It's about politics and money, stupid!

By its nature the architectural design process is an optimistic one, so ideas to improve the planning and design of the housing in our cities are not in short supply. 

However most of these suggestions act as though the design aspects are all that's important, and that once these ideas are grasped, Bob's your uncle, and right thinking politicians will act accordingly.  Alas it's not that simple!

I've written about design aspects of the housing problem in the past, and there have been more articles in the Press recently but that they aren't being acted on yet, it's starting to be a political issue.  It is clear however, that the enormous shortage of rental housing at all levels in our rapidly growing cities can only be remedied by government action.

The Victorian Government acted recently to proceed with the long overdue elimination of level crossings in suburban Melbourne and a new railway line.  They did what our forefathers did when train and tram systems were needed a hundred years ago, they borrowed the money and acted. 

And this is exactly what they should be doing to increase the availability of low-income rental housing, borrowing and building, rather than relying on tax incentives like negative gearing which have patently not increased the number of new rental apartments.

State governments are under multiple financial pressures, in the health and education sectors in particular, and the allocation of money for housing will depend on many factors including financial help from the Feds. 

The market has shown that it's clearly unable to build the sort of housing that's really needed.  Their emphasis at Melbourne's Fishermans Bend has been to build more profitable high-rise towers of mostly one-bedroomers for sale, apartments that are both too expensive for middle income Australians and unsuitable for families, and that are often bought solely as investment properties that can be negatively geared.

My post-war generation grew up in what I have described as the 'Own-Your-Own-Home Dreamtime', but rising numbers and higher land and building costs suggest that the adoption of rental housing for middle-income Australians who would have normally expected to own their own home, is destined to become the norm.  The sooner that financiers and developers recognise middle-income rental housing as a desirable form of financial as well as social investment, the better.

The changes are not just from greatly increased numbers but also from reduced levels of wealth.  A recent Guardian Weekly study describes how 'a combination of debt, joblessness, globalisation, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations.' 

It's the generation the Guardian calls 'millennials', those born between 1980 and the mid-90's, sometimes also known as Generation Y, that are affected; my two grandsons just finishing high school fit the bill.  Stories of children in their late thirties unable to afford to leave the parental home are commonplace, and their prospects are further reduced by the increasingly longer life spans of the generations before them.

Lack of affordable housing and decent jobs will therefore require an increased political push for Governments to borrow and build low-income rentable apartments in the way it was done in the post war years of Commonwealth-States Housing Agreements and State Housing Commissions. 

Much of the social housing built at that time is in need of renovation and it has been suggested that some of this housing should be sold to provide the funds for renovation; a retrograde move that would further reduce the available stock of low-income rental housing.

Governments have to act.  I'm tired of right wing arguments that governments are the problem and that private enterprise is more efficient.  Two examples, technical college courses were privatised and State colleges were allowed to manage their own finances, and both these actions have resulted in mega-embezzlement.

Desirable actions to improve long-term sustainability could be made tomorrow of course, simply by strengthening the Building Code of Australia to make generating electrical power for water and space heating and storing rainwater, mandatory for all apartments.  Experience shows that unless these things are made mandatory, in most situations they will not be provided.  Developers will argue that raising the initial cost by including these improvements would make the apartments harder to sell, and it's a disincentive for them that all the long term energy savings would accrue to the tenants rather than themselves.

Sounds a simple act to amend the BCA, but it requires the concurrence of all the States, never an easy thing in Australia, and the building industry has strong, well funded organisations that lobby hard to stop changes that would increase building costs and lower their profits.

And last but not least there are the all too important design aspects, too many recent apartments are simply not good enough.  More than fifty year old exemplars like Roehampton Lane in London and Corb's Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles still remain to be adapted to suit Australian conditions.  Simple things like cross ventilation and control of sunlight are too often being ignored.

A recent Open Letter to the Minister for Housing proposed that demonstration buildings be built to improve design standards; walk through examples are what's required rather than more words.   Read more 

Housing the inevitable growth of our cities has to be taken seriously and while many changes depend on uncertain politics, we can only maintain public discussion and concentrate on increasing government understanding that it's the political and money aspects that are central to any improvement.  If it can be done with level crossings it can be done with housing.  Concentrate on politics and the money first, and the rest will follow!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid March 2016

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