City Futures Blog

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

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Australia needs to triple its social housing by 2036. This is the best way to do it

Posted by on November 15th, 2018 · Affordable housing, Demographics, Finance, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing supply, Social housing

By Julie Lawson, RMIT University; Hal Pawson, UNSW; Laurence Troy, UNSW, and Ryan van den Nouwelant, Western Sydney University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia needs to triple its small stock of social housing over the next 20 years to cover both the existing backlog and newly emerging need.

That is the central finding of our new research report on the housing infrastructure needs of low-income earners, published by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI). By our reckoning, 25 years of inadequate investment has left Australia facing a shortfall of 433,000 social housing dwellings. The current construction rate – little more than 3,000 dwellings a year – does not even keep pace with rising need, let alone make inroads into today’s backlog.

The report also shows that Australia needs to avoid overly complex private financing “innovations”. These have proven ineffective elsewhere and were recently abolished by the UK Treasury.

Our modelling of household need and procurement costs shows that direct public investment, coupled with more efficient financing through the National Housing Finance Investment Corporation, is the best way to tackle this policy challenge. Compared with subsidising the operating income of a commercially financed program, the lifetime cost of the first year of house building is A$1.6 billion less. That’s a 24% saving to the public purse.

Lack of investment takes its toll

From 1945, state and territory governments, financially supported by Canberra, maintained public programs that built 8,000-14,000 dwellings a year for half a century.

From 1996, however, social housing largely slipped from the Australian government agenda. Dedicated ongoing funding to states and territories was at “starvation levels”. Public house building plunged to today’s residual output, except for a short-lived GFC-stimulus-funded recovery from 2008-11.

How do we estimate the level of need?

Our analysis quantifies both Australia’s housing need “backlog” and the “newly emerging” need from population growth over the next 20 years. It conservatively calculates backlog need as comprising two elements.

First, it considers those who are homeless now. The 2016 census counted 116,000 homeless people across Australia. Recognising that some would choose not to live alone, we estimate that our homeless population implies a need for about 47,000 extra dwellings.

Second, our analysis considers the group whose housing needs are not being met by the market. These households are on very low incomes (excluding student households), in private rental housing, and in rental stress – where rent is more than 30% of their earnings. If you are on a very low income, housing costs of this order mean going without other essentials.


Collectively, these components imply a current backlog of 433,000 social housing dwellings.

Newly emerging need will expand the shortfall to 727,000 dwellings by 2036. This factors in expected population growth and the current share of social housing. It assumes no improvement in private rental housing affordability.

How achievable is a building program of this scale?

Fixing this problem – both the backlog and newly emerging need – calls for a major program of social housing construction. This is needed to expand the national social housing stock to nearly three times its 2016 size by 2036.

Simply preventing the existing problem from getting worse calls for nearly 15,000 extra dwellings a year to be built. That’s a little over 290,000 homes over the next 20 years.

To eliminate the backlog as well would require an annual program averaging 36,000 units. This would need to begin gradually to build capacity and avoid inflating costs.

This would represent around a tenfold increase in current social housing construction rates. The output would be similar to the 14% public housing share of Australia’s total house building in the decade to 1955.

For comparison, housing providers with a social purpose today account for 20-31% of all house building in the UK, Finland, France and Austria, and much more in some Asian countries such as Singapore. England’s not-for-profit housing associations, for example, completed some 42,000 homes in 2017-18, out of 161,000 homes built in total.

What will this cost the government?

What would be the price tag for such a program? And what’s the best way for government to provide the necessary support?

To answer the first question, we identified both the social housing need, described above, and the land and construction costs across 88 regions of Australia. Different regions have different land costs and building forms, such as detached, medium and high-rise dwellings. Not surprisingly, the modelled unit procurement costs vary substantially, from A$146,000 in remote South Australia to A$614,000 in parts of Sydney. We then calculated the price tag across the country.

To work out the cost to government, and answer the second question, a couple of important assumptions are made.

The first is that social housing need should be met in (or near) the places where it arises. While skewing the building program towards less well-located places could accommodate the need more cheaply, it is in our view essential to avoid such a “ghettoisation” model.

Second, while tenants can help cover the costs through their rent, to be affordable that rent will service only a modest amount of debt. As the federal Treasurer’s own advisory committee acknowledges, therefore, the public purse must bear most of the development cost.

No amount of “innovative” procurement or financing will yield a government “free lunch” as the UK’s National Audit Office evaluation of private infrastructure financing experiments demonstrates.

The five investment scenarios

We examined five contrasting “investment pathways” for delivering a program that builds social housing on the required scale. The basic choice is between a capital grant model (subsidy paid up front) and a revenue subsidy model (annual payments underpin debt repayments and operating costs).

We calculate that the cost of the first year of the program would total A$5 billion under a capital grant approach. A private debt-financed approach, with government support through revenue subsidies, would cost A$6.6 billion. This is after discounting costs incurred in later years.

Thus, direct investment would save Australian governments 24% on average.

So while governments tend to favour “financial innovation” options that push costs into the future, capital grant funding is the rational investment pathway.

Providing enough housing for low-income earners is a growing policy challenge. With rising homelessness and housing stress in recent years, this research quantifies the scale of that challenge and identifies the most cost-effective investment pathway to its resolution.

The Conversation


Who wins and who loses when platforms like Airbnb disrupt housing? And how do you regulate it?

Posted by on November 8th, 2018 · Affordability, Airbnb, Cities, Government, Housing, Housing supply, International, Law, Marginal rental, Private rental, Sharing, Sydney

By Laura Crommelin, Chris Martin and Laurence Troy (City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney) and Sharon Parkinson (Swinburne University of Technology). This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Short-term letting platforms like Airbnb are changing property owners’ and investors’ views and behaviour in the Sydney and Melbourne rental markets. These changes are directly affecting housing availability in localised areas, especially the inner city.

Our research for AHURI is the first major study to combine analyses of the geography of Airbnb in Australia’s two largest cities. This included detailed empirical research into Airbnb hosts’ motivations, and the regulation of short-term letting in Melbourne, Sydney and cities overseas.

Our findings suggest current owners are likely to benefit from the impacts of short-term letting platforms. Prospective owners and tenants may be disadvantaged.

Who feels the impacts of Airbnb?

Short-term letting is not a new economic activity. Hosts sharing their primary place of residence – such as taking in lodgers, offering bed and breakfast, and so on – have long been a feature of urban housing markets.

However, short-term letting platforms have fundamentally changed the scale of this activity. These platforms have made it more efficient and less risky, and greatly reduced the search costs.

Airbnb listings for Sydney and Melbourne (Aug 2015–Feb 2018)
Authors’ analysis based on data

Existing research on these platforms and the “sharing economy” suggests the growth in short-term letting affects different housing market participants in very different ways.

Our research shows that existing owners will likely benefit over time from the rise of these platforms. That’s because these sites offer a flexible means of monetising housing wealth to allow further consumption.

For prospective home owners, however, entering the market may become more difficult, as short-term letting earnings may be capitalised into higher purchase prices.

For tenants, there are few benefits. The rise in short-term letting is likely to cause greater uncertainty for prospective tenants seeking long-term rentals. There are risks and restrictions that limit the ability of current tenants to use the platforms to sublet.

Where does Airbnb have the most impact?

Despite some growth in more suburban areas, the spatial impact of Airbnb in both Sydney and Melbourne remains concentrated in high-demand inner-city areas. In these areas, two factors – decreasing bond lodgement rates and increasing property vacancies – point to the likelihood that short-term letting is removing properties from the long-term rental market. This in turn is contributing to increasing unaffordability.

The impact of Airbnb listings on rental housing markets has been very localised in Sydney and Melbourne.

In Sydney, Darlinghurst, Manly and the eastern beach suburbs of Bondi, Tamarama and Bronte have been the focus of Airbnb activity. In these areas, Airbnb listings account for between 11.2% and 14.8% of rental housing stock.

Listings as a proportion of rental dwellings (ABS 2016) in Sydney.
AHURI, Author provided

In Melbourne, central Melbourne, Docklands, Southbank, Fitzroy and St Kilda have been the focus of Airbnb listings, accounting for between 8.6% and 15.3% of rental housing stock.

Listings as a proportion of rental dwellings in Melbourne.
AHURI, Author provided

However, the impacts of Airbnb on rental supply have been offset by:

  • substantial growth in dwelling numbers in key areas of Melbourne
  • large numbers of dwellings that are otherwise outside of long-term housing supply, including many unoccupied dwellings.

What motivates Airbnb hosts?

This research offers a new Australian perspective on Airbnb host motivations and decision-making, drawing on some of the most extensive empirical work to date.

Financial motivations were bolstered by the fact that hosting brings additional intrinsic benefits. These include the opportunity to connect with diverse people, and a sense of pride associated with being a good host. For many hosts, the flexibility to use the property occasionally, while also using it to earn money, was a significant advantage of short-term letting over long-term rental.The main motivation for hosting on Airbnb is to earn extra money from housing assets, in a way that is perceived to minimise risk. In some cases this income is tied to an immediate need for a buffer against housing insecurity. But this is not the case for many hosts.

Some hosts have converted long-term rental properties into permanent Airbnb listings. However, some of these will likely return over time due to a perception of declining profitability, a greater workload associated with short-term letting, and the professionalisation of Airbnb. On the other hand, some hosts are motivated to expand their Airbnb portfolios with new acquisitions.

For other hosts, flexibility is key. Without Airbnb they would prefer to keep dwellings vacant rather than rent out long term. This points to other motivations for owning investment property than achieving maximum rental income.

Approaches to regulation

We reviewed regulation in Melbourne, Sydney and nine cities overseas in which short-term letting is a significant issue. Our review found three broad approaches to regulation:

  • a permissive approach – short-term letting is mostly allowed without prior permission or notification
  • a notificatory approach – short-term letting is mostly allowed, provided the host first notifies an authority (that is, there is no specific decision by the authority).
  • a restrictive approach – short-term letting is mostly banned, or allowed only where an authority gives specific permission.

Melbourne and Sydney have both recently adopted a permissive approach, with some limitations. However, we believe the notificatory approach is best adapted to managing new aspects of short-term letting in the Airbnb era.

Policy implications

The research findings suggest four ways to strengthen policy responses to short-term letting:

  • a registration system for listings, to help with enforcement
  • additional localised strategies to limit short-term letting and ensure adequate affordable rental supply in areas of intense activity
  • the integration of measures to limit commercial-style short-term letting within a broad-ranging housing policy, which reflects the changing nature of housing markets and the complex drivers behind these shifts
  • an ongoing research agenda into short-term letting across our cities and regional areas and its impact on housing and urban planning outcomes, supported by access to detailed, up-to-date data.

This article has been updated to include additional graphics from the AHURI report.The Conversation

Laura Crommelin, Research Lecturer, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW; Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Housing, UNSW; Laurence Troy, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Sharon Parkinson, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology


What we need for a national settlement strategy that works

Posted by on October 19th, 2018 · Cities, Demographics, Migration, Planning, Regions

There is a growing cacophony of calls for a national settlement strategy. What does that mean? Are we all over the exhaustion of daily congestion? Are we fed up with promises of infrastructure that fails to catch up with the growth of our cities? Is it about migrants and the number of those apparently crowding our cities? Or is it about a regional economic growth plan that guides new investment to places in Australia that want and need it?

This week the Planning Institute of Australia launched its most recent report, Through the lens – the tipping point at Parliament House. It joins a recent report by the Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities, Building Up and Moving Out, to advocate for a national settlement strategy. Both reports argue that it is time to look differently at how Australia will accommodate future population growth.  

Continuing as we have been doing, and allowing unmanaged growth to settle in our big cities is already diminishing our valued way of life. The debate may turn ugly if we don’t address these issues soon.

For some commentators, the only response to untrammelled growth is to stop it. The debate in Australia has frequently fallen back to that solution. Bob Carr, when premier,  famously announced that Sydney was full and closed for new migrants.  Even current premier Gladys Berejeklian has said “we need to take a breath” on such high numbers of migrants. 

Migrants critical to tax base to pay for health care and pensions

What we don’t talk about is how critical the taxation paid by new migrants is to government revenue needed to support an ageing population with health care and pensions. So the conversation should not be “no more migrants” but should be where can our population and new jobs be located in order to retain the liveability of our big cities? 

Recent political discussion has raised the option of “forcing” migrants to settle in small centres away from the big cities. 

Last year 140,000 new settlers arrived in Sydney. Even if half of them were encouraged to settle elsewhere, that still leaves a large number adding to the growth of Sydney.  

And 70,000 new settlers are unlikely to find employment in small inland centres without a significant program of employment development in those centres. 

And there’s the challenge, a vicious circle: settlers won’t happily go elsewhere without prospective jobs and jobs won’t go elsewhere without the potential of skilled employees.  

There’s another challenge with settling small towns. Work recently completed in the Orana region (Dubbo and surrounds) found that basic facilities were needed to make that centre settler ready. Priority issues were telecommunication connectivity, adequate hospital facilities, water for industry, road upgrades to get produce to market, and connectivity with Sydney. 

And the business case for supporting funding of those facilities is unable to compete with big city priorities due to the small number of businesses and residents benefiting. The very model built by Treasury is stacked against the small out of big city centres development.

If we all agree that the settlement of small towns and centres must be supported in order to relieve the population growth pressures in our major cities, then we need to shift priorities and help make those towns settler ready.  

It’s not about where but how

The Standing Committee’s report and the PIA report released this week call for a sensible discussion around a national settlement strategy. Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have flagged their partial support for such an idea. But, given the issues highlighted above, it’s not about where, it’s about how. 

To make small towns settler ready significant investment in all kinds of infrastructure is needed and a program of incentives to encourage businesses and industry to relocate and to grow must be undertaken. 

This can be matched with settlers from our migrant intake and our existing residents who wish more affordable housing, and a great community lifestyle. But to tie all that together, we need to create much better access between those centres and the big city. Nothing will transform that access better than a fast train service for both freight and passengers. 

Forcing any of our population to head away from the big city is doomed to failure. We must add quite a big carrot to the stick. It must have bi-partisan support to give business the long term confidence to locate and to create more jobs. 

And it must be supported with essential services and a fast train link back to the markets and ports in the big cities and to families and entertainment back in the city.

The sense of community and affordable lifestyles in smaller towns are often significantly better than in the big cities. But they must be supported by essential services, jobs and fast links back to the big smoke. 

We need a national settlement strategy, but we need that strategy to focus on “how” not “where”.  And we need it as soon as possible before the debate focuses on all the wrong issues. 

An open letter on rental housing reform

Posted by on September 25th, 2018 · Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing conditions, Law, Tenancy
File 20180924 85758 16rnxyf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The right of landlords to terminate a lease with no grounds is the most serious deficiency in residential tenancy laws in New South Wales.

Following a review of the New South Wales Residential Tenancies Act 2010 in 2016 and extended consultations, the NSW government has introduced a number of reforms to parliament. Debate is expected to occur this week. However, without reform to current eviction proceedings, many housing advocates have expressed concern that these generally good proposals will have little effect. Today, 45 housing researchers from a range of disciplines have signed the following open letter.


We are academics who research and teach about housing. We come from a range of disciplines – for example law, economics, social sciences, planning – and many of us have worked variously with housing providers, tenants’ groups and government agencies on housing issues. We have in common commitment to the principle that everyone should have a secure, affordable home of decent standard, whether they own or rent.

Too often, however, our rental housing sector fails to deliver on this principle. There are numerous reasons for this; one of them is the legal insecurity of tenants under current New South Wales residential tenancy laws. In particular, the provision for landlords to give termination notices, with no grounds, at the end of a fixed-term tenancy or during a continuing tenancy is contrary to genuine security.

“No grounds” termination notices give cover for bad reasons for seeking termination, such as retaliation and discrimination. The prospect that a “no grounds” termination notice may be given hangs over all tenancies, discouraging tenants from raising concerns with agents and landlords and undermining the legal rights otherwise provided for by their leases and the legislation.

The deficiencies of our current laws are becoming worse, as more households rent, and rent for longer into their lives. About 32% of NSW households rent and this proportion is growing. Over the five years to 2016, 63% of the net growth in the number of NSW households was households in rental housing. And 42% of NSW renter households include children.

Our deficient current laws are also increasingly out of step with tenancy laws in comparable jurisdictions. Many European countries, as well as most of the Canadian provinces and the largest US cities, do not provide for “no grounds” terminations by landlords.

Last year, Scotland reformed its tenancy laws to remove provisions for “no grounds” terminations and replace them with prescribed reasonable grounds for termination. In Australia, Tasmania has for some years not allowed “no grounds” terminations of continuing tenancies. This month, the Victorian Parliament amended its residential tenancies legislation to remove provision for “no grounds” termination notices for continuing tenancies and for fixed-term tenancies, except at the end of the first fixed term.

We call on the NSW state government to improve security for renters, by legislating to end no-grounds termination by landlords and providing instead for a prescribed set of reasonable grounds for terminations.

These reasonable grounds would include grounds already in the legislation, such as rent arrears and other breaches by the tenant, and sale of the premises, as well as new grounds, such as where the landlord needs the premises for their own housing, and where the premises are to be renovated, demolished or changed to a non-residential use.

The prescribed reasonable grounds should have different notice periods, reflecting their different degrees of urgency and priority. Proceedings on notices should go, as they currently do, to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and the tribunal should determine whether the ground exists and whether termination is justified in all the circumstances.

This reform would make all tenants feel more secure, without unduly restricting landlords in reasonable uses of their properties. The only inconvenience would be to the retaliators, the discriminators and those who cannot cope with even a modest level of accountability. If the reform prompted these landlords to leave the sector, they would sell to a new home owner or to a more professionally minded landlord – either of which is to the good.

There is more to be done across a range of policy areas to improve the functioning of all aspects of our housing system. We need more accessible home ownership, a differently structured and more professional market rental sector and a revitalised social housing sector. These changes require a comprehensive housing policy, coordinated across areas and levels of government and carried out over a long term.

But, in tenancy law, the single most important reform is ending “no grounds” termination by landlords. And the parliament could do it now.


Dr Chris Martin, Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Professor Brendan Edgeworth, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales

Professor Chris Gibson, Human Geography, University of Wollongong

Professor Keith Jacobs, Director, Housing Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania

Professor Alan Morris, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology, Sydney

Professor Kath Hulse, Director Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology

Professor Hal Pawson, Housing Research and Policy, University of New South Wales

Professor Pauline McGuirk, Director Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong

Professor Peter Phibbs, Urban Planning, The University of Sydney

Professor Bill Randolph, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Professor Eileen Webb, Faculty of Business and Law, Curtin University

Adjunct Professor Michael Darcy, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University

Associate Professor Hazel Easthope, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Associate Professor Daphne Habibis, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Urban Geography, The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Kristian Ruming, Department of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University

Associate Professor Judith Yates, School of Economics, The University of Sydney

Dr Gareth Bryant, Political Economy, The University of Sydney

Dr Nicole Cook, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Wollongong

Dr Louise Crabtree, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Dr Laura Crommelin, Research Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Tanja Dreher, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Media, University of New South Wales

Dr Christina Ho, Senior Lecturer, Social & Political Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney

Dr Justine Humphry, Lecturer in Digital Cultures, Department of Media and Communications, The University of Sydney

Dr Edgar Liu, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Sophia Maalsen, IB Fell Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney

Dr Daniel Ooi, Research Fellow, Victoria University

Dr Justine Lloyd, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University

Dr Jean Parker, Research Associate, Department of Gender and Culture Studies, The University of Sydney

Dr Madeleine Pill, Researcher, Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney

Dr Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Dr Dallas Rogers, Program Director, Master of Urbanism, The University of Sydney

Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, Senior Lecturer, Economy and Society, Macquarie University

Dr Adam Stebbing, Director of Bachelor of Social Science, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University

Dr Amanda Tattersall, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Henry Halloran Trust, The University of Sydney

Dr Lawrence Troy, Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Robert Mowbray, Older Persons Project Officer, Tenants’ Union NSW

Deb Batterham, Researcher, Launch Housing

Zahra Nasreen, Researcher, Department of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University

Pratichi Chatterjee, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney

Sophie-May Kerr, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

Craig Lyons, PhD Candidate, School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong

Gemma McKinnon, Researcher, University of New South Wales

Bill Swannie, Academic, College of Law and Justice, Victoria University

Alistair Sisson, PhD Candidate & Research Assistant, School of Geosciences, The University of SydneyThe Conversation

John Watson, Section Editor: Cities + Policy, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lifting the energy efficiency standards of low-cost rentals

Posted by on September 19th, 2018 · Climate change, Government, Housing, Housing conditions, Sustainability, Tax, Wellbeing

By Edgar Liu, City Futures Research Centre.

The Australian Senate’s Environment and Communications References Committee recently published the Final Report of its Inquiry on current and future impacts of climate change on housing, buildings and infrastructure. This came about after extensive community consultation on the back of parliamentary flip-flopping regarding if and how Australia will meet our Paris Agreement obligations.

This Inquiry Report details the potential impacts that continued climate change may have on urban and coastal areas, on different socio-demographic groups, on our economy, on our health and wellbeing, and on the adaptability of our current homes and workplaces. Our submission to this Inquiry (#24) highlighted the findings of our CRC LCL-funded project, particularly the negative impacts lower income households will continue to endure if their access to energy efficient products and renewable energy sources remain price-prohibitive, when split incentives persist so that landlords remain reticent about performing sufficient upgrades, and worsening climate change means the poor quality housing that these families live in will get even more unbearable in extreme weather conditions.

Change, however, may be coming. Recently, Independent South Australian Senator, Tim Storer, proposed a new Treasury Law Amendment to the Australian Parliament, under which landlords of low-rent properties would be eligible for tax offset incentives to perform energy efficiency upgrades to their investment properties. A new Senate Inquiry is inviting public submissions to the Committee Secretary until close of business on 28 September 2018.

This proposed Bill and Senate Inquiry is a good first step to setting minimum standards for rental properties, standards that have been in place across the European Union for nearly a decade and strongly supported in Australia by advocacy groups like Environment Victoria. Our submission to the new Inquiry, however, highlights a few shortcomings in the proposal. These concern the proposed regulation’s ability to keep upgraded properties in the lower end of the rental market for vulnerable households—the very households that this Bill was designed to protect—to access; its ability to minimise disruptions to sitting tenants and avoid potential displacements; and how double-dipping by landlords may be avoided.

There is no doubt unaffordable energy and energy poverty is causing great grief to many families, and having a thermally comfortable home that is efficient to run is vital to overcoming that. As our research shows, having the political will to make that change—such as proposed in the latest Treasury Law Amendment—is an important step forward to making that a reality.

A dashboard for the GreenWay

Posted by on September 3rd, 2018 · Bikes, Data, Planning, Public space, Sydney, Transport, Wellbeing

By Alessandra Buxton, Ori Gudes, Chris Pettit and Vandana Mann, City Futures Research Centre.

Cycling around Sydney CBD and the surrounding suburbs has been dubbed a dangerous and difficult experience by Sydneysiders. Both Sydney and NSW are at the bottom of their classes in terms of cycling participation rates, with participation declining since 2015 in both greater Sydney and regional NSW to 10 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. Despite the City of Sydney’s encouragement to get more commuters using cycling as their mode of transport, the lack of cycling infrastructure is a sore point.

Residents and local councils have been eager to find a solution to make the overall experience safer for cyclists. One of the recommended solutions is the GreenWay corridor: a transport route containing footpaths, cycle-ways, parks, playgrounds, bush care sites, cafes, public art and community facilities. Funded by the NSW state government, the Inner West Council and the City of Canterbury Bankstown, the goal of the GreenWay is to increase the rate of active residents and cyclists for both commute and recreational purposes. The corridor follows a route of the Rozelle to Dulwich Hill freight rail corridor and connects two of Sydney’s major waterways, the Cooks River and the Parramatta River at Iron Cove Bay. Currently the corridor is half-way through construction and is missing many necessary links such as bridges and tunnels, but completion is expected in the next few years.

Research undertaken by UNSW City Futures funded by the National Heart Foundation on the GreenWay in the Inner West measures the active travel rates on the dashboard ‘Map Story’. The primary aim of the study being to develop a framework to measure the impact of active transport infrastructure and to address the gap in knowledge regarding the impact of new active transportation infrastructure. The study meets a core objective of the Heart Foundation which encourages active travel and an increase of infrastructure to support it. Through the research offered the data is designed to influence and support investment in infrastructure and make the city safer place to ride.

By measuring the current use of the GreenWay, researchers have provided a clear and accessible format on a Map Story for urban planners and local councils to view data and understand how effectively the infrastructure is being utilised. Through the collation of research from NSW Roads and Maritime Services, Inner West Council, the Super Sunday Report and crowd-sourced data, City Futures has produced an interactive map showing popular routes, peak hours and air quality along the GreenWay.

Along with assisting local governments in understanding the effectiveness of an active travel corridor, the study also provides important information and maintains the analysis of air quality using a mounted sensor.

Continuing to monitor the air quality will provide evidence of the role of urban green corridors in cooling the environment, educate the community on the value of green spaces, provide data that allows the public to avoid areas with poor air quality, expose school students to the value of good air quality and diversity in flora and fauna as well as providing cost effective evidence of air quality to the city council.

The in-depth data has pleased the Heart Foundation, which maintains the corridor is beneficial for the local community’s health. “We are very happy to support the GreenWay Dashboard project. It has the power to demonstrate in a very tangible form how thoughtful infrastructure can translate into increased physical activity and better public health outcomes.”

Vale Patrick Troy

Posted by on August 24th, 2018 · Guest appearance

Image: Fairfax.

By Frank Stilwell. Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Patrick Troy was a passionate advocate for better Australian cities. This was the continuous thread through his activities as an engineer, town planner, urban studies academic, senior federal public servant, author and activist.

The pinnacle of his influence was during the Whitlam government period in the 1970s. Pat left his job at the Australian National University to become deputy secretary of the newly established Department of Urban and Regional Development, with Tom Uren as its minister. Pat recruited and led the team that created policies for urban improvement and more balanced regional development. The intention was to make the cities more efficient, equitable and sustainable.

Emphasis was put on developing new growth centres, including Bathurst-Orange and Albury-Wodonga. Land commissions were established, mandated to release more public land to make housing more affordable. Big parts of Glebe and Woolloomooloo were bought for upgraded public housing so that working class people could still live in the inner city. The western suburbs were connected to the main sewer system, becoming fully flushed for the first time.

There was much more in the pipeline, too. The flurry of activity brought the federal government into urban policy areas previously neglected by the states. Nothing quite like it has been seen since. Pat Troy’s guiding hand was on all of it.

Not all the plans came to fruition. Cities and regions aren’t easily transformed. It takes 20 years or more, and requires cross-party collaboration that is rarely seen in Australian politics. When Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government replaced Whitlam’s government in 1975, DURD was abolished and business as usual resumed.

Although deeply disappointed, Pat didn’t give up after DURD’s demise. He put his energies into making the ANU’s Urban Research Unit into the premier place for urban policy studies in Australia. He wrote and edited numerous books and reports, organised research projects and conferences, was active in the media and advised governments and whoever would listen.

Pat Troy was born in Geraldton, WA, the son of Hilda and Paddy Troy, and then grew up in Fremantle. His dad Paddy was a waterside worker and the best-known Communist unionist in Western Australia. Paddy spent three months in jail for a minor political infringement. The Fremantle house where the family lived was a meeting place for activists and refuge for people needing help. To hear Pat talk about it, there was seldom a dull moment.

After qualifying as an engineer, Pat was sponsored by the Federation of British Industry to undertake further study and work in the UK. On arrival in London, his sponsors interrogated him closely because Australian security authorities had told them that he was a potential trouble-maker. True to form, ASIO had made a simple error, confusing Pat with his dad.

After returning Down Under, Pat worked for the NSW State Planning Authority and studied highway engineering at the University of NSW. He moved to Canberra to join the Urban Studies Unit at the ANU in 1966 and was already well-established there, with strong personal Labor Party links, when the opportunity to work with the Whitlam government arose.

Both before and after his stint with Whitlam and Uren, he and his colleagues made the urban research program at the ANU a seedbed for talent. Many of its young researchers later became senior professionals and professors in their chosen fields. Pat also mentored PhD students from all around Australia who attended his residential workshops. He initiated a series of annual conferences on Australian cities for urban researchers and practitioners.

Pat’s contributions were officially recognised by his election to the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and his being  made an officer in the Order of Australia.

However, the fad for managerial restructuring started to infect universities in the1980s and put his Urban Research Program under threat. The academic bureaucrats, in their ‘‘wisdom’’, eventually closed it in the 1990s. Pat never forgave them for what he considered to be an act of sheer bastardry.

Still, he maintained his academic connection with the ANU, becoming an emeritus fellow in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. He also had honorary positions at Western Sydney University and the University of NSW where he continued to foster excellence in research. His life was that of a prominent public intellectual. Together with Hugh Stretton, author of Ideas for Australian Cities, he was Australia’s greatest champion for seeking social justice through planning for better cities.

It was not all hard work. His home in Canberra with Sandy was a place of renowned hospitality, with fine food and plentiful good wines to be shared. Pat was a renowned raconteur. Some thought him increasingly grumpy in his later years but then there was a lot to be grumpy about.

What had happened to cities since the DURD era was a source of much chagrin. He thought that the fashion for urban consolidation was creating cites that are too dense, inequitable and unsustainable. The scourge of ‘‘economic rationalism’’ in public policy and its over-reliance on markets to ‘‘solve’’ social problems was a yet more general source of dismay.

But Pat never gave up hope of making a difference, even after his diagnosis with cancer more than a decade ago. Until his quite sudden end, he was actively researching, writing and lobbying. He maintained his strong physical presence.

Pat leaves his partner Sandy, brothers and sisters, many children and grandchildren.

All who care about the quality of urban life have much to thank him for.

Patrick Troy: 1936-2018

The new national housing agreement won’t achieve its goals without enough funding

Posted by on July 17th, 2018 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Finance, Government, Housing, Housing supply
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By Vivienne Milligan, City Futures Research Centre. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This month, yet another policy agreement on housing between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments came into effect. The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement is the latest version of a 73-year-long series of such intergovernmental pacts to ensure affordable housing for lower-income Australians and to fund services for the homeless.

It replaces the ten-year National Affordable Housing Agreement and a series of partnerships since 2008 to tackle homelessness – the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. The latest agreement has more achievable performance indicators than its predecessors. It also requires the states to report on their annual financial contributions – a worthy step up for transparency.

But, at a time of growing population and enduring housing stress, the Commonwealth’s latest budget promise to maintain its current funding contribution of A$1.3 billion for the housing agreement means there has been no increase in real funding. Keeping it at what it has been isn’t enough to cover the costs of current services, let alone increase them.

So, there is a disconnect between the lofty goal of improving access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing and the funding capable of supporting it. Until this funding shortfall is addressed, any new national housing and homelessness agreements will continue to be essentially different in name only.

What’s new this time?

Compared to recent former agreements, three matters stand out as new or refreshed.

First is the policy breadth. Unlike its predecessors, the new agreement aspires to improve access to housing “across the housing spectrum”. This refers to the full suite of housing tenures – from crisis housing to home ownership. Within this spectrum the Commonwealth has set several immediate priorities:

  • achieving an efficient, responsive and well-managed social housing system
  • support for community housing and affordable housing models that can viably increase housing supply
  • tenancy reform that encourages security of tenure in the private rental market
  • strategies to promote market supply and efficiency, including planning system reforms, land-release initiatives and support for home ownership.

This broadened coverage is generally welcome, but it falls short of satisfying the calls for a national housing strategy. This means many national policies with major impacts on housing demand and cost – such as taxes on housing investment, immigration levels and income support for renters – remain outside the influence of the agreement. Such policies also strongly influence the prospects of reducing housing stress.

The second, and arguably biggest, set of changes concerns accountability. This includes an expanded list of performance measures, the Commonwealth leading a standardised approach to data measures, and a formal independent Productivity Commission review of the agreement to be conducted within four years.

The new performance indicators replace the targets from 2008, which were never achieved. The failed measures were quantitative in nature, while the new ones simply adopt a requirement for progress (an increase or a decrease, as appropriate), which can be more readily achieved.

For example, the Rudd government’s pledge to halve the rate of homelessness by 2020 has shifted to “decreases in people experiencing homelessness and repeat homelessness”. Similarly, the 2008 commitment to reduce the proportion of low-income renter households experiencing rental stress by 10% has been replaced by a commitment to simply reduce the proportion of such households.


A third feature is a requirement for states and territories to annually publish housing strategies. Stakeholders will be able to judge and compare the merit of these published blueprints. These will come after a new set of high-level bilateral agreements negotiated between each state and territory and the Commonwealth.

This highlights differences in housing conditions between jurisdictions and incorporates state-level priorities in addition to those of the Commonwealth. Those published so far vary considerably in ambition and specificity.

The elephant in the room

While there are positive directions in the new agreement, the funding deficit remains an issue. Despite not increasing its funding, the Commonwealth hopes the states and territories will increase theirs.

The Commonwealth, however, has failed to extend or replace other large housing programs that operated in the past decade. These included the now closed National Rental Affordability Scheme, which resulted in over 36,000 new affordable rental houses, and a A$5 billion national partnership to improve housing supply and conditions in remote (largely Indigenous) communities.

As a result there is now less federal funding for new social and affordable housing than at any time over the last decade.

The ConversationWith so much detailed by so many about the manifest inadequacy in funding required to meet housing need in Australia, we can regrettably predict that the new agreement will not contribute much at all to an increased supply of social and affordable housing. Indeed, this is tacitly acknowledged – the agreement’s carefully crafted performance indicators include no such measure.

Vivienne Milligan, Visiting Senior Fellow – City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW


Can the market provide affordable housing?

Posted by on July 9th, 2018 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Government, Housing, Housing supply, Marginal rental, Planning, Private rental, Sydney
A new-generation boarding house in Randwick built under AHSEPP, with units that were advertised for $500 a week.

There is an ongoing debate about the best role for the planning system in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in Australia’s cities. At one end of the spectrum is the argument that its role in setting land value can be parlayed into mandating the inclusion of targeted affordable housing. At the other end is the argument that there is a need to simply remove planning constraints on supply, particularly on lower-cost housing options.

A good example of the latter has been the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy for affordable rental housing, or “the AHSEPP”. Introduced in 2009, the AHSEPP sought to remove barriers to, and even provide incentives to stimulate, the market delivery of housing options affordable for low-income households. The policy’s purpose as described in explanatory material highlights its role in addressing long waiting lists for social housing, among other worthy goals. Although broad in scope, the policy essentially relies on market delivery of secondary dwellings (granny flats) and boarding houses (called rooming houses in other jurisdictions).

But after nearly a decade of operation, there’s been no official position on what the policy is expected to deliver, or a review of its effectiveness. Given the importance the NSW government placed on affordable housing when it came into office in 2011, this might be considered surprising.

While some have sought to unpack the outcomes indirectly, Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC) has worked with us to undertake the most comprehensive analysis of the AHSEPP to date, using primary planning data from its 11 member local council areas across central and southern Sydney.

More housing, but not more affordable

At one level, the AHSEPP appears to have delivered some significant results: over 8000 secondary dwellings and over 9000 boarding rooms have been approved since 2009 in this part of Sydney alone. This is a significant amount of development – as new dwellings, this would equate to about one in six of the total dwelling growth in this region between the 2006-2016 intercensal period.

But we found both secondary dwellings and boarding rooms were not markedly more affordable than what is already on the market in southern Sydney. This means that, if the private rental sector has not previously met the needs of some cohorts – as evidenced by the waiting lists for social housing – then the injection of supply through the AHSEPP does not appear to offer a remedy for this market failure. As such, and despite the extent to which the incentives were taken up by developers, it is difficult to claim success in its core objective of stimulating housing affordable for low-income households.

Equally concerning, we found evidence that very few of secondary dwellings were reaching the “formal” rental market, with only one quarter matched to rental tenancies. It appears that the provisions were taken up largely to accommodate informal expansion of the main household – actually fulfilling the true definition of “granny flat”! Similarly, the vast majority of boarding rooms were not rental housing available to everyone. It was clear from the geography, project description and proponent that these provisions were largely being taken up for student housing. A formal student housing option is a better outcome than the more informal ways demand has previously been met. However these new dwellings are hardly “affordable”, with rooms renting for over $400 a week.

So it seems that neither set of provisions were meeting the intentions of the policy: to deliver affordable rental dwellings and take the pressure off social housing wait lists. This highlights how difficult it is for planning incentives and regulatory dismantling to overcome this kind of market failure – that is, to make housing for people on low incomes profitable enough for private investors to deliver it.

Unplanned and uncounted

More broadly, the case of the AHSEPP raises other issues about how effectively the strategic planning accounts for this type of housing supply. Our analysis shows secondary dwellings are overwhelmingly delivered in established suburbs. Yet these areas have been conspicuously ignored as places for new housing by recent strategic planning policies.

This raises questions about the extent to which the population growth here is accompanied by a reciprocal growth in services and infrastructure. The absence of strategic planning for growth in existing suburbs has also established community expectations for little change here, meaning new developments (however merited) are met with strong opposition.

The injection of boarding rooms into areas already over-represented by both smaller dwellings and rental dwellings is also problematic. It suggests the policy is undercutting the objective of other government regulations attempting to deliver diversity in urban renewal contexts, where the challenge is supplying family-friendly housing options to build long-term community stability, not just student dorms.

So what use is planning deregulation?

The most specific conclusion that can be drawn is that this laissez faire approach to planning regulation, in the hope of overcoming previous market failures, has not been successful under the AHSEPP. More broadly, though, it shows how this approach to planning deregulation undermines many of the fundamental benefits of good urban planning – ensuring that the location of future growth is appropriately directed; that diverse and growing populations are effectively provided for; and that local context is considered and communities provided some certainty around anticipated change.

Inclusionary Zoning in Ontario

Posted by on June 25th, 2018 · Affordable housing, Construction, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing supply, International

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By Richard Drdla, Richard Drdla Associates, Toronto, Canada. Earlier this year Richard, an expert on planning for affordable housing in North America, wrote us a guest blog post about the Greater Sydney Commission’s affordable rental housing targets. This post discusses the latest developments regarding inclusionary zoning in Ontario, Canada. Richard is a guest speaker at the 2018 Affordable Housing Conference held this week in Sydney. 


Ontario’s legislation authorizing the use of inclusionary zoning (IZ), the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, 2016, was passed in December 2016.  The implementation of this legislation was subject to regulations from the Minister of Housing.  The first draft of those regulations was released for public review on December 2017.  The final regulations were released in April 2018, at which time they and the legislation came into effect.

Ontario’s regulatory framework represents a singular achievement.  It is the first time that a province or state has authorized  the use of IZ, while also prescribing how IZ might be used by its constituent municipalities.  There is no precedent for this in the US.  IZ programs there have been developed and operated by municipalities without sanction and direction coming from the states.  (The only exception to this is New Jersey, where the state supreme court – and not the state itself – set out the fundamental rules for the use of IZ.)

In developing this regulatory framework, as will be seen, the province struggled principally with how to reconcile two fundamental concerns:  enabling the municipalities to establish productive programs, while also maintaining the continued health of the development industry.  It is too early to know if it has succeeded.


In general, the legislation takes a permissive approach.  It enables municipalities to adopt IZ programs, while not requiring them to do so nor limiting how they can do it.

Despite generally taking this approach, the legislation does contain one notable restriction.  It prohibits  the use of cash-in-lieu payments that would have allowed the developers to buy-out their affordable housing obligation.  While there are legitimate concerns about the use of cash-in-lieu, these could have been addressed through appropriate regulations without making an outright legislative prohibition.

Draft Regulations

In contrast with the legislation, the draft regulations were highly prescriptive, setting out province-wide rules that left little latitude for the municipalities to experiment and respond to local conditions.

The regulations included a number of restrictions that when taken together would have stifled the production of affordable housing.  First of all,  IZ could not be applied to developments of less than 20 units, nor to any rental developments.  Also, the maximum set-aside was limited to 5%, except in “high-density transit-station” areas where the limit was 10%.  All of these regulations are more restrictive than the well-tested best practices being used widely in the US.

On top of these, the regulations introduced another unprecedented and particularly crippling provision.  The municipalities would have been required to provide financial “contributions” (that is, compensation to the developers) amounting to 40% of the price reduction for the affordable units. (This figure changed over time.  For some time before the regulations were released, the developers had been seeking a 50% municipal contribution.  After the release of these regulations and the ensuing backlash, a 20% obligation was briefly floated by the government.)

This municipal contribution had to be made through waivers to parking requirements and to certain fees (planning application fees, parkland fees and development  charges) already being collected from the developers.  The use of density increases was ruled out by the regulations.  Direct financial subsidies were not required or expected, but remained moot.

The problem with this approach was that the prescribed municipal contributions effectively set the price reduction that could have been achieved, and that price reduction (even with just the 20% contribution) would not have been sufficient to provide affordable housing in the more upmarket developments.  Furthermore, achieving even this insufficient price reduction would have depended upon the municipalities fully reallocating monies already being collected for other municipal services and infrastructure improvements.

The regulations did allow the municipalities escape from this obligation when they used the  “community planning permit” system.  This is a form of comprehensive pre-zoning that allows the municipalities after planning, financial testing and public consultations to set affordable housing requirements, density limits and other conditions in specific areas.  But this process is more appropriate for use in small areas rather than across an entire jurisdiction.  As such, it is better used as a supplement to a full IZ program rather than as a substitute for it.

Before adopting IZ, the municipalities would have been required to prepare a “municipal assessment report”  analysing their housing needs and supply, and overall housing affordability.  The intent was to establish a factual foundation and justification for the programs.  It was not meant as a means of testing the viability of the regulations nor assessing their impact on development.


What stands out most in the draft regulations is that they would have been so protective of the development industry. The government had clearly taken note of the developer’s argument that they needed provincial safeguards against the potentially unreasonable demands of the municipalities. This is seen in the restrictive regulations as well as the compensation requirements.

The government had spoken often about finding a “balance” between providing affordable housing and ensuring that development continued, but these regulations manifestly were not that.

The regulations prompted a strong pushback from the affordable housing advocates and the municipalities including particularly the City of Toronto. The Minister was caught flat-footed by the pushback, and had to scramble to re-think the regulations ahead of an impending provincial election.  This led to a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

The pushback was founded principally on three arguments.  The first was that these regulations would have led to the production of very little affordable housing.  The second was that the municipalities were not capable of providing significant compensation, and in any case the need for that compensation was questionable.   Finally, the government should not attempt to impose one-size-fits-all rules across a province that has widely diverse housing conditions.

All of these concerns were addressed to some extent in the final regulations, but it is probably the last that led to the most significant changes.

Final Regulations

In sharp contrast to the earlier regulations, the final regulations give the municipalities an almost free hand in setting the rules and obligations in their IZ policies.  They contain only one notable limitation (and that one is less restrictive than the draft provision).  Under the final regulations, IZ cannot be applied to developments with fewer than 10 (previously 20) units.

But the final regulations also add a new and very significant condition:  before those policies are adopted, they must be analysed for their “potential impacts on the housing market and on the financial viability of development”.

What this analysis will entail remains unclear.  The government has offered no guidance, nor in the  pre-election scramble has it even given much thought to what might be required.   While the regulations do indicate that some form of financial testing will be needed, they notably do not establish what criteria must be used.  Most crucially, they do not say whether or not the  municipalities will be responsible for maintaining the profit margins of the developers or for providing compensation making them “whole” again.


The regulations were fundamentally changed between the draft and final versions.  They went from being very prescriptive to very permissive.  With regard to compensation, they also went from explicitly applying a province-wide standard formula to potentially using a locally-based viability test.

The final regulations longer refer directly to municipal compensation, but this contentious issue is still very much alive.  Whether or not compensation will be necessary, and if so how much, will be the most difficult matter to be addressed in the viability testing.

The new provisions can be seen as  a brilliant political maneuver.  They kicked this contentious issue down the road and past the upcoming election.  By leaving the issue unresolved, both sides – the developers on one and the housing advocates and municipalities on the other – for the moment have reason to be optimistic.

All in all, the final regulations represent a significant improvement and positive development in comparison with the draft regulations.   But there remains the concern that the viability tests will lead to unnecessary and impairing demands being placed upon the  municipalities, and this in turn could force the municipalities to trim their programs.