration at how poorly their housing had been managed, one is struck by the thought: what would residents of public housing in NSW and other Australian states say if the cameras were finally turned on them?

Failure to repair is systemic

In an alarming trend, the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) consistently fails to adequately repair, maintain and manage its public housing properties. As this trend continues, the principal policy response has been to sell properties or outsource management.

The 2016 NSW parliamentary report into management of public housing maintenance contracts provides countless examples of what can only be described as systemic failure by the LAHC to meet its obligations as a landlord. In NSW, that legal requirement is to provide and maintain the residential premises in a reasonable state of repair.

This is a strong and clear obligation. There is little confusion in the community or among housing workers about what it means. However, both public and private tenants know there are few options for actually ensuring repairs are carried out.

In the private sector, tenants fear retaliatory evictions or rent increases when they attempt to assert their rights to repairs. In public housing, where tenure security is stronger and rent increases are manageable, tenants still wait for unacceptably long periods for repairs. Further, the work of contractors in some areas was described as “patch jobs”, resulting in recurring issues.

The parliamentary report shows that the majority of tenant requests did not result in responsive maintenance. Instead, they were assigned to a schedule of planned works stretching many months into the future. As a result, tenants who do seek repair orders from the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) were considered “queue jumpers” by some LAHC staff.

Cost is nominated as a significant factor. Among Redfern Legal Centre’s submissions to the report were accounts of tenants being told the LAHC could not afford to carry out repairs.

However, analysis of the LAHC annual reports shows that rent collected from tenants was more than enough to cover the costs of repairs, council rates and tenancy management. Rents represent 75% of the corporation’s total revenue.

A restructuring of the LAHC’s maintenance contracts in 2015 improved matters in some areas. However, tenants’ advocates continue to report large numbers of calls from public housing tenants relating to repair issues. In 2016, some 20% of the issues tenants raised in calls to the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services related to repairs.

This amounted to nearly 1,000 complaints, which compares unfavourably to both private and community housing tenancies. Despite heavily subsidised NCAT application fees, social housing tenants made only 163 applications for repairs to the tribunal in 2015.

A problem of attitude

The accessibility of the NCAT and the strong legislative protections relating to repairs and maintenance should put tenants in a position of confidence when it comes to enforcing their rights.

The core of the issue may very well be attributable to attitudes to public housing tenants. The Grenfell fire has been likened to Hurricane Katrina and Flint as a situation where poor communities live in conditions in which they are vulnerable because, as David Madden put it:

They routinely faced a level of risk that would never be tolerated for wealthier city-dwellers.

Public housing tenants in Australia are often spoken of in terms of their cost to society, not their contributions.

Demand significantly outweighs the state’s willingness to supply public housing. A result of this is that tenant demographics become less diverse and reflect complex needs, which are compounded by an inability to afford market rents.

Tenant participation processes in public housing systems are effectively non-existent. And, as we saw with the Grenfell residents, any calls for change are likely to fall on deaf ears.

The NSW government points to satisfaction surveys and consultations held in public spaces. But that’s not really listening – anyone who has engaged in that process knows there is no real conversation happening.

While governments have easy access to media to share their opinion, too few journalists are willing and able to probe their claims. Public housing tenants’ voices are too often dismissed. What needs to happen for us all to start listening, and will we start before it’s too late?

The ConversationThis article was written with assistance from Leo Patterson Ross, Advocacy and Research Officer at the Tenants’ Union of NSW. Assistance included supplied statistics, reference material and guidance.

Gemma McKinnon, Associate Lecturer, Law School, UNSW

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

City Futures Research Centre is hosting a seminar, Grenfell Tower: the fire, the fallout and the wider implications, by visiting UK academic Mark Stephens, on 18 July. Please click for more information and registration.

Beyond Medicare levies: joining the dots to create places that are good for our health

Posted by on June 23rd, 2017 · Planning, Public space, Wellbeing
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The Airds Bradbury residential development has open spaces but these lack the amenities of public parks.
Author provided.

Susan Thompson, UNSW and Gregory Paine, UNSW

We have lots of open space, but no real parks. – participant in Airds Bradbury study

When you build a park, put a cafe there and a newsagent, or something, people will buy coffee and a newspaper and sit and read and that’s encouraging that interaction. Or even chess sets, things like that, activities to encourage people. – participant in Victoria Park study

Two basic classifications in health distinguish between diseases we catch from each other – communicable – and those associated with our lifestyles and genetic inheritance – non-communicable.

It’s relatively easy to justify government funding for communicable diseases as these very quickly affect a lot of people. We obviously need medical infrastructure to deal with the patients, as well as environmental improvements to prevent outbreaks in the first place – such as access to sunlight and fresh air, clean water and waste disposal.

Non-communicable diseases are different. These include the many chronic conditions that plague modern Australians and cost our health system dearly – heart and respiratory diseases, obesity, diabetes, cancers and mental illness.

Contributory factors are complex, however, and include personal preferences, such as patterns of eating and drinking, and levels of physical activity. Many then argue that preventive intervention is “nanny”-like and should not be the responsibility of the state.

This is a wicked problem – its complex and interrelated causes and consequences are hard to pin down. As a result, it isn’t easy to allocate responsibility. But governments are implicated in many ways.

Where does government come into this?

Governments organise employment arrangements that dictate work-life balance. They fund “sedentary” car-based transport over “active” transport – walking, cycling and public transport.

They plan urban areas, which should increase walking and cycling and provide inviting spaces for physical and social activity and restorative “greenness”. Governments can also influence access to nutritious foods.

Healthy physical and social activity happens in public spaces that are designed to encourage this.
just1snap/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

However, in a move seemingly towards reduced state responsibility, the New South Wales government has deleted a well-conceived objective of “health” from proposed planning laws and abolished its well-respected Premier’s Council for Active Living.

Such disconnects flow down. Our recent study of four new residential communities in Sydney, Planning and Building Healthy Communities, found a host of good intentions for a health-supportive environment were simply not carried through. For example:

  • residents don’t use a link to a regional cycleway offering access to a greater range of facilities because it is on a busy highway and they consider it unsafe;
  • restrictive booking policies limit use of estate recreation facilities;
  • an extensive pedestrian and cycle path network is designed for recreation activity, but is too circuitous to encourage active transport use;
  • high-rise residents are frustrated about not knowing their neighbours, but regard foyers and lifts as too impersonal to be meeting places; and
  • garden maintenance is contracted out, so residents don’t garden and enjoy the benefits of improved fitness and contact with nature.

A bike lane should promote healthy physical activity, but it won’t if potential users feel it’s unsafe.
Richard Masoner/flickr, CC BY-SA

One explanation points to a lack of engagement by designers, builders and managers. Research suggests this derives from the long-held notion of a need for “professional detachment”.

This is curious when one considers the responsibility of professionals to be client-focused and responsive. No doubt professionals’ own heath aspirations and experiences would mirror those expressed by our study participants.

But it is not just practitioners who are implicated. Much research is still organised around the model of linear and quantifiable cause-and-effect, which is typical of communicable disease. This approach doesn’t work for people-place-health relationships, which are broad, qualitative and networked.

A ‘deep immersion’ response to problems

In response, our study took an integral, “deep immersion” method. This included:

  • partnerships with key health and built environment “players”, state health and urban development authorities, and the Heart Foundation;
  • a comprehensive audit – not just reviewing census, medical and GIS data, but pounding the footpaths (or lack thereof), buying food in local shops, and observing how spaces were used day and night, on weekdays and weekends; and
  • detailed interviews with residents, asking about behaviours, aspirations and needs, followed by workshops to explore further what worked and what didn’t in terms of their health.

The audit, interview and workshop processes are available for others interested in conducting similar comprehensive studies.

Instructively, the participating residents invariably “got it” in terms of what is actually needed – action by each of us as individuals, combined with action by us as a community to provide effective policy, design and management. One workshop participant summed it up:

So … you’re asking, what do I do to keep healthy? That’s us. We need to do that. What should I do to keep healthy? That’s [also] us. What is helping me to keep healthy? This is about our community. What could actually help us? By having better gyms, all this sort of stuff … What I need to [do] … that’s where I see the linkage coming through … We’ve got to do that and make the choices…

The ConversationA sympathetic “putting oneself in the shoes” of residents via the deep-immersion techniques used in our research will better equip designers, builders, managers and researchers to plan and manage health-supportive environments for all.

Susan Thompson, Professor of Planning and Head, City Wellbeing Program, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Gregory Paine, Research Officer, City Futures Research Centre, City Wellbeing, UNSW

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

Compact for Renewal Project: what tenants want from social housing renewal

Posted by on June 6th, 2017 · Social housing, Tenancy, urban renewal

By Bernie Coates, Visiting Fellow, City Futures Research Centre. Prior to retiring in 2015, Bernie was Director of Community Renewal in the Renewal Division of the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (formerly Department of Housing), and has worked in social and community housing for 40 years.

In early 2016, Shelter NSW, the Tenant’s Union of NSW and the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW agreed to partner in a project to develop a Compact for Renewal between agencies undertaking urban renewal and social housing tenants affected by such renewal.  The compact would represent an agreement about how urban renewal was to be conducted in social housing areas, and how social housing tenants were to be treated and engaged.

It is widely recognised that renewal of public housing areas can be highly disruptive, cause high levels of stress and trauma and lead to significant adverse health impacts for social housing tenants.  These effects are compounded because tenants are often highly disadvantaged and disempowered.  Moreover, the renewal process is imposed from above; tenants typically have little or no say in the process, and this lack of control compounds these impacts.  These adverse impacts were identified in important research conducted by Shelter NSW in 2014 and updated in 2016.

The need for a compact arises from the variable experience of tenants to date with renewal, and the widely varying polices and practices affecting tenants applied by agencies undertaking renewal in New South Wales.  Projects have been subject to widely differing approaches ever since the first comprehensive renewal project commenced at Minto, in southwest Sydney, in 2002.  Some projects have taken tenants interests seriously and tried very hard to include tenants in all aspects of the projects.  These projects have actively engaged tenants in planning, sought tenants’ advice about implementation and gone the extra mile to ensure tenants are treated well and fairly when it comes to relocations and resettlement in new areas.  In these cases effort has also been put into strategies to support tenants to cope better with the impacts of change in their own family life and in their communities.  Further, these projects have invested in the community and in building the capacity of the community so that tenants get real benefit from renewal, where they could otherwise have been significant losers from the process.

In the first stage of the Compact for Renewal project, the partner organisations sought to gain a rich and detailed understanding of tenants experience of renewal to date and to find out what tenants want and need to make renewal a better experience.  We also sought to identify good practice where it existed.  During 2016, a series of focus groups with social housing tenants was conducted in eight social housing areas in Sydney that have experienced renewal programs within the last ten years or so or were scheduled to do so in the near future.  Across these areas, the experience varied widely from generally positive through to the highly traumatic and dislocating. The focus groups included a number of tenants who have been highly involved in the renewal processes in their area, some for 15 or more years.  The focus groups thereby brought a wealth of experience and rich perspectives on renewal approaches and what works for tenants. From this rich information base and drawing on the issues raised by tenants in the focus groups, a comprehensive list of what tenants need and want from renewal projects was developed and published as A Compact for Renewal:  What tenants want from renewal.

What tenants want starts with five core principles:

  • Respect for Tenants;
  • Acknowledgment that renewal has damaging and disruptive impacts;
  • Impacts will be mitigated and minimised;
  • Commitment to real engagement; and
  • Tenants to receive a fair share of the benefits of renewal.

These core principles are followed by a comprehensive set of requirements.  A selection of those requirements are listed below, grouped under four headings.


Planning and setting up the renewal project

  • A social impact assessment to be carried out for all projects, so social impacts are identified early and strategies to mitigate and manage them are set out. Tenants should be key informants for this assessment.
  • Social planning should identify the social and community structures and organisations that are valued in the community and a plan developed for retaining and transitioning them.
  • A Social Plan to be developed alongside a physical masterplan, setting out the community facilities, support services and community services to be provided for the new community.
  • The project team to include staff whose job it is to engage with residents, including bilingual staff. Tenants also want the project leader to accept them as key stakeholders and to ‘meet them as equals’.
  • An on site office should be provided where tenants are always welcome, where good information is available and tenant’s questions can be answered.
  • Tenants want a Community Reference Group (or similar) to be set up for all projects—a secure and respected vehicle for community input to the planning and implementation of the project. Tenants also want a strong residents voice in all aspects of the project, including support for an independent tenants’ group.

Community engagement

  • Tenants to be fully engaged in projects as an important project stakeholder. Agencies should invest in capacity building to support tenants to participate more fully and meaningfully.
  • An engagement plan should be prepared and tenants consulted about it before it is finalised. Project staff should report back to the community on the plan and involve residents in reviewing the plan periodically.
  • Tenants want quality information to be provided about the project and how it will impact on them and the community. This information should be regularly updated and made available in many formats including a regular newsletter (or similar), face to face and at community meetings and events.
  • Consultation should seek to reach all groups including harder to reach groups. Consultation approaches should be creative and varied to appeal and attract participation from the full range of population groups.

Managing change and the adverse impacts of renewal

  • Agencies to provide a comprehensive range of practical, emotional and professional/specialist support services to assist tenants to better manage change and adverse impacts—including physical health, mental health, dislocation, stress, anxiety, grief and loss, and trauma.
  • An independent tenant advocacy service for all renewal projects, spanning individual advocacy and collective or project-wide advocacy.
  • Recognising the damaging affects of a loss of choice and control, tenants want agencies to extend choice and control in as many areas as possible, including choice of relocation areas, replacement homes, home improvements and control over the timing of the move.

Relocation and resettlement

  • Consistently good relocation practice, including a relocation coordinator who will ‘go the extra mile’ to support tenants through the process, and better training for coordinators in issues like trauma, grief and loss.
  • Improved support for tenants to resettle in a new neighbourhood, including better information about services, transport, schools etc., and access to resettlement support
  • Support for tenants to downsize and declutter, including access to a service to assist tenants over a period of time prior to moving.

In the second stage of the project, the findings are being presented to renewal agencies in New South Wales, including government and community sector agencies, seeking their feedback on the extent to which those agencies believe they can manage projects in line with what tenants want.  Subject to the willingness of agencies to engage with the project, we seek to negotiate a compact by which agencies agree to manage renewal projects in social housing areas.  In this negotiation, will be important for project partners to emphasise their willingness to understand what’s important for the agencies regarding renewal processes, and to work through the list of what tenants want from renewal to identify a set of principles and rules that both parties are comfortable with.

This compact therefore seeks to develop a set of ground rules that would make renewal less disruptive, traumatic and dislocating for tenants and would support their active involvement in the renewal project.  The compact would outline a comprehensive set of requirements for renewal agencies in how to plan and manage these projects with the best interests of tenants in mind.  It would act as a guarantee for tenants that their interests would be recognised and respected in the process.  Ideally, it will also increase the chances that tenants may feel able to lend their active support to renewal projects.

Overturning perceptions: migration, renewal and the new Western City

Posted by on May 31st, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Demographics, Migration, Sydney

Next Monday 5 June Blacktown City Council will host a City Futures seminar, Overturning perceptions: migration, renewal and the new Western City. If you’re involved in migrant services, community development or social planning – or just interested in migrant experiences of Sydney – please come along to this free event (register here).

The seminar will feature presentations by Dr Ryan Allen and Dr Hazel Easthope, and a Q&A panel session.


Religious and ethnic residential segregation in Western Sydney – Dr Ryan Allen, University of Minnesota


In addition to many practical matters, such as housing affordability, access to amenities and the availability of jobs, ethnic and religious identities can influence where people live. Spatial concentrations of people of the same ethnicity or religion can provide important and desirable social, cultural and spiritual outlets. Segregated ethnic and religious communities may also form in an involuntary fashion when individuals from specific ethnicities or religions experience discrimination that leaves them with few options for where to find housing. To the extent that ethnic or religious segregation patterns map onto the geography of opportunity in a city, residential segregation can play a role in exacerbating levels of social or economic inequality.

In this presentation, I present preliminary results of an analysis of segregation patterns in Sydney along two dimensions: ancestry, which serves as a proxy for ethnicity, and religion. Using data from the 2011 Australian Census, I assess the extent to which residents from a common ancestry or religion form spatially segregated communities in Greater Sydney. Results suggest that at the SA1 level, which represents the lowest level of spatial detail available in the Census, segregated ethnic and religious communities are relatively uncommon. Instead, most Sydney communities house residents with broad mixes of ancestry and religion. At the same time, there are some significant pockets of residential segregation, which are more likely to be defined by religion than ancestry.


Affordability barriers to migrant settlement in Australia’s ‘gateway suburbs’ – Dr Hazel Easthope, based on a paper by Dr Hazel Easthope, A.Prof Wendy Stone and Prof Lynda Cheshire

Official statistics suggest that the most common type of socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are areas with above-average numbers of recent overseas migrants and families with children. Many see the spatial concentration of disadvantaged people and the clustering of newly arrived migrants as problematic. But our research demonstrates that that concentrations of newly arrived migrants – and particularly humanitarian and family migrants – can have beneficial outcomes. This is possible when the locations involved are advantaged places with good social supports and services. In two suburbs classed as disadvantaged and characterised by high proportions of recent overseas migrants we interviewed residents and local service providers about their quality of life, how their localities had changed over time and the opportunities for new residents to settle there. These were the suburbs of Auburn in Sydney and Springvale in Melbourne. Judging from these local perspectives, these are good places to live. They embody the ideal of a multicultural society and afford residents access to significant formal and informal support and services. All this is despite their official designation as ‘concentrations of disadvantage’.  Looking to the future, though, this positive scenario is under threat. The capacity of new migrants to emulate concentrated settlement patterns is increasingly undermined by changes in the labour market and housing affordability constraints. The implications of these changes for the wellbeing of disadvantaged residents and the future of these suburbs are significant but effective responses to these challenges are difficult. Both the implications and possible responses to the decline of affordability in gateway suburbs will be discussed.

Planning healthy cities: a workshop linking research questions to policy and practice

Posted by on May 26th, 2017 · Cities, Planning, Wellbeing

By Alison Taylor, Susan Thompson and Ori Gudes, City Futures Research Centre.

Earlier this month a group of around 30 academics, health planners, and interested stakeholders met to discuss research needs around the topic of planning healthy cities. Representatives from the City Futures Research Centre kicked off the workshop with three short presentations that set the scene for the following spirited discussions.

Professor Susan Thompson, Program Head, City Wellbeing, provided a retrospective view of how far we’ve come in planning our cities to support healthy and active living. And yet, there still remain some significant challenges, particularly in relation to planning legislation.

Dr Ori Gudes demonstrated the potential contribution that GIS and spatial approaches can make to healthy cities. He presented an overview of the City Futures City Analytics capability and series of practical examples showcasing his research. Participants were particularly taken with the work showing the number of fast food outlets in close proximity to schools.

Following this, Dr Alison Taylor described current research investigating the equality of health service distribution across Sydney. Western Sydney was found to be under-serviced for its population size. One group of four local government areas which account for more than one in every five (21%) Sydney residents, only have 12% of the city’s health services. Workshop sessions saw participants deliberating over the insights needed to prepare for future challenges, identifying research gaps and discussing data tools that could assist the achievement of healthy cities.

The session culminated in a panel of experts providing their multi-disciplinary perspectives. Michelle Daley from the Heart Foundation, Stephen Conaty from the South West Health District and Juliet Suich from the Greater Sydney Commission outlined challenges and opportunities to consider.

The workshop was successful in highlighting recent research and showcasing expertise, bringing people from different organisations together to share insights, swap tips and network to undertake further work together. The key workshop finding was that we have some good research to tell us what we need, but workers in the field need practical guides as to how to implement these findings: ‘We know what we need, but how do we do it?’ There were many useful ideas discussed which will motivate our research, and importantly, ensure that it is policy and practice relevant.

Workshop presentations by City Futures staff will be made available on the City Futures website. The workshop was the final event for the ANDS funded Urban Health Data Connectivity Project.

The insecurity of private renters – how do they manage it?

Posted by on May 24th, 2017 · Affordability, Guest appearance, Law, Sydney, Tenancy, Wellbeing

Alan Morris, University of Technology Sydney; Hal Pawson, UNSW, and Kath Hulse, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation

A growing proportion of Australian households depend on the private rental sector for accommodation. This growth has occurred despite substantial insecurity of tenure under the law, unlike other countries with high private rental rates, such as Germany. The Conversation

Our newly published research on the impacts of long-term or even lifelong insecurity on Australian private renters found their responses range from lack of concern to constant fear and anxiety.

So, how many people are affected? Back in the 1990s about one-fifth of us rented our homes from private landlords. Now this has swelled to more than one-quarter.

Historically, renting was usually a transitional step in the life cycle. Most people rented for a while and eventually bought a home.

While this housing pathway is still dominant, a growing number of Australians cannot make this transition. At least one in three private renters are long-term private renters (ten years or more). This equates to at least one in 12 households.

Australian households rent accommodation under a regulatory framework that provides little protection against landlord-instigated “forced moves” or untenable rent increases. The initial written agreement/lease rarely extends beyond a year. Once it ends, the tenancy typically shifts to a “periodic” basis, and notice to vacate can be given without reasons.

The period of notice ranges from 42 days to 26 weeks – depending on the state or territory. Thus, beyond the initial lease, all private tenants are subject under the law to ongoing insecurity.

Drawing on 60 in-depth interviews, we explored the impacts of this de jure housing insecurity on long-term private renters in different housing markets (low, medium and high rent, with 20 interviews in each) in Sydney and Melbourne. We identified three typical responses to ongoing insecurity:

  • incessant anxiety and fear;
  • lack of concern; and
  • concern offset to an extent by economic/social capital, with renting sometimes seen as the only means of living in a desired area.

We discuss these responses in turn.

Incessant anxiety and fear

For one group of interviewees, the insecurity was a persistent source of stress. They were constantly anxious about the possibility of being asked to leave their homes or incurring an untenable rent increase.

Low-income interviewees in the low-rent outer suburban areas had limited economic and sometimes social capital. A notice to vacate invariably caused great anxiety as they had minimal resources to find alternative accommodation.

Interviewees solely reliant on government benefits for their income were especially vulnerable. Frieda, 40, a single parent with five children, described her perceptions and experiences:

At any minute I can get the letter to say, ‘Sorry, but you’ve got to move’ … The last house before this one … was supposed to be a long-term but he decided to sell that house. And then we got [another] one … and then [the owners] wanted the house back … We got notice [to vacate] but [were] still trying to, you know, find somewhere … For a while there, I was thinking we’ll be out on the street.

Nigel, 35, lived alone in a low-rent area in outer western Sydney. He had been receiving workers’ compensation, but when interviewed relied entirely on Newstart for his income. He was confident that his landlord would not ask him to leave, but needed all his income to pay his rent. This was a source of intense insecurity and he was not coping.

I’m getting $661 a fortnight, my rent is $660 [a fortnight], so if it wasn’t for friends, you know … Stress is gone beyond a joke … You don’t know what you’re going to do the next day.

Christine, 57, also depended on Newstart for her income. She had lost her job a couple of years earlier after falling ill. Fear and anxiety were woven into her comments:

A renter – you’ve always got that fear that you’re not going to have a roof over your head … Yes, I’ve been here 16 years, but you never know. The house can be sold and new owners can say, ‘No, we want you to go.’ You don’t have money for a bond for another premises or, you know, Housing Department can’t help you because you’re not what they consider to be [in] an urgent, desperate situation.

Not a concern

At the opposite end of the spectrum were interviewees who had deliberately chosen long-term private renting and were unconcerned about the possibility of a landlord-instigated forced move. “Renters by choice” tended to be single people or couples without children who lived in high-rent areas. They usually had ample economic and social capital and saw the flexibility associated with renting as an advantage.

Sarah was living in a high-rent area in inner Melbourne:

And I do have enough money to buy quite a nice apartment, but I’d rather use the interest and the share money [dividends from shares] and stuff to travel.

Angela and her partner lived in the same area. They had no children and preferred not having a lease:

So the insecurity doesn’t bother me … It’s more to do with my freedom within that. It means that I can just leave whenever I want if I want to.

Astrid felt totally at ease with her long-term renter status in high-rent inner Sydney. In her late 30s and single, she had a reasonable income and strong social capital. She had rented for all her adult life:

It doesn’t bother me [being asked to vacate] … If they come and say they’re going to sell, well, there’s a reason. It was meant to be, so yeah … There’s always somewhere to stay. So it suits my lifestyle. I wouldn’t want to buy anything even if I had the money.

Moderate concern

Interviewees in high and medium-rent areas were typically in a different position to tenants in low-rent areas. Their economic capital enabled them to rent (but not buy) in an area with good public schools and amenities, and to move if need be.

However, they were reluctant long-term renters and troubled by their housing insecurity. This was especially so if they had school-going children.

Moira (high-rent area, Sydney), married with two children and in her mid-40s, was pleased with her rental situation. She paid an unusually low rent for her three-bedroom apartment. Alongside the area’s high-quality amenities, the quality of the public schools was a major drawcard.

However, the ever-present possibility of having to vacate was a concern:

The fact that you don’t know how long you’re going to be there for and, you know, that was a massive thing when we were choosing a school … If we have to move, are we going to be able to be within distance … to keep him there? … And it [the lack of security] is a cloud that’s there always.

The main reason Glenn and his partner rented a small semi-detached house in a high-rent area in Sydney was to ensure their son had a good schooling:

We need to stay in the area for our son and we balanced that against sending him to a private school, so in that way it’s cheaper to live here even though the rent’s high.

A crisis of affordability and insecurity

The interviews indicated that the de jure insecurity associated with private renting in Australia doesn’t necessarily translate into de facto insecurity.

However, for at least one in four of our interviewees, the chronic de jure insecurity associated with private renting imbued everyday life with ongoing anxiety and stress.

The intensifying crisis of rental affordability in Australia’s major cities means these negative outcomes of long-term private renting are likely to affect growing numbers in the years ahead.

* Pseudonyms are used to protect the confidentiality of survey respondents.

Alan Morris, Research professor, University of Technology Sydney; Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW, and Kath Hulse, Research Professor, Swinburne University of Technology

Read the original article.

Two pictures of rental housing stress and vulnerability zero in on areas of need

Posted by on May 18th, 2017 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Cities, Government, Housing, Housing supply, Regions
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The Rental Vulnerability Index for Queensland shows the cumulative impact of factors affecting renters across the state.
City Futures Research Centre

By Chris Martin, UNSW and Laurence Troy, UNSW. Originally published on The Conversation.

Two new tools for measuring and visualising problems in our rental housing system are in the media this week. They have similar names – the Rental Affordability Index (RAI) and the Rental Vulnerability Index (RVI) – but use different methods to offer distinct but complementary perspectives. Together they reveal that almost nowhere in our capital cities can low-income households – and those on average incomes in Sydney – afford the median rent. Mapping rental vulnerability reveals households in regional areas are struggling too. The Conversation

The RAI is a project of National Shelter, the peak housing NGO, and SGS Economics and Planning. It gives us a bird’s-eye view of rental housing costs over most of Australia. It does this by showing how affordable the median rent (the midpoint of all rents) is – or isn’t – relative to incomes in each postcode.

An alternative approach considers where and in what proportion renters are actually in stress. We might also consider a range of other factors that indicate where and in what proportion renters are vulnerable to problems in accessing and keeping decent, secure housing. This is the approach we’ve taken with the RVI.

What does the RAI tell us?

Affordability is a relative concept – it is about costs relative to incomes. The RAI considers median rents higher than 30% of a household’s income to be unaffordable. The index shows other grades either side of this benchmark (very affordable, very unaffordable) too.

The Rental Affordability Index web tool zoomed in on Queensland.
SGS Economics and Planning

This is consistent with a widely used benchmark in housing policy, often known as the “30/40 rule”: housing costs should not exceed 30% of income for households in the lowest 40% of incomes.

The rationale is that when low-income households have to spend more than that on housing, they start to go without other things – meals, health care, outings – that they reasonably ought to have. For this reason, low-income households in unaffordable housing are said to be in “housing stress” or “rental stress”.

The RAI looks at median rents, not the rents individual households are paying. This means it doesn’t tell us where or how many households are actually in rental stress. But it does indicate where renters face different degrees of pressure, in terms of either rents or constraints on the size, quality or location of dwellings.

So, looking at the affordability of median rents for a number of typical low-income households – single and couple pensioners, single people on benefits, single-parent part-time workers – the RAI shows that almost nowhere in Australia’s capital cities is the median rent affordable for them.

The RAI also applies the 30% benchmark higher up the income scale. Even for average-income renters, all Sydney postcodes – except for Mt Druitt and in the Blue Mountains – have median rents that are unaffordable or worse.

Of the capitals, Sydney’s affordability problems are deepest and spread furthest, but much of Melbourne and Brisbane is unaffordable to average renters too. Outside the capitals, most of the regions are affordable.

The quick takeaway from this perspective would be support for policies to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, particularly in our capital cities. These measures would include:

  • building more social housing
  • changing planning rules to allow more residential development
  • using inclusionary zoning to ensure a proportion of new development is kept as affordable rental
  • making greater use of land tax, including on owner-occupied housing, to ensure land owners don’t speculatively sit on development opportunities.

What does the RVI tell us?

For a different perspective, the City Futures Research Centre produced the Rental Vulnerability Index (RVI) for Tenants Queensland. This shows (only for Queensland, at this stage) a range of “housing system” and “personal” factors that we know, based on a wider body of research on housing and legal needs, indicate vulnerability to housing problems.

The housing system indicators include: rental stress, availability of rental housing that is affordable on local incomes, social housing and marginal tenures such as boarding houses, as well as personal indicators including unemployment, low education, disability, single-parent households and both young and elderly renters.

As well as mapping each of these indicators, the RVI uses principal component analysis. This enables us to look across the indicators to see where they cluster together as a generalised “rental vulnerability”.

The Rental Vulnerability Index web tool.
City Futures Research Centre

Mapping this out we see that rental vulnerability in Queensland is highest in the regions. In particular, it is high around Bundaberg, Fraser Coast and Gympie, with a band of vulnerability skirting the regions west and south of Brisbane. Cairns also has several highly vulnerable postcodes.

These places have high rates of unemployment, disability, low education and older people in rental housing. They also have high incidence of rental stress – even though median rents are low compared to Brisbane.

By contrast, Brisbane generally scores quite low on rental vulnerability. This isn’t because there aren’t any vulnerable households there – there are. But their presence is masked by renter households who are doing well in terms of income, employment, education and other indicators.

There is a substantial body of research on the “suburbanisation of disadvantage”. This is the phenomenon of high housing costs pushing out, and shutting out, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged households from city centres. The RVI indicates that this process, at least in Queensland, is extending into a “regionalisation of disadvantage”.

So what can we do about this?

The takeaway from this? Housing problems are multidimensional and extend beyond the capital cities.

Regional areas have a pressing need for services – such as tenants advice services – that give vulnerable households material assistance in dealing with housing problems.

But more than that, we need to build up the economic and social capital of these places – so that they offer greater opportunities for the vulnerable households who are concentrated there – just as we need policies to increase affordable housing opportunities in our cities.

Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Housing, UNSW and Laurence Troy, Research Fellow – City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

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

Budget 2017 charts new social and affordable housing reform agenda

Posted by on May 12th, 2017 · Affordable housing, Finance, Government, Housing, Housing supply, Social housing, urban renewal

By Chris Martin, UNSW and Hal Pawson, UNSW. Originally published on The Conversation.

Under pressure to tackle deepening housing affordability problems, Treasurer Scott Morrison has included various housing policy measures in his budget, some relating to Australia’s small sector of social and affordable housing. The Conversation

One headline-grabber is the creation of a new entity, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC). This will source private funds for on-lending to affordable housing providers to finance rental housing development. However, the bigger issue for the sector remains federal and state funding.

This public funding is the money that, along with tenants’ rents, co-funds state and territory housing and homelessness services. Here too Morrison is proposing reform, particularly to the primary federal-state funding arrangement for social and affordable housing, the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA).

A couple of months ago we suggested the NAHA needed a reboot. Recognising the seriously run-down state of the system, we argued for an increase in funding from its present starvation level. Morrison now proposes a new federal-state funding agreement, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA).

The level of federal funding will be the same as under the old NAHA. But the Commonwealth will press states and territories for action in defined “priority areas”. In effect, this looks like a return to a Canberra-led reform agenda for social and affordable housing unseen since the early Rudd government.

Setting aggregate supply targets

In what appears a significant passage, the budget papers reveal the government’s “priority areas” for the NHHA. We’ll consider these in turn, and then the recurring issue of inadequate funding.

Lack of transparency on the costs incurred by state and territory housing authorities in operating their social housing portfolios has been a particular problem under the NAHA. This is an area where federal engagement is welcome.

All levels of government should be pressed to quantify the level and type of need for housing in the community. And they should be made to set clear “new supply” targets for meeting that need.

That said, the federal government should stop pretending to be shocked at the lack of new social housing delivered by those authorities under the NAHA. The shortfall in NAHA funding has been obvious for years. It simply is too low to bridge the gap between the rents low-income public housing tenants can afford to pay and the costs of properly maintaining the system, let alone growing it to keep pace with rising need.

Residential land development

The stress laid on this issue within the budget policy statement reflects the federal government’s stated concern about “the supply side” of the housing affordability problem. It has framed state government planning controls as an impediment to new housing development.

However, merely loosening requirements and offering existing land owners the prospect of greater development does not ensure it will actually happen.

To ensure land owners don’t just sit on development opportunities speculatively, the federal government should use its NHHA leverage. This could include pushing the states and territories to make greater use of land tax, which would spur development and bring under-utilised land and housing to market.

Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning is a specific type of planning mechanism. It requires housing developments (above a certain size) to include some proportion of dedicated affordable housing. Ideally, this should be rental housing preserved as “affordable” in perpetuity.

Inclusionary zoning is long established in other countries and has long been demanded by housing advocates in Australia. It is now the subject of increasing interest from planning authorities – for example, the Greater Sydney Commission.

The co-financing arrangements for the NHFIC could incorporate active use of land-use planning powers for inclusionary zoning. Development sites – or developer levy proceeds – could be part of state and territory contributions to funding affordable housing development.

A commitment to build into the NHHA incentives for stepped-up use of inclusionary zoning by state governments is, therefore, very welcome.

However, the budget papers indicate that state compliance with this NHHA expectation might involve not only housing dedicated to affordable rental housing, but also “dedicated first home buyer stock”. This seems to raise the prospect of developers meeting inclusionary zoning requirements simply by reserving some newly built units for first home buyers rather than investors.

The best way to enhance first home buyer prospects vis a vis investor landlords would be to level the playing field by winding back investor negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, not through this kind of tinkering. And to cast such “FHB reservation” initiatives as in any way equivalent to inclusionary zoning for affordable rental housing would be a highly retrograde step.

Renewing affordable housing stock

An interesting inclusion in the proposed terms of the NHHA is a clause about renewing affordable housing stock.

First, it appears positive in acknowledging the need for a public housing overhaul and indicating a new level of federal government interest in making this happen.

At a minimum, states and territories should be required to undertake a comprehensive audit of their existing portfolios. The level of outstanding disrepair has to be costed. They also should identify where renewal can best take place, balancing need for expanded and upgraded housing with sensitive treatment of existing communities.

Second, it indicates federal backing for further transfers of public housing as a growth path for the affordable housing industry. However, as our recent research for AHURI shows, this is feasible only if the operating cost gap is funded.

Past community housing growth through transfers, particularly following the 2009 housing ministers’ commitment to expand community housing to 35% of all social housing, involved an understanding that Commonwealth Rent Assistance, paid through Centrelink to transferred tenants, would help cover that gap.

Without additional funding in the NHHA, a new phase of growth through transfers requires a recommitment by governments to use rent assistance as an effective operational subsidy to community housing providers. A new target and timeframe to replace the 35% benchmark also need to be considered.

Homelessness services

Previously the subject of a separate funding agreement (the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness), homelessness services have struggled for years in the face of that agreement’s pending expiry and short-term extensions.

The NHHA will fund homelessness services on an ongoing basis, which the sector has welcomed.

Funding shortfall remains

As we’ve indicated throughout, the objectives of the NHHA – and of the social and affordable housing system generally – will continue to run up against the reality that decent housing of this kind costs more than low-income households can afford to pay.

This applies especially to people living on the miserable level of benefits such as Newstart. A subsidy is required, both to build up the stock and to keep it in good order.

Clearer targets, more transparent cost accounting, and innovations like NHFIC finance won’t bridge the gap. On the contrary, to successfully use those initiatives to build more stock, both state and territory housing authorities and non-government affordable housing providers need a larger subsidy than present funding provides.

The budget has indexed NHHA funding to wages. It would be nice to think that land and housing prices will increase only in line with wages.

In reality, properly funding the growth and maintenance of our social and affordable housing stock will require more than what the federal government is offering.

Chris Martin, Research Fellow, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW and Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW

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

New to Australia? Good luck! Migrants can no longer afford ‘gateway’ suburbs

Posted by on May 5th, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Demographics, Guest appearance, Housing, Migration, Sydney, Wellbeing

Image 20170403 19423 1at37x3

Jack Wright/flickr, CC BY-NC


By Hazel Easthope, UNSW and Wendy Stone, Swinburne University of TechnologyOriginally published on The Conversation.

The concentration of disadvantaged people in certain parts of cities is almost always seen as undesirable by urban researchers and policymakers. But is this always the case? The Conversation

Our research demonstrates that it isn’t. Concentrations of people who are often classified as “disadvantaged” – namely newly arrived humanitarian refugees and their families – can have significant positive outcomes. This is because such “gateway suburbs”, while housing large numbers of disadvantaged people, are not disadvantaged places.

As part of a broader research project, we chose two suburbs that were identified as disadvantaged and characterised by high numbers of immigrants. We spoke with residents and local service providers about their experiences, place changes over time and current settlement opportunities for newly arriving migrants. The suburbs we chose were Auburn in Sydney and Springvale in Melbourne.

Springvale is 23km south-east of the Melbourne CBD.

Auburn is 19km west of the Sydney CBD

Auburn and Springvale may have high concentrations of disadvantaged people, as defined by Australian Bureau of Statistics data (in terms of income, employment and language proficiency in particular). But they are not disadvantaged places.

These suburbs are well serviced by public transport and are within reasonable commuting distance of their cities’ CBDs. They have a plethora of social and community services, along with a good selection of shops and services catering to the local community.

Historically, these suburbs have been major hubs for providing resources and support to new and established migrant communities.

A bottom-up community structure

In both suburbs, the presence of “first-wave” migrant groups during years of intensive manufacturing after the second world war, and the immigration encouraged to support this, promoted the development of migrant support services. Government subsidised some of these. Many grew more organically through community relationships and support needs.

With the decline of manufacturing from the late 1970s and changing immigration policies, government support has retracted in these areas. This has been accompanied by a winding back of government support for housing and a rapidly changing housing market.

The legacy of these areas has meant that both Auburn and Springvale continue to have high degrees of amenity and social and economic infrastructure. This includes a high concentration of grassroots community groups. These provide support to recent immigrants in general and refugees in particular.

‘There is a fantastic array of support services out there.’ – Auburn interviewee.
Author provided

These are good places to live. But there are signs this is changing.

Broader changes in urban housing markets and migration policies, and economic and labour market restructuring, are beginning to undermine the benefits for immigrants settling in these areas. Increasingly unaffordable housing, reduced employment opportunities in low-skilled jobs and the erosion of government support for newly arrived immigrants mean migrants are at risk of greater disadvantage than in the past.

In particular, housing costs are increasing rapidly in Auburn and Springvale. While private market housing has successfully housed new migrants in the past, this is no longer the case. Many migrants can no longer afford to live in these areas, except in overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory living conditions.

Rental stock is in bad disrepair. Refugees and recent arrivals go into these houses and real estate agents are slow to act on people living in substandard conditions and are reluctant to do anything about it. – Springvale interviewee

Today, the choice new migrants face is whether to live in unsatisfactory conditions in these areas, or to move to more affordable areas with fewer facilities and support services.

If similar processes are at play in other migrant gateway suburbs, and we suspect they are, this has important implications for Australia’s ability to continue its role as an immigrant destination country.

In the context of recent shifts in Australian immigration policy away from humanitarian and family migrants and towards skilled and student migrants, this is perhaps not a government priority. But it should be.

Left to fend for yourself

Far from being something to celebrate, that new “disadvantaged” migrants are finding it increasingly difficult to live together in places like Auburn and Springvale is something we should be worried about.

As they are pushed out into more dispersed areas with more insecure housing, recent arrivals are also pushed away from areas with the services and amenities that might help them leave the ranks of the “disadvantaged” and become the “new Australians” who have, until recently at least, been much celebrated.

We have been replacing housing, employment and migrant settlement policy supports with a fend-for-yourself “good luck!” approach in an unaffordable housing market.

In a market dominated by more than 95% private ownership or rental, this poses new risks for those choosing Australia as their home. It introduces further complexity for organisations trying to support successful integration as they work across dispersed locations.

Ultimately, these developments create the risk that Australian society will miss out on the enduring cultural, social and economic contributions made by migrants who choose to call Australia home.

Hazel Easthope, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Wendy Stone, Associate Professor; Director, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology

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