The issue of housing affordability is not unique to Australia. Numerous urban centres around the world have had or are facing their own crises. But arguably, Australia’s problem is more advanced than other countries and fraught with exclusive challenges.
So how do you solve a problem affecting 5.07 million people in Sydney alone, and ever encroaching onto regional and rural towns? First, it's important to understand where the issue stems from. Fundamentally, from the fact housing-related household expenses are rising faster than wages, largely triggered by the post-global financial crisis trends of accelerated urbanisation of capital and people. Include anachronistic planning unable to supply quickly with the provision of cheap credit. Add sometimes unethical lenders and the prevalence of inequality. These are the ingredients of this crisis.
There is probably no single topic more heavily debated than housing affordability. And while interest rates remain at historic lows – making repayments within the grasp of many – the lack of affordable new supply has led to often ludicrously-high deposits that aren't within the reach of most would-be buyers. And the “Bank of Mum and Dad” can only stretch so far – it becomes about the ability to pay and serviceability.
There is no single, easy solution. Residential housing sits at a crossroad of sectors within the urban development arena: city planning, transport and infrastructure, environment. But the key to addressing affordability lies in our reluctance to change what we know and are comfortable with.
And for an island so abundant with natural resource and beauty, that sits squarely with density-phobia. The truth is, Australia is one of the least densely populated first-world countries. For instance, New York is over 27 times more densely populated than the greater Sydney area. For a country and continent spanning over 7.7 million km², the misleading and relentless narrative that Australia is already too full is, quite frankly, unfounded. This is further evidenced when we compare our standings to Europe.
While those opposed will tout fears of disrupted skylines, congested roads and the tearing up of trees, density done well means something other than endless high rises. It brings myriad benefits spanning the social, economic and environmental – all of which bear positive influences on housing affordability. Infrastructure and transport planning is vital. With a considered approach to mixed-use and middle-density developments such as low and high-rise, duplexes and rezoning of unused developments, density can work harmoniously alongside architecture and heritage, maximising the housing potential of many towns and cities.
Critically, density accommodates population growth and encourages migration, key to driving infrastructure improvements and boosting the economy. Le Corbusier, a founder of modern architecture, was the first to see the benefits of vertical lining with his “Tower in the Park” in the 1870s, where density would afford new dwellings to more people. This is the best way to use taxpayers’ dollars wisely. For every kilometre of road or pipe, there would be many more users.
Density makes streets safer, giving many “eyes and ears”. Retail at street level would complete a more ideal concept of the walking city. Walk to the train, go to work, pick up your dry cleaning, buy bread or flowers for your partner – all on the way home.
We live in the most beautiful country in the world. It’s time to make it the most accessible and affordable one as well.