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Why investor-driven urban density is inevitably linked to disadvantage

Posted by on August 23rd, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Construction, Housing, Housing conditions, Housing supply, Planning, Sydney, urban renewal
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By Bill Randolph, UNSW

This article is the third in a series based on new research into the place of lower-income and disadvantaged households in a compact city. Originally published on The Conversation.


The densification of Australian cities has been heralded as a boon for housing choice and diversity. The up-beat promotion of “the swing to urban living” by one of Australia’s leading developer lobby groups epitomises the rhetoric around this seismic shift in housing.

Glossy advertisements for luxury living in our city centres and suburbs adorn the property pages of our newspapers.

Brochures boast of breathtaking city views from uppers storeys and gush about amenity, lifestyle and “liveability” – often touting the benefits of adjacent public infrastructure investments (but please don’t mention “value sharing”).

Depictions of attractive younger people, occasionally clutching a smiling infant, are prominent as the image of all things new, urban and desirable.

Long gone are the days when the manifestations of property marketeers’ imaginations were restricted to images of low-density master-planned estates on the urban fringe. We hardly ever hear about these nowadays.

There’s truth in the claims that housing choice and diversity have indeed widened in the last few decades as a result. The statistics clearly show a much greater spread of dwelling options in our cities.

The rise and rise of the apartment block

Apartments now account for 28% of housing in Sydney and 15% in Melbourne. As the maps below show, most recent growth in apartment stock is clearly in and around the inner city. Yet even the more distant suburbs have had an increase in higher-density residential development.

Changes in the number of flats and apartments, 2011 to 2016, in Sydney (above) and Melbourne (below).
Data: ABS Census 2011, 2016, Author provided
Data: ABS Census 2011, 2016, Author provided

For many, inner-city apartment living is clearly a preferred choice for the stage in their life when an upcoming, “vibrant” neighbourhood is attractive. High-density urban renewal has been a boon for hipsters and students alike.

But the issue of choice needs to be unpacked carefully. For many others, the “swing to urban living” is more of a necessity.

True, the surge in apartment building has put many properties onto the market to rent or buy that are clearly cheaper than houses in the same suburb. From that point of view, they have added to the affordability of these neighbourhoods.

However, affordable to whom is an open question. At A$850,000 and upwards for a standard two-bedder in Waterloo, South Sydney, and $500,000 or more in Melbourne’s Docklands for a similar property, these are not exactly a cheap option for anyone on a low income.

But other than in the prestige areas where higher-income downsizers and pied-à-terre owners can be enticed to buy in some comfort, much of what is being built is straightforward “investor grade product” – flats built to attract the burgeoning investment market.

It can be argued that the investor has always been a major target of apartment developers, even in the 1960s and 1970s when strata units became common, particularly in Sydney. But it is even more so today.

Despite the clamour to control overseas investors perceived to be flooding the market, the bulk of investors are home grown. We don’t need to rehearse the debates on the factors that have fuelled this splurge, but clearly the development industry has been savvy to the possibilities of this market.

In the last decade, backed by state planning authorities and politicians desperate to claim they have “solved” housing affordability by letting apartment building rip, developers have got involved on an unprecedented scale. The figures bear this out: in 2016, for the first time, Australia built more apartments than houses. The majority end up for rent.

Problematic products with too few protections

In the rush, we, the housing consumer, have been offered a motley range of new housing with a series of escalating problems. Leaving aside amateur management by owners’ bodies in charge of multi-million-dollar assets, problems of short-term holiday lettings and neighbour disputes, there are more serious concerns over build quality, defective materials and fire compliance.

The apartment market has been left wide open for poor-quality outcomes by building industry deregulation. This includes:

  • moves toward complying development approval for high-rise;
  • self-certification of building components;
  • complex design and non-traditional building methods;
  • relaxation of defect rectification requirements;
  • long chains of sub-contractors;
  • poor oversight by local planners and authorities; and
  • cheap or non-compliant fittings and finishes.

Plus there’s the rush to get buildings up and sold off. Not to mention fly-by-night “phoenix” developers who vanish as soon as the last flat is occupied, never to be found when the defects bills come in.

The lack of consumer protection in this market is astounding. The average toaster comes with more consumer protection – at least you can get your money back if the product fails.

‘Vertical slums’ in the making

These chickens will surely come home to roost in the lower end of the market, which will never attract the wealthy empty-nesters or cashed-up young professionals with the resources to ensure quality outcomes.

 

In Melbourne, space and design standards, including windowless bedrooms, have come under critical scrutiny, as has site cramming. Tall apartment blocks stand cheek-by-jowl in overdeveloped inner-city precincts.

At least New South Wales has State Environmental Planning Policy 65, which regulates space and amenity standards, and the BASIX environmental standard to prevent the more egregious practices.

But people are most likely to confront the problems of density in the many thousands of new units adorning precincts around suburban rail stations and town centres. These have been built under the uncertain logic of “transport-orientated development”, often replacing light industrial or secondary commercial development.

These developments attract a mixed community of lower-income renters. Many are recently arrived immigrants and marginal home buyers – often first-timers. Many have young children, as these units are the only option for young families to buy or rent in otherwise unaffordable markets. Overall, though, renters predominate.

What will be the trajectory of these blocks, once the gloss wears off and those who can move on do so? You only have to look at the previous generation of suburban walk-up blocks in these areas to find the answer.

Far from bastions of gentrification, the large multi-unit buildings in less prestigious locations will drift inexorably into the lower reaches of the private rental market.

Town centres like Liverpool, Fairfield, Auburn, Bankstown and Blacktown in Sydney point the way. The cracks in the density juggernaut are already showing in many of the more recently built blocks in these areas – literally, in many cases.

This inexorable logic of the market will create suburban concentrations of lower-income households on a scale hitherto experienced only in the legacy inner-city high-rise public housing estates.

With the latter being systematically cleared away, the formation of vertical slums of the future owned by the massed ranks of unaccountable, profit-driven investor landlords is a racing certainty. The consequences are all too easy to imagine.

The call for greater regulation of apartment, planning, design and construction is being heard in some quarters. The 2015 NSW Independent Review of the Building Professionals Act highlights these concerns.

But don’t hold your breath for rapid reform. No-one wants to kill the goose that’s laying so many golden eggs for the development industry and government alike – especially in inflated stamp-duty receipts.

The market has a habit of self-regulating on supply. Evidence of a marked downturn in apartment building is a clear sign of that. But don’t expect the market to self-regulate on quality, at least with the current highly fragmented, confusing (not least to builders and bureaucrats), under-resourced and largely unpoliced regulatory system.

The legacy of this entirely avoidable crisis is completely predictable, but will be for future generations to pick up.


The ConversationYou can read other articles in the series here.

Bill Randolph, Director, City Futures – Faculty Leadership, City Futures Research Centre, Urban Analytics and City Data, Infrastructure in the Built Environment, UNSW

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

It’s not just the buildings, high-density neighbourhoods make life worse for the poor

Posted by on August 22nd, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Demographics, Housing, Planning, Public space, Sydney, urban renewal
File 20170816 26751 1q26064

By Laurence Troy, UNSW; Hazel Easthope, UNSW, and Laura Crommelin, UNSW

This article is the second in a series based on new research into the place of lower-income and disadvantaged households in a compact city. Originally published on The Conversation.


Last year marked the first time that construction began on more higher-density housing in Australia than detached dwellings.

While many may claim this as a success for “compact city” policies, the negative consequences of this transition disproportionately affect lower-income and disadvantaged households. This is partly because of what our apartment buildings are like to live in, as yesterday’s piece in this series showed.

But there are also aspects of neighbourhoods with lots of high-density development that compound the challenges lower-income and vulnerable residents face. In our research for Shelter NSW, we identify two key problems at the neighbourhood scale: gentrification and poor infrastructure.

Australia’s market-led development model underpins the gentrification reshaping our cities. This gentrification hurts lower-income residents in two main ways:

  • it changes neighbourhoods for the residents who remain; and
  • it pushes people out of these neighbourhoods to more disadvantaged areas.

How high-density development changes neighbourhoods

Anyone who’s observed the changes in suburbs like Redfern, Richmond, Northbridge and St Kilda will be familiar with gentrification.

The term originally referred to middle-class residents fixing up old homes in inner-city areas. Researchers now argue higher-density urban renewal is also driving gentrification in three main ways:

  1. Developments on inner-city “brownfields”: When old industrial areas in desirable inner-city areas get redeveloped (think Pyrmont or Docklands), they usually become high density with apartments designed for high-end buyers, as these offer developers the greatest returns. While not displacing anyone directly, this brownfield renewal can trigger gentrification in surrounding areas – by increasing house prices in these areas and changing their social and commercial nature. This “commercial gentrification” can price out existing lower-income residents and make them feel unwelcome.
  2. Renewed private high-density buildings: In New South Wales, new laws allow termination of a strata scheme if 75% of the owners agree. Our modelling shows that, in high-value areas, gentrification will likely follow, with older, cheaper strata buildings redeveloped and resold at higher prices. This will likely displace lower-income renters, while lower-income owners may struggle to buy back in with the proceeds from their old apartment. This eventually reduces the socioeconomic diversity of these areas, so the remaining lower-income residents feel increasingly excluded.
  3. Renewed public housing estates: Higher-density renewal of public housing – like the Ivanhoe redevelopment – often adds private housing to make the project “feasible” (profitable) for the developers that undertake these redevelopments for governments. Governments justify this with claims that greater socio-economic diversity in these “mixed tenure” redevelopments benefits lower-income and vulnerable residents. Some researchers disagree.

If the addition of private housing reduces public housing stock, these residents will be displaced. Even if this doesn’t happen, mixed-tenure neighbourhoods aren’t necessarily better for lower-income residents.

The ways these neighbourhoods are designed, developed and managed are central to how well they work.

To benefit these residents, these neighbourhoods should be “tenure blind” so that it’s hard to tell which parts are public housing and which parts are private.

At the same time, support services for high-needs residents and programs to help develop a sense of shared community are essential. Otherwise, lower-income and vulnerable residents may feel excluded from the redeveloped area, even if they are not physically displaced.

What happens to those who leave?

Many lower-income residents are slowly but surely being displaced from gentrified neighbourhoods. Over the past few decades, disadvantaged communities across all our major cities have been pushed to middle and outer ring suburbs.

While we tend to assume moving away from the inner city means moving into lower density, that is not necessarily the case. Particularly in Sydney, many older, cheaper apartments are in outlying suburbs.

What we see is increasing concentrations of lower-income residents both in higher-density buildings and in areas further from the CBD. These trends for Sydney are shown in Figure 1. Lower-income households are concentrated in higher density in outer suburbs, particularly to the south and west.

Figure 1. Distribution of lower-income households in higher density for Greater Sydney, 2016.
Author provided, data from ABS Census 2016

These trends are linked to higher-density renewal and gentrification in the inner suburbs, as an increasing proportion of jobs have moved to the “global arc”. Lower-income residents are being driven further from areas with good access to jobs, transport and services.

Lower-income and vulnerable residents suffer most when infrastructure and services are inadequate. This is especially so in suburbs with poor public transport, as they are less likely to be able to afford a car.

This problem highlights another flaw in our urban densification strategies: Australian cities have a poor record of providing adequate infrastructure and services to support higher-density living.

So how did we get here?

To understand how we’ve created these problems, we need to understand the market-led model used to develop our cities in recent decades.

In the 1940s, Australia’s housing system was driven by a belief that every citizen was entitled to a house of their own of a minimum standard. Initially, this was satisfied through extensive public housing programs.

By the mid-1950s, however, the approach had shifted to supporting home ownership as a bedrock of Australian society. As the public housing share of overall stock declined, eligibility requirements tightened. This has pushed many lower-income households into private rental housing.

As part of this shift away from direct government-provided housing, governments have increasingly relied on the private sector to deliver new housing.

Because private developers are profit-making entities, project success is tied to maximising investor return. This takes priority over delivering the best housing outcomes for residents, including lower-income households.

At the same time, planning policies have shifted from trying to direct market activity to being shaped by market desires. As the next piece in this series will show, this generally means more higher-density development. And most of this now caters to the desires of investors rather than owner-occupiers.

In other words, the creation of speculative profit, rather than the creation of homes, is now the primary driver of much higher-density development.

As a result, lower-income and disadvantaged households are being displaced to areas with poorer infrastructure. Furthermore, they are often forced to accept smaller dwellings of a lower standard.

Higher-density dwellings may offer attractive living opportunities in some parts of the city, but these are largely off limits to poorer households.


The ConversationYou can read other published articles in the series here.

Laurence Troy, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW; Hazel Easthope, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Laura Crommelin, Research Associate, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

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

This is why apartment living is different for the poor

Posted by on August 21st, 2017 · Affordability, Cities, Housing conditions, Strata, urban renewal
File 20170808 27840 1k441ro

By Hazel Easthope, UNSW; Laura Crommelin, UNSW, and Laurence Troy, UNSW

This article is the first in a series based on new research into the place of lower-income and disadvantaged households in a compact city.


There’s been a lot of talk about apartment living of late. Whether it’s millennials who can’t afford to buy a house, downsizers making a lifestyle change, owner-occupiers struggling to get defective buildings fixed, or foreign investors buying into new development, there’s no shortage of opinions and interest.

Except for one group: lower-income and vulnerable residents.

In Greater Sydney, the latest census data show that almost one in five households (17%) living in apartments and townhouses have weekly household incomes of less than A$649.

Among this group the largest sub-group (36%) live in private rental housing. That’s more than 72,000 households living on $649 or less per week in a housing market where average weekly rents for apartments are $550.

Our research for Shelter NSW identifies multiple challenges such households face.

Why does this matter?

It matters because some things about apartment and townhouse living are fundamentally different to living in a house. These differences have particular impacts on lower-income and vulnerable people living in higher-density housing.

The significant differences include:

  • You live closer to your neighbours, so it’s more likely you’ll see, hear or meet them.
  • You share services and spaces with neighbours, from gardens to laundries to lifts.
  • You have to co-operate with other residents and owners to manage and pay for building operation and upkeep.

If you live in a private apartment building then the fact that a large proportion of apartments are sold to investors and rented out will likely have three key impacts on you:

  1. Developers often cater for investors when designing new apartment buildings, so you will likely find a limited variation in apartment designs and sizes available.
  2. Resident turnover in your building may be high, as private renters move more frequently.
  3. Tensions between owner-occupiers and investor-owners may result in disagreements and disputes over budgeting and maintenance.

While these unique aspects of higher-density living can be tricky for anyone, they present particular challenges for lower-income and vulnerable residents. They tend to have less choice about their living arrangements, so they can’t up and move to better-designed, constructed and managed properties if things aren’t working out.

Building flaws affects some residents in particular

Poor building quality is one of the major issues in high-density development in Australia. The problems relate to design, defects and maintenance.

The design issues include noise disturbances as a result of poor design, inadequate solar access and cross ventilation, the availability and flexibility of shared spaces, and safety and security considerations.

Another issue is design that fails to help meet the needs of particular groups (such as people with a disability, and families with children).

Beyond design, the construction quality of higher-density developments is a major issue in Australia. Key concerns include the quantity and severity of building defects, as well as the difficulties owners face having defects fixed.

Among the problems are quality of workmanship, management of construction, private certification, limited warranties and the often-prohibitive cost of legal action.

As with poor design, lower-income households are particularly susceptible to construction issues. This is because there are more incentives to cut corners when constructing more affordable housing. Examples include rushing jobs, hiring cheaper but less experienced tradespeople, or using substandard materials.

Once residents move in, negotiating to fix defects is particularly difficult for private renters, as they typically must go through the real estate agent or landlord. This means renters may be stuck with unsatisfactory living conditions.

Lower-income renters are also likely to be over-represented in poorly maintained buildings, as these are usually cheaper to rent. Compared to a detached house, maintenance in higher-density properties is complicated by the complexity of the buildings themselves and the governance structures.

As a result, required maintenance work is often not carried out, or is reactive rather than proactive. This is especially true in buildings occupied by lower-income renters with no direct recourse to the strata committee. They often cannot afford to move and may fear retaliatory rent increases if they report maintenance issues.

Social relations can be challenging

Neighbour disputes happen everywhere, but evidence suggests disputes are more common in areas with more lower-income and vulnerable residents and with more apartments.

Common causes of neighbour conflict in higher-density housing reflect different expectations about noise levels, parking practices, or spending on maintenance and improvements.

Neighbour disputes can have significant impacts on health. This potentially counteracts the health benefits associated with the walkable nature of many higher-density neighbourhoods.

Apartment residents must negotiate disputes, and not everyone is equally well placed to do so.
Iakov Filimonov from shutterstock.com

When disputes arise, the number of stakeholders involved complicates efforts to find a resolution. They might include renters, resident owners, investor owners, building managers, strata managers and strata committee members.

Research with strata residents in New South Wales shows residents find formal dispute resolution mechanisms complex and slow. Most disputes are resolved informally.

Lower-income residents, and renters in particular, are likely to have less influence over the outcomes of such processes.

Fostering positive neighbour relations can be more difficult where resident turnover is high, such as in buildings dominated by private renters. It is also more difficult in poorly designed buildings without quality shared spaces.

New norm promotes inequity

Apartment living is the new norm in Australia. As the nursery rhyme says, when it’s good it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid. If these homes are poorly designed, poorly built, poorly maintained or poorly managed, they are poor places to live.

The market-led housing model that underpins Australia’s compact city policies has meant that people with less money get a poorer product. Few planners or politicians have adequately acknowledged these inequities.

The ConversationThe reasons why we got here will be considered in tomorrow’s piece in this series.

Hazel Easthope, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW; Laura Crommelin, Research Associate, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Laurence Troy, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

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

The Conscious City

Posted by on August 15th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Planning, Wellbeing

Image credit: Emily Mitchell

By Greg Paine and Susan Thompson, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.

The city is a complex place.  It is hard to unpack all of the components that make up the enormity of the city phenomenon.  To help make sense of it all, characterising the city in particular ways can assist.

For example, we can conceive of the city as a mechanical entity.  That’s all about the pipes and wires, roads, rail and other infrastructure that keep the whole thing running.  Today this also includes the high-tech communications which have become so fundamental, and which in turn can lead to more efficient and responsive infrastructure management – the ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ city.

And then there is the city as an ecological / human habitat.  This is about aligning urban areas with biological organisms, requiring careful husbandry of the natural and social systems to ensure sustainability.  A further conceptualisation is the city as a system – a hub of flows and connections.  This view draws on the (not entirely achieved) promise of General Systems Theory from the 1970s as a framework to deal with problems composed of myriad, intricately linked components.

And then, perhaps more familiar in these neo-liberalist times, is the city as an economic engine, driving national GNP through ever expanding global link-ups.  A recent variation (the ‘creative city’) accommodates the role of the ‘creative class’ in this process.

Finally, we can even label the city as ‘pathology’.  This recognises the relationship between city form and human health.  The harmful health impacts of people living in close proximity are now largely resolved in respect to communicable diseases but still require attention in respect of the newer cohort of chronic, so-called ‘lifestyle’, diseases.

All of these characterisations are useful in their own, albeit sectorial, way.  And so too is a relatively new concept – the ‘conscious city’, informed by its own manifesto, and complemented by a concurrent cross-disciplinary grouping interested in the intersection of urban design and mental health.

The conscious city draws on evolving attributes of the contemporary milieu:

  • our ability – and propensity – to be infinitely connected between each other – both in person and via technology, and with our environment;
  • our ability to collect, analyse and interpret the traces (‘data’) of those connections, large and small, and then use them as a city-shaping resource;
  • the ability of neurological research to map our brain and body functions as we experience, think about, make decisions, and act on those connections.

These new understandings and abilities are being used in various ways.

One is to focus on the mental health implications of the ways in which we design and construct our cities.  This is an aspect of how our health and wellbeing can be supported or inhibited by city shape and city management.

Another is broader, and more difficult to pin down.  This is where the mapping of brain and body activity assists to discover how city shape and management affect our consciousness, attitudes and behaviours.  This includes the idea of the city as a communication medium in itself, particularly now that the majority of the population live in urban environments.  What messages do we receive about ourselves and the importance of community, equity, health and the natural environment from our day-to-day navigation and use of the city?  And as a result, what might we be able to define as a particular collective consciousness of each city itself, an overall statement of how we feel about and value these things?

Finally, the ‘conscious city’ is interested in how we might then manipulate city shape and experiences on an on-going basis – be it permanent or ephemeral – in all sorts of behavioural programs, such as ‘nudges’, regulations, broader community building or simply for pleasure in festivals and other like gatherings.

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health and the Conscious Cities group both support their own, refreshingly user-friendly, journals.  These are part of a related aim to encourage multi-disciplinary focussed research and practice to support a growing community of interest.  There is also an appetite to utilise the potential of ‘big data’ analytics to move the research from the mere abstract to something more representative, and ultimately more influential, of the actual experience of the city.

The objective of all these conceptualisations is though the same: to assist in delivering progressively better living environments for all.  The city-shaping, city-analytics, city-wellbeing and city-housing programs of the City Futures Research Centre are a good fit.  In support, City Wellbeing Program researchers have made recent contributions to both new journals:  ‘Planning and Building Healthy Communities for Mental Health’ in UD/MH Journal, and ‘Exploring Connections Between the Conscious City and Christopher Alexander’s Seminal ‘Pattern Languages’ ‘ in Conscious Cities Journal.  They can be accessed via the links given here.

Harnessing Big Data in Challenging Urban Contexts

Posted by on August 9th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Guest appearance, Law, Migration, Sustainability, Transport
Harnessing big data in an urban context is the “grand challenge.” Image: AIG

By Laura Bruce, Built Environment, UNSW Sydney.

On July 21st 2017 academics and public sector representatives met to discuss the challenge of harnessing big data in the urban context in order to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The event was hosted by the Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture and City Futures both of which sit in the Faculty of the Built Environment, the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Organised as part of the PLuS Alliance, a research and education network between the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Arizona State University and Kings College London, the roundtable was an important opportunity for cross disciplinary discussions.

As a reflection of the large number of SDG’s, its multiple indicators and the fact that low, middle and high income countries are committed to them, there was a wide variety of presentations. Diverse topics included the use of big data to identify air pollution exposure rates in London,  active transport mobility patterns data across Australian cities, prediction of migration patterns as a result of conflict in Afghanistan and measuring resilience in the urban context of Phoenix, Arizona.

The roundtable heard how policy makers are using mobile phone data in Uganda to identify emerging vulnerabilities and predict food insecurity as a result of the changing habits of mobile phone credit top ups. A Research Fellow from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the organisation responsible for the annual Peace Index, highlighted the inter relationships between the SDGs.

A shanty town in Brazil. mage: Getty Images

What became clear is that the use of big data has possibilities across multiple sectors and can be harnessed for social good however this is not always how big data is framed in the public’s perception. The use of big data by corporations is understood by many as a way of meeting our consumer needs but how is it meeting needs for the collective good?  What role does academia have to play in harnessing its potential in this sphere and its responsible use? These are some of the interesting questions which the roundtable addressed.

Experts from a range of disciplines including Arts and Social Sciences, Computer Science, Law, Mathematics, and the Built Environment amongst others, discussed the importance of what validity and accepted standards for academic rigour mean when using big data. What is ‘good enough’ data? While it is accepted that big data is not a ‘magic bullet’ there is an awareness that national level data used to measure the SDGs is insufficient and big data, if used appropriately, could fill some of those gaps.

Image: City Lab

The legal constraints on data sharing in certain contexts were discussed as well as the legal ramifications of the relationship between big data and the agency of the individual. Since data sources overlap boundaries this calls into question traditional legal and political boundaries and the rights of citizens. What implications does this have in contexts where civil society and legal and political institutions are weak?

Ultimately issues on inequality and big data were identified as a key research area for the group going forward. ‘Leaving no-one behind’ was the SDG theme last year, and it is clear that access and analysis of big data has huge potential for development. The roundtable concluded that it is important to find ways to ensure that all countries can engage in a global research enterprise that can harness the benefits of big data to ensure that no one is ‘left behind’.

The United Nations has a sustainable development agenda. Image: United Nations

Saving Sirius: why heritage protection should include social housing

Posted by on July 28th, 2017 · Government, Law, Social housing, Sydney, urban renewal

By Chris Martin, UNSW. Originally published on The Conversation.

Campaigners to save Sydney’s landmark Sirius building from demolition had a significant legal win this week.

Last year, the then state heritage minister, Mark Speakman, refused to list the Brutalist block of public housing apartments on the New South Wales Heritage Register. Doing so would reduce the amount that the government, as its owner, might make from selling it. Now the NSW Land and Environment Court has ruled that the decision is invalid and must be remade.

This does not mean Sirius is now heritage-listed, let alone safe from demolition. Heritage Minister Gabrielle Upton could still decide not to list the building, but she will have to make her decision according to the requirements of the Heritage Act.

Still, it is an important decision on how our heritage is protected at law, and it is fitting that Sirius should be the subject of it. In a sense, this building and the Heritage Act were born from the same event: the Green Ban movement of the 1970s, in which Jack Mundey’s Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) acted, on the advice of local residents and the National Trust, to prevent development that threatened significant sites and housing, mostly famously at The Rocks.

The Green Bans there were lifted when the state government agreed to “the people’s plan” put forward by residents and the BLF to preserve the built fabric and provide low-income housing in the area. The result was Sirius, which was completed in 1980. And the wider result was statutory heritage protection, in the form of the Heritage Act.

The heritage significance of Sirius lies both in its striking architectural form and in its connection to that remarkable period in Sydney’s social history. Aside from Sirius’s own significance, the case prompts us to consider how heritage is protected, and how social housing fits in.

What is heritage?

When we talk about “heritage” values, it may mean a range of things, from the speaker’s opinion that something is worth keeping, to its status under the several legal regimes to protect heritage.

Aside from the law, heritage management is based on a body of principles and best practice. The principal statement of these is the Burra Charter. It informs the practices of conscientious owners, building professionals, and heritage consultants.

In both law and practice, the focus is on protecting an item’s “heritage significance”. The Burra Charter refers this to synonymously with “cultural significance”, defined as “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations”.

This significance may vary by degree (“exceptional” or “outstanding” significance, for instance) and by extent. An item may be significant for a local community, a state, a nation, or all of humanity.

This is reflected in the different legal regimes for heritage protection at all three levels of government in Australia – local government, states and territories (each has its own, broadly similar legislation), and the Commonwealth – and the World Heritage regime.

Where does social housing fit in?

Social housing can certainly have heritage significance. We have been building it in Australia for more than 100 years, and its design and construction have been shaped by contemporary architectural and political ideas, sometimes in an exemplary way.

Depending on the degree and extent of its significance, a social housing building or place could come under any of the Australian or international legal regimes. The World Heritage Register includes social housing – the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates. No social housing from Australia has been nominated for that list, nor for the National Heritage List.

One of the six Berlin Modernism Housing Estates protected by World Heritage listing.
Doris Antony/Wikipedia, CC BY

The Sirius case is about the state-level heritage regime. If Sirius were listed on the NSW Heritage Register, it would not be the first social housing to be listed. Sirius’s neighbour, the row of terrace houses at Gloucester Street, The Rocks, is listed, along with all of Millers Point. This includes 214 properties – an extraordinary mix of Georgian mansions, Victorian terraces and early 20th-century workers flats.

For many years these properties provided social housing, which is an acknowledged part of their significance. The state government has decided all these properties will no longer be used as social housing. They are being sold off, but remain on the NSW Heritage Register.

The NSW Heritage Register lists all of Millers Point, 214 properties in all, including this Georgian building.
sv1ambo/flickr, CC BY

Listing isn’t a blanket protection

The Heritage Act does not prevent a listed property being sold, or new occupants moving in. Generally, it prohibits development of the property without prior approval of the relevant authority (usually a local council) and the Heritage Council, a statutory office established by the act. The process involves public submissions and consideration of any effects on heritage significance.

The act sets a high threshold for demolitions: these will be refused unless the item poses a danger. It also imposes a positive obligation to maintain and repair to minimum standards – preventing “demolition by neglect” – and provides for conservation management plans as a way of getting works approved and encouraging best practice.

There are some exceptions to the general processes of the Act. Notably, if the government declares a “state significant development”, the consent authority is the planning minister – the Heritage Council’s approval is not required.

Large developments (above A$10 million) in The Rocks are state significant development – so even if listed, Sirius might not be completely safe.

Many properties have local significance

Many more social housing properties are on local heritage registers in NSW. Some are part of “heritage conservation areas”, which cover all properties in a street or suburb of local heritage significance.

One example is the Daceyville estate, the first purpose-built public housing in Australia. Another is the Woolloomooloo estate, which includes Victorian terraces acquired and renewed as social housing in the 1970s.

Daceyville estate, pictured in 1915, is heritage-listed as the first purpose-built public housing.
State Library of NSW/flickr

Some properties are listed individually. Examples include Chippendale’s Strickland Flats, the first public housing flats in Australia, and a collection of post-war cottages in South Granville.

Local councils make these listings under their local environmental plans. Generally, the property may be altered or demolished only with the council’s prior consent. Some minor developments may not require the full consent process.

In the case of NSW public housing, however, special provisions allow for a much wider range of development activities on local heritage-listed properties and conservation areas without local consent. This includes the construction of multi-dwelling buildings. Demolitions, however, cannot be carried out without consent.

In terms of practice, heritage conservation management is something that social housing providers should do well, considering their scale, long-term property holding and access to expertise. Even their frugality may be an advantage: as the Burra Charter notes: “the best conservation often involves the least work and can be inexpensive”.

However, as social housing renewal moves up governments’ agenda, sound legal protections and decision-making processes are also required.

The ConversationSirius has a less famous sibling, “The Laurels”, a low-rise block of modular apartments in suburban San Souci. It is not listed on any heritage register. Perhaps it should be.

Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Housing, UNSW

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

Sydney must heed lessons of London affordable housing fiasco

Posted by on July 20th, 2017 · Affordable housing, Government, Housing supply, Planning, Social housing, Sydney, urban renewal

By Hal Pawson, Associate Director, City Futures Research Centre.

A recent Sydney Morning Herald feature on urban renewal in London shone an interesting and quite revealing spotlight on a high profile project with a major Australian connection. Crucially, though this rather uncritical account completely missed the aspect of the story with the greatest direct relevance to Sydney.

The SMH piece focused on the renewal of Southwark’s Heygate Estate and the central involvement of Australian developer Lendlease – a project already lauded by Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison as ‘…[something] I’d love to see … lived out on the streets of Australia’. Quite rightly, the SMH noted that “Lendlease sits at the heart of the debate about the best way to build and renew social housing in London”. Having done that, however, it entirely failed to explain the main reason why the company “sits at the heart” of this argument. In fact, through its profitable exploitation of planning system loopholes on affordable housing obligations, Lendlease has achieved notoriety within UK affordable housing advocacy circles. And just how this came about is a tale with direct implications for Sydney.

The SMH story played up the inclusion of 25% ‘affordable housing’ within the rebuilt 3,000 (sometimes reported as 2,500) unit Heygate. On the face of it, a pretty hefty project component. But it’s a completely different matter when one also considers that the new scheme is replacing a large demolished council estate and that the number of directly equivalent homes included in the rebuild is in fact derisory. According to a 2015 Guardian report, just 74 of these homes will be low rent “social housing” affordable by very low income earners. That’s 74 in place of around 1,000 council homes (and 200 leasehold ex-Right to Buy properties) flattened to make way for the project. Some might call this “social cleansing”.

Lendlease’s ‘social housing offer’ also compares with the 432 such homes that, for a project of this scale, Southwark’s policy would normally require incorporated in any private housing development on privately owned land (i.e. involving no social housing clearance). As one affordable housing advocate therefore commented, “Southwark has lost 358 social-rented homes in the deal, while Lendlease stands to make whacking profits – on land they bought from the council for a pittance.”

All of this came about through the company’s skilful utilisation of a planning system weakness introduced by the Cameron Government in 2012 allowing developers to deflect or dilute affordable housing obligations. Crucially, under the new ‘NPPF’ framework enhanced weight was accorded to project “viability assessment”. As described by one UK planning expert, the mechanics of the test within this changed context have “driven a coach and horses through the planning system”.

The direct relevance of this story to Australian readers is the connection with the generally progressive proposal for affordable housing targets in our own city, as laid out by the Greater Sydney Commission in 2016. Critically, the GSC’s ‘inclusionary zoning’ draft policy also allows that private developer affordable housing contributions (5-10% of additional floorspace in upzoned developments on greenfield sites or in urban renewal precincts) will be “subject to viability”.

While the GSC outline formula appears influenced by the UK framework it pays no regard to the inclusionary zoning affordable housing policies widely operated across North America. Here the idea of a viability test is seen as fundamentally conflicting with the basis for such policies – i.e. that the land market will adjust to the designation of affordable housing obligations, as developers offer less for the land to maintain project viability. For example, in the inclusionary zoning framework recently enacted by the Canadian province of Ontario (applicable to Toronto – a city with many similarities to Sydney), viability assessment does not feature.

As argued in greater detail in the City Futures Research Centre consultation submission on the GSC’s District Plans, when the precise rules for the GSC viability assessment are worked out it’s essential that these are not unfairly weighted in favour of developers as in London. For example, in contrast to the eye watering levels of developer profit factored into some London viability tests, reasonable and defensible profit assumptions must be used.

More broadly – and in sharp contrast to the secrecy attaching to such calculations in the UK – any such process in Sydney or elsewhere in Australia must be fully transparent. And it must be founded on clearly stated developer obligations enshrined in planning law and guidance which do not provide a free pass to companies who have recklessly overpaid for sites. Only if constructed on this kind of basis is the GSC’s system going to realise its ultimate objective – the suppression of land values consistent with designated developer obligations on affordable housing and other infrastructure.

Taxing empty homes: a step towards affordable housing, but much more can be done

Posted by on July 17th, 2017 · Affordability, Housing, Housing supply, Tax
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Vacant and unlit ‘ghost’ apartments are a source of public outrage in major cities around the world.
leniners/flickr, CC BY-NC

By Hal Pawson, UNSW. Originally published on The Conversation.

Vacant housing rates are rising in our major cities. Across Australia on census night, 11.2% of housing was recorded as unoccupied – a total of 1,089,165 dwellings. With housing affordability stress also intensifying, the moment for a push on empty property taxes looks to have arrived.

The 2016 Census showed empty property numbers up by 19% in Melbourne and 15% in Sydney over the past five years alone. Considering that thousands of people sleep rough – almost 7,000 on census night in 2011, more than 400 per night in Sydney in 2017 – and that hundreds of thousands face overcrowded homes or unaffordable rents, these seem like cruel and immoral revelations.

Public awareness of unused homes has been growing in Australia and globally. In London, Vancouver and elsewhere – just as in Sydney and Melbourne – the night-time spectacle of dark spaces in newly built “luxury towers” has triggered outrage.

This has struck a chord with the public not only because of its connotations of obscene wealth inequality and waste, but also because of the contended link to foreign ownership.

Early movers on vacancy tax

Against this backdrop, the Victorian state government has felt sufficiently emboldened to legislate an empty homes tax. Federally, the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, recently backed a standard vacant dwelling tax across all the nation’s major cities.

Similar measures have come into force in Vancouver and Paris. And Ontario’s provincial government recently granted Toronto new powers to tax empty properties. Emulating Vancouver, Victoria’s tax is a 1% capital value charge on homes vacant for at least six months in a year. Curiously, though, it applies only in Melbourne’s inner and middle suburbs. And there are exceptions – if the property is a grossly under-used second home you pay only if you’re a foreigner.

Also, as in Vancouver, tax liability relies on self-reporting, which is seemingly a loophole. This might be less problematic if all owners were required to confirm their properties were occupied for at least six months of the past year. But that would be administratively cumbersome.

This highlights a broader “practicability challenge” for empty property taxes. For example, how do you define acceptable reasons for a property being empty?

In principle, such a tax should probably be limited to habitable dwellings. So, if you own a speculative vacancy, what do you do? Remove the kitchen sink to declare it unliveable?

How can we be sure a home is empty?

Lack of reliable data on empty homes is a major problem in Australia. Census figures are useful mainly because they indicate trends over time, but they substantially overstate the true number of long-term vacant habitable properties because they include temporarily empty dwellings (including second homes).

Using Victorian water records, Prosper Australia estimates about half of Melbourne’s census-recorded vacant properties are long-term “speculative vacancies”. That’s 82,000 homes.

Applying a similar “conversion factor” to Sydney’s census numbers would indicate around 68,000 speculative vacancies. Australia-wide, the Prosper Australia findings imply around 300,000 speculative vacancies – 3% of all housing. That’s equivalent to two years’ house building at current rates.

According to University of Queensland real estate economics expert Cameron Murray, a national tax that entirely eliminated this glut might moderate the price of housing by 1-2%. Therefore, although worthwhile, dealing with this element of our inefficient use of land and property would provide only a small easing of Australia’s broader affordability problem.

Making better use of a scarce resource

Taxing long-term empty properties is consistent with making more efficient use of our housing stock – a scarce resource. A big-picture implication is that tackling Australia’s housing stress shouldn’t be seen as purely about boosting new housing supply – as commonly portrayed by governments.

It should also be about making more efficient and equitable use of existing housing and housing-designated land.

Penalising empty dwellings is fine if it can be practicably achieved. That’s especially if the revenue is used to enhance the trivial amount of public funding going into building affordable rental housing in most of our states and territories.

But empty homes represent just a small element of our increasingly inefficient and wasteful use of housing and the increasingly unequal distribution of our national wealth.

One aspect of this is the under-utilisation of occupied housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data show that, across Australia, more than a million homes (mainly owner-occupied) have three or more spare bedrooms. A comparison of the latest statistics (for 2013-14) with those for 2007-08 suggests this body of “grossly under-utilised” properties grew by more than 250,000 in the last six years.

Our tax system does nothing to discourage this increasingly wasteful use of housing. It’s arguably encouraged by the “tax on mobility” constituted by stamp duty and the exemption of the family home from the pension assets test.

A parallel issue is the speculative land banks owned by developers. The volume of development approvals far exceeds the amount of actual building. In the past year in Sydney, for example, 56,000 development approvals were granted – but only 38,000 homes were built.

In many cases, getting an approval is just part of land speculation. The owner then hoards the site until “market conditions are right” for on-selling as approved for development at a fat profit.

Properly addressing these issues calls for something much more ambitious than an empty property tax. The federal government should be encouraging all states and territories to follow the ACT’s lead by phasing in a broad-based land tax to replace stamp duty.

Such a tax will provide a stronger financial incentive to make effective use of land and property. The Grattan Institute estimates this switch would also “add up to A$9 billion annually to gross domestic product”. How much longer can we afford to ignore this obvious policy innovation?


The ConversationAcknowledgements: Thanks to Laurence Troy for statistics and Julie Street for background research.

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.

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.