We are a small architecture firm based in metropolitan Melbourne and often work in the residential sector. We wanted to share our perspective on the current discussions around social housing and housing affordability in the property market. This post references a Radio National podcast called the Minefield between Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens titled ‘Housing (un)affordability: Is social housing a moral imperative?’ We also refer to a piece reposted by Architecture Australia titled ‘Tackling housing unaffordability: a 10-point national plan.’ Both pieces can be found through the links at the bottom of this post.

The podcast suggests that housing may be seen as a right, not a commodity. If viewed this way, it should be considered as something indispensable to a liveable city that provides stability and emotional and social well-being. An imperative starting point to the discussion around housing in Australia is the influence it can have on feelings of ‘rootedness.’ Generally, as a nation, how do we feel connected to a place and what relationship does housing have in providing this? Is ‘rootedness’ just an affectation of home ownership and the capital of owning property? Or, as the podcast mentioned, should the focus shift from home ownership and consider ways that ‘rootedness’ as the primary desire in housing can be achieved in alternate ways.

There’s been a long-standing fetish in Australia to own property. This has bought us to a point where the market is commonly inaccessible to a large sector of society. We wonder where this obsession started. Perhaps ‘staking out land’ emerged when Australia was first formed and was a way to grow new roots, a means to validify a connection and a sense of belonging,

This necessity to fuel identity with home ownership is largely contrasted in other countries in say, Europe. Australia doesn’t have mechanisms to allow people to live somewhere for a long time without buying a house and renting has never been established as a sustainable, secure option. In Australia there’s more of a stigma attached to renting. There has also been a shift from the sole desire of home ownership as a way to provide this sense of ‘rootedness’, to more of an investment vehicle. The commodification of the property market has meant that housing affordability for this generation has become less and less reachable.

The reasons that create this issue with affordability involve property prices increasing ahead of income growth, the expensive cost of the rental market along with a drop in public housing provision. Housing seems to be viewed as a task for the individual to attain rather than it being thought of as a greater social philosophy provided in a multifaceted way to cater to different living circumstances and lifestyle choices. Social housing is currently stigmatised, but needs to be seen as an essential element of the discussion on housing. In Australia, social housing is removed as areas become gentrified. In contrast, in the Netherlands, 30% of housing is social housing and its used by the population for a variety of reasons. Everyone has access to it and there’s much less social stigma involved. In Australia, we also see an ongoing trend to implement social housing in minority neighbourhoods, rather than in areas where they’re more socially and morally needed.

The response of architects is hamstrung by the development system, but gradually we try and change the outcome by good design.

The prominent model in Australia has been the single dwelling in sprawling suburbs because we have always had space. But as the reality of lagging infrastructure and work travel times bite, it appears logical to increase density in a variety of ways.

Living in an apartment has always been aligned with an idea of compromise. An apartment now is seen as a stepping stone rather than a lifetime property and apartments can be deeply socially erosive, due to the lack of shared community spaces and places for interaction.

In contrast, models in Europe see public housing run by a tenancy body who operate locally, are personally invested and take responsibility for public spaces and common amenities. In countries such as Germany, a ten-year lease on an apartment is common practice where the tenant has more flexibility to make changes to the property. In London, developments have been recently brought onto the market that are close to bare internally. Basic services are provided but the fit out is undertaken by the renter. This process of personalisation intrinsically enhances a deeper sense of connection.

The value of long term housing stability is anecdotally shown in one of our architect’s recent experience of purchasing their first family home. They explain, “I can’t deny that my sense of belonging to the suburb in which I’ve moved to is so much deeper than when I was renting. It’s undeniable.” The accepted fate of the renter is that you’ll most likely have to move in a couple of years, which will never provide stable conditions for children as well as job and lifestyle security. In Australia, it’s reinforced that to get that, you just have to buy. The podcast poses the question, is it immoral to profit from housing?  Should property be an investment vehicle at the expense of renters? Taxation law is one area under review.

Architecture and urban design are paramount influencers in the conditions of housing and the property market. It’s just as much about our cities and spaces as it is about housing rates. A connection to nature is an intrinsic amenity and providing larger scaled facilities such as parks and communal hubs create possibilities to meet people who are unlike us. On a smaller scale, when working on single residential projects it is important to engage in a process of assessing realistic needs and encourage flexibility. It’s important to consider the lifespan of a building and what’s most beneficial.

When approaching high density and social housing, the question that needs to be continually revisited is what amenities should be provided even if not mandatory under current regulations? What injects a connection to nature when you don’t have a backyard or nature strip? What creates a flourishing community when footpaths are replaced by hallways? Another important role architecture can have involves exploring different housing systems such as co-shared housing schemes. Different models that make ownership and thus rootedness accessible and not so tied to capital.

Housing shouldn’t be solely seen as a market for profit but for its intrinsic role in creating a healthy city. What we can focus on as designers, is what can be done in the short and long term. How we can advise clients and developers that engage us in their projects as well as the smaller scale elements that can make buildings have a longer lifespan and an enhanced quality of living for its occupiers.

 

References:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/theminefield/housing-(un)affordability:-is-social-housing-a-moral-imperative/9250816 https://architectureau.com/articles/tackling-housing-unaffordability-a-10-point-national-plan/#object-credits

 

Posted on March 26, 2018 by Gardiner Architects in Uncategorized