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Visioning varieties of “mixed tenure” development  

Posted by on December 1st, 2017 · Construction, Housing, Strata, urban renewal

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

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

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

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

mixed development Ivanhoe

Spot the difference

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

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

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

mixed development

Mo density mo problems

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

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

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

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

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

Buildings do not a community make

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

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

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

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

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