Housing Affordability. Or lack there of.

Posted by on Feb 18, 2013 in Blog, Opinion, Planning | No Comments

Melbourne train

“One Melbourne or two?” The title of a report released last week revealing half the amount of jobs available for those in outer Melbourne compared with those inner; less schools, less access to public transport, and one third the number of hospital beds… The direction of peak hour traffic has long told us this; did we need another report?

We all know the government will ponder this report for a moment but do nothing, it’s all too expensive. This lack of spending on infrastructure gets me fuming. But I must clarify. By infrastructure, I am not referring to the newly completed stadium at the tennis centre, or the desalination plant, both apparently high priorities to the future of our city. Our roads can’t cope. Shouldn’t public transport be high on the government’s agenda? Or at least on their agenda? In particular our train network. The last update was the extension of the Altona line and the city loop opening, both in the 1980’s. What about a new line? Even better what about a few? Given the last new one was introduced in 1948, when our population was 1.3 million, and according to the 2011 census we are now at 4 million.

Melbourne train signals

Lets not stop there. Why is it a fight to provide more housing in inner Melbourne? Melbourne architects are chomping at the bit to tackle this, we have the ideas and the ability to address the problem, and set this city up for its continued population growth by increasing densities. Me personally: I took to specialising in difficult blocks to use the land in inner Melbourne others aren’t interested in, to make better use of what we have, and put an end to our sprawl. But just like all of Melbourne, the architects too are stopped in our train tracks, and not able to get very far. Why? With the same planning guidelines in place since 2001, and much of that based on the prior system introduced in the 90’s, new housing is judged on criteria of a Melbourne from 20 years ago, when our population was 25% less than that of today. I have been dealing with councils for the last 15 years, and in my experience they make it harder each year to get a permit for just two townhouses.

Lets not forget our part in this too: there’s always an uproar from neighbours when someone in the street dares propose we remove one house and replace it with two smaller more affordable ones. My blood boils when I see those “S.O.S. -Save Our Suburbs” posters going up on people fences. Quit being so bloody selfish! What about ‘saving our Melbourne’? What about our lack of housing? What about the lack of affordability? What about all our transport systems already well over capacity?… “Not in my street” is what most property owners will be thinking, when they lodge their objection to those two townhouses proposed a few doors up. Essentially our system is set up to protect the way we live now, the quarter acre block, with the allowance of some incremental change. It’s not working! We all know this. I’ve spoken before about the need to change our attitudes and start supporting: “appropriate development”.

Furthermore, every week these last few months, the papers have been hailing signs of a “property market recovery”. This is good news and the way to measure our economy?  With Melbourne property prices being amongst the most expensive in the world. Prices increasing are good? Do renters, the younger generation, and those living an hour or more drive to work in outer Melbourne want this so called “recovery”? The news couldn’t be worse! A “property recovery” should not seen as a measure of financial health, but the continued decline of affordability and livability of our beloved city. When people on a standard wage can afford a house, then we are in a property recovery.

I want to finish with an example of how the Japanese do it. There is so much we can learn from their approach to planning cities. I’ve been there. Step down a side street: it’s gorgeous. They have taken the low rise approach, that is medium density housing. Not our destruction of docklands with 30 storey towers: the opposite extreme of how we live. In Japan three to five storey is often what you see. Each building is on small footprint despite the added levels, and unlike here they consist of just a few apartments, or like in the situation below a narrow house. Whilst the style of this example I find too minimal, it is a superb design solution that overcomes the lack of space on this smallest of properties. I think this is the way we should go. However, this would not be allowed in Melbourne. Do you think it should be?

By Florian Busch Architects, Tokyo. Photos by Hiroyasu Sakaguchi.

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