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

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

Posted by on November 15th, 2017 · Cities, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing conditions, Marginal rental
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A living room rented by the minute and another room shared for sleeping – the age of the ‘distributed’ home is upon us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the idea of home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has urban living changed more than we know?

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayfinding at night: a review of research and best practice

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

By Aida Afrooz, City Futures Research Centre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Room sharing is the new flat sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exceeding capacity causes many problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a shared room be home?

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

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

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

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

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


Christian Tietz, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Design, UNSW.

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


New report maps the route to affordable housing expansion

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

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre.

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

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

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

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

The case for the bond aggregator and the funding gap challenge

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

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

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

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

Utilising the bond aggregator to fund estate renewal

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

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

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

Enhancing community housing regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting housing stress underscores need for expert council to guide wayward policymaking

Posted by on September 27th, 2017 · Affordability, Construction, Data, Demographics, Government, Housing, Housing supply, Social housing

By Hal Pawson, UNSW and Oliver Frankel, University of Technology Sydney. Originally published on The Conversation.

A recent policy pledge by Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has given fresh heart to campaigners for the restoration of the former National Housing Supply Council (NHSC).

The Abbott government axed the council in 2013. With housing stress intensifying across much of Australia, a reinstated and revitalised council could strengthen policymaking in this contested area.

NHSC Mark 1

The Rudd government created the NSHC in 2008. The council’s role was to put housing policy on a sound base of evidence. It was guided by expert members drawn from the construction industry as well as senior planning, social housing, economics and academic ranks.

The council provided ministers with housing supply and demand estimates, projections and analysis. It also investigated the influence of infrastructure investment, housing-related taxation and urban planning. Its remit included a focus on:

… the factors affecting the supply and affordability of housing for families and other households in the lower half of the income distribution.

Importantly, NHSC reports explicitly recognised that untargeted supply-enhancing measures were not the sole answer to easing this group’s housing stress. The council also examined influences on housing demand. These included the price-stimulating effect of tax incentives for residential property investors.

The case for restoring the NHSC

Unaffordable housing and homelessness of course remain burning issues in national media and policy debate. Across most of the country, these problems have mounted since the NHSC’s demise.

In Sydney, for example, median house prices have climbed 40% since 2013. Rents are up by more than 12%. Average New South Wales earnings, however, have risen by only 8% in this time.

From 2011 to 2016, census data show that, nationwide, the proportion of tenants having to spend more than an “affordable” amount on rent rose in every state capital other than Perth. And latest published statistics reveal homelessness service users rising at 5% per year (2016 census data on this are still awaited).

Housing affordability is subject to complex influences – regulatory, economic, demographic and other factors. Most of these transcend state and territory boundaries, and many call for improved data. As a landmark official report acknowledged only last year, the lack of information essential to underpin housing policymaking is highly problematic.

Overcoming these data deficiencies would be central to the mission of a restored NHSC. This includes metrics on the supply pipelines of serviced land, dwelling demolitions and underused housing.

In its day, the NHSC drew support from many quarters, notably spanning the property industry and the affordable housing lobby. Leading property sector groups lamented its abolition. And, alongside Bowen, the Property Council of Australia is among recent advocates for NHSC reinstatement.

A government wanting to beef up its understanding of this area could assign a wider and more analytical role to other official data-gathering or research bodies. But neither the Australian Bureau of Statistics nor the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare possesses the in-house policy expertise or industry-connectedness to provide a credible alternative to a restored NHSC. And the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) is not set up for this role.

A reinstated NHSC can be improved

A new NHSC should be established by statute, not just by executive decision. This would strengthen its hand in obtaining required data from possibly reluctant state and territory ministries. In addition, this would provide more protection against arbitrary abolition by a future federal government in “wrecking mode”.

It will be vital that a reinstated NHSC’s remit includes a more granular, localised focus on supply and demand imbalances. Housing supply is only productive when suitably located in relation to jobs, infrastructure and services.

Housing provided needs to be of a type and configuration that matches demand, and at a price that people in that locality can comfortably afford. Property market conditions may be quite diverse even within a single capital city. Oversupply in one part of a metropolis can co-exist with shortages elsewhere.

Beyond calibrating overall housing demand and supply, the reborn NHSC must monitor the supply-demand balance by market segment, including low-cost rental. Similarly, the council’s former brief should be extended so it specifically assesses Australia’s unmet need for social and affordable housing. That’s both the current shortfall and the newly arising need predictable within a given period.

As recently instanced in Wales and Scotland, methodologies of this kind have a long lineage in UK housing policymaking. While Australia has residential stress metrics galore, none provide an ideal basis for government-supported rental housing construction. Such a program should be a central plank of national housing policy.

As Bowen has argued, a restored NHSC can also help hold states and territories to account for their supply commitments under the new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. This is currently under negotiation between the two levels of government.

Reinstating the NHSC in a revitalised form would help government make more rational and informed policy choices on which supply and demand levers to pull to improve housing affordability. This is especially important for the lower-income renters who are doing it tough in cities like Sydney and Melbourne as well as in many other areas, such as the resort settlements along much of the east coast.

The ConversationStronger, better-founded evidence about the nature and extent of the affordable housing problem may help build consensus about how to tackle it effectively. And that is an outcome we badly need.

Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW and Oliver Frankel, Adjunct Professor, UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney

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

Beyond the city – healthy built environments in regional and rural localities

Posted by on September 18th, 2017 · Government, Planning, Sustainability, Wellbeing

By Susan Thompson. This is an edited version of the ‘Healthy Built Environments’ column published in the September 2017 issue of New Planner.

Healthy planning is about supporting the wellbeing of all people, no matter where they live, their age, physical and mental abilities, and irrespective of their socio-economic status.  In this ‘urban’ century, when more of us than ever live in cites, there is a danger that we will neglect those who reside and work in regional and rural Australia.


Health in Rural and Regional Australia

In shining the spotlight on healthy planning for rural and regional communities, it is important to dispel a few commonly held myths about the reality of the health and wellbeing challenges for those beyond the city.  Geographical isolation, the tyranny of distance and car reliance make keeping healthy – physically and mentally – difficult for many.  On the other hand, there can be a great sense of community in country towns, and the proximity of beautiful natural environments creates accessible opportunities for outdoor recreational pursuits in green, open spaces.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveal inequities between the health status of urban and rural populations.  There are higher rates of chronic disease outside of cities, with rural residents more likely to be overweight, exercise less and smoke daily when compared to urban dwellers.  There are complex reasons for these differences – associated with education, employment, income and access to medical services.  Opportunities to be active, to eat fruit and vegetables, and connect with community, are also foundational to support health and wellbeing.  Providing these opportunities has its challenges in rural and remote localities, but there are successful initiatives.


Regional Healthy Planning Case Studies

While the NSW Premier’s Council for Active Living (PCAL) no longer functions as an entity, its resource-rich website fortunately endures, hosting some excellent active living and healthy eating case studies.  Several of these focus on regional localities.  Extensive details are given about the project, its location, historical evolution, costs and funding sources, as well as a photographic gallery and evaluation of the initiative.  These case studies provide inspiration for how similar infrastructure could be implemented elsewhere. They also include ideas for adaptation and collaboration with local communities and businesses, as well as government and not-for-profit organisations from the health, planning and development sectors.

Junee Shire Council has implemented a shared walking and cycling path network – for both transport around town and for recreation – linking destinations such as schools, residential areas, sporting facilities, shops and public transport – including buses and the railway station.  This case study is evaluated against several of the design considerations contained in the ‘Walking and cycling routes’ section of PCAL’s ‘Designing Places for Active Living’.  The project comes up well against key measures – especially in how it forges links between destinations used on a daily basis by Junee residents.  It is also a good example of a safe, well designed and aesthetically pleasing shared pathway.  There was some initial scepticism about the need for the project in this regional town, but over time it has become a valued community asset.  Parents report increased comfort about their children cycling and walking to school, medical officers declare that the shared path encourages physical activity and accordingly, better health, and prospective residents tell real estate agents that they are attracted to a town that offers opportunities to get around by bike and keep fit.

Being physically active and socially connected is also facilitated via great parks and open space areas.  The Blayney Heritage Park offers children and adults alike a range of opportunities to cycle, walk and play in a well-designed and innovative setting.  As well, the park’s proximity to the town centre and local schools has created a well-used open space facility, importantly offering passive recreation in shaded areas.  This initiative was funded by the Council, the NSW Department of Sport and Recreation (now the Office of Sport) and different donations from regional companies.

In addition to infrastructure projects, the PCAL case studies include plan making examples showing how healthy planning principles can be embedded in local policies and strategies.  On the north coast of NSW, a collaboration between the local health service, the Bellingen Shire Council and the Heart Foundation, demonstrates the possibilities for doing this in a rural locality.  This project resulted in broad support for healthy planning considerations in the local LEP, DCPs and strategies to levy different developer contributions in order to facilitate healthy built environments.

Supporting healthy eating is another illustration of healthy plan making in the PCAL case studies.  Located on the South Coast of NSW, this is a notable example of regional cooperation across councils.  Linked to the IP&R Framework, three councils have come together to produce the Illawarra Regional Food Strategy which puts the joint council policy position on food security and sustainability for the region.


The Role of Sport in Getting Rural People Active

The importance of sport and recreation cannot be understated for those living in rural and regional Australia.  A Victorian study found that rates of participation in sport were higher in regional localities compared to metropolitan Melbourne, suggesting that encouraging participation in organised sport is a useful way to get rural people physically active.  The NSW Office of Sport (OoS) is currently consulting regional partners and stakeholders to develop a new regional sport operating model.  This will establish a placed-based approach to planning, investment and delivery of regional sport and active recreation for NSW.  A key aim is to increase the percentage of people regularly participating in physical activity.

Grant schemes issued by a range of State agencies are available to support regional infrastructure development and program delivery.  New regional grants were announced in the recent State budget.  The Stronger Country Communities Fund, for example, includes $200 million over the next two years to support local infrastructure projects that involve:

  • Building new community facilities (eg: parks, playgrounds, walking and cycle paths)
  • Refurbishing existing local facilities (eg: community centres)
  • Enhancing local parks and supporting amenities (eg: kitchens and toilet blocks)

The fund is available to all 92 NSW regional LGAs outside Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle. Three application tranches are scheduled for 2017.  The next stage of the OoS initiative is the preparation of draft Regional Sport and Active Recreation Plans.  These will be presented in local forums and feedback sought later in the year.

Clearly, healthy built environments are possible in rural and regional localities – there are lots of ideas and funding sources to help this happen!

What’s equity got to do with health in a higher-density city?

Posted by on August 24th, 2017 · Cities, Planning, Public space, Wellbeing
File 20170821 27241 1lw7thv
Green space, easily accessible to everyone no matter what their income, should be a priority in designing high-density residential areas.
Marcus Jaaske from

By Susan Thompson, UNSW and Gregory Paine, UNSW.

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

More and more of us living in denser cities where apartments and high-rise developments are increasingly common. This creates specific health concerns for residents of these areas, and for lower-income households in particular.

We already know socioeconomic status is closely related to health and wellbeing. The importance of equity was highlighted in the 2016 Boyer Lectures. Entitled Fair Australia: Social Justice and the Health Gap, the lectures were delivered by a world leader in health inequality research, Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

Marmot examined the challenges for poor communities in achieving good health from early life to old age. His message focused on the social determinants of health. And the built environment, including its environmental context, is among the most important of these.

This is usefully presented in the below health map for human settlements.

The health map shows the determinants of health and wellbeing in our neighbourhoods.
Barton & Grant 2006

How does the built environment affect health?

Many urban planners are working with health professionals to create a built environment that promotes good health for diverse populations. An ever-increasing body of research and practice evidence is available to support this work.

We know that the neighbourhoods where people live, together with their workplaces and the transport systems that link them, are fundamentally important for health and wellbeing.

We also recognise that the obstacles to health and wellbeing are greater for lower-income groups. For instance, those who live further from good city infrastructure and services, typically poorer communities, face greater challenges to stay healthy.

Residents of the outer suburbs tend to travel much longer distances between home, work and the services they need daily. Getting around necessarily defaults to the car, which has serious long-term implications for health. Driving is particularly associated with extended sitting in a confined space and, as a result, not getting enough exercise each day.

Long car-based commutes are also tiring and often stressful. Arriving home exhausted takes away from quality time with family and friends, as well as the energy needed to prepare nutritious meals. These are all negatives for maintaining good physical and mental health.

High-rise living and health

Denser cities are seen as the antidote to these problems – and with density comes high-rise and apartment living.

So, the question then is: how does a higher-density built environment affect our health?

The first thing to consider is the location of high-rise development. Siting high-rise residential blocks along busy and polluted roads is problematic for health.

When poorer communities are located in areas of lesser amenity due to lower housing costs, this exacerbates their health problems. While the initial cost of home ownership might be lower for the individuals, the longer-term impost on the health budget, associated with respiratory disease, needs to be factored into the equation.

Another critical concern is building design and construction. Poor design and building standards can mean adjoining apartment dwellers are affected by noise from their neighbours. This can result in sleep deprivation, stress, and anxiety (and in extreme cases, neighbour conflict and violence).

These are all risk factors for mental health problems, as well as being implicated in poor physical health. For example, sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, which is a risk factor for many chronic diseases.

It doesn’t stop there – ongoing building maintenance and management are crucial. A pristine development won’t remain that way if not well managed. For example:

  • security might well complicate easy access between floors and prevent stair use, which is a great way to get some incidental physical activity;
  • meeting rooms can be closed off for fear of noisy gatherings or messy community groups; and
  • garden spaces may be contracted out, denying residents the benefits of growing and harvesting their own food.

Green open space is good for us

There is no shortage of evidence to show just how important access to quality green open space is for health and wellbeing.

Different types of green space, easily accessible to everyone, no matter what their income, should be a priority in designing high-density residential areas.

Our recently released research explored how neighbourhoods support community health. Our findings offer insights into key elements of health-supportive environments:

  • free (or low-cost) infrastructure for activities such as walking and cycling is important, as are continued maintenance and safe and direct routes to nearby destinations;
  • affordable spaces that enable community-led social groups (sewing, cooking, men’s sheds) are critical in helping with social interaction, at little or no cost, to avoid isolation and loneliness;
  • all residents benefit from free, accessible, good-quality and well-maintained public spaces;
  • residents should have access to affordable, healthy local food outlets, and community food box programs are a key initiative for lower-income groups; and
  • implications of ageing and the use of public facilities need to be considered – our interviewees spoke of frailties that made it more difficult to be out and about, enjoying physical activity and being socially connected.

Study participants living in high-rise apartments were concerned about increasing residential density and loss of amenity. Issues they mentioned included access to sunlight/daylight, privacy and inter/overlooking, and dust and grit affecting their use of balconies.

A fair go for all?

This is a good question when it comes to the health and wellbeing of poor communities in high-rise housing.

All of the issues mentioned above are potentially challenging for maintaining wellbeing day-to-day. Many are not income-specific, but lower-income groups have less capacity to respond to these challenges.

High-density living is increasingly trumpeted as “healthy”. But without supportive infrastructure based on an understanding of specific geographic contexts and community needs, this way of living will pose significant health risks.

Blindly pursuing a uniform denser city agenda will only reinforce and exacerbate health inequalities.

The ConversationYou can read other articles in the series here.

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.

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
File 20170821 17172 7gb7ol

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.