Ideas for Sydney's abounded.

The affordable housing crisis is a bit like Covid: it just won’t go away. And for some people the outlook can be dismal to worse.

Too often we hear it’s the fault of too little supply, so for those rusted on ideologues on the supply side of housing, try reading this little gem from our regular contributor Mike Brown that says yes, supply is an issue, but maybe not in the way you think.

If you want to address the housing crisis, Brown says, how about looking directly to the not-for-profit model? And let’s pause to remember that some precious burghers in Woollahra in Sydney’s eastern suburbs of Sydney, recently told us their hood was full.

Now, this is the time that NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says in relation to housing that, “everything is on the table” and “scare campaigns” won’t stop housing affordability reform, Brown reminds us. Go you, DP!

(If by now, you suspect Brown’s playing a bit of cat and mouse and you feel like the mouse, that might be no surprise, but it’s worth hanging on: keep reading.)

Let’s set aside the scepticism about supply, Brown says, and assume Jason Falinski, Member for Mackellar,  was right when he headed into the parliamentary inquiry on housing, the answer already neatly tucked in his back pocket – supply is the problem.

But Brown asks us to pause and consider supply is the issue but in a qualitative way. The question is, what sort of supply?

Certainly not luxury houses or $5 million apartments. Noone is banging on government doors demanding more mansions (not that we know of at least.)

It’s affordable houses we’re short of.

So, “essentially, lower-income entrants to the housing market are barred access by rapidly escalating prices, still increasing by more than $1000 per day,” Brown offers, by way of setting up the traps…oops we mean logical progression. 

And here comes kitty: “What if planning constraints were relaxed but ONLY for those in need of, or who desire, more affordable housing? What if this was done so that it did NOT contribute to the current financialisation of housing?”

Say what??? housing as NOT a blue ribbon investment product?

But Brown is not just playing games, he’s serious and has a well developed model with several questions to allay concerns. And it’s not about dissing the existing residents. So he’s respectful.

He calls his model the Woollahra Buyers Club – we’re guessing in reference to the market’s addiction properties and a few other sideglances as well.

He outlines some excellent QandAs in anticipation.

Will the character of suburbs hosting WBC developments be changed? for instance.

“Yes, a little, but that’s part of the “missing middle” policy objective — more Paddington and Pyrmont than Green Square. Low density, inner-city suburbs currently impose infrastructure costs that must be levied elsewhere.”

The WBC is a modest intervention, no more than two storeys because taller buildings consume too many resources. Other concerns are respectfully addressed too. You may be surprised at the level of thought that’s gone into this. But not if you already know Brown’s work.

Now, why didn’t any of those highly paid geniuses in the housing industry lobby think of this before?

Cities, cars and imagination

Aunty Ann Weldon gives a Welcome to Country at the Sydney Summit

In the urban space Sydney stole the limelight again this week (well we’re based there, so here’s a shout out to other parts of Aus: send us your news!)

Partly, the occasion was the Committee for Sydney’s Sydney Summit, a well-choreographed discussion incorporating research into the problems faced by Australia’s gateway city – and some creative solutions.

But we couldn’t help but focus on yet another impressive address by Rob Stokes who took to the podium in his new role as the state’s first Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport.

We know you think we’ve got a fan club going here for Stokes but can you blame us? He’s the only minister who’s held the planning portfolio in recent times who knows so much about planning he’s dangerous.

We say that because too much truthabout the mechanics of housing affordability,  too much truth about how zoning is often co-opted in the best locations by the housing lobby to the detriment of our job-making capabilities and too much understanding of the power of the development industry in what’s left of our apparent democracy (we’re talking about the cabal cabinet of the raised eyebrows) not considered a tad inappropriate for team players in politics.

But Stokes doesn’t take a backward step. Remember he put up his hand for premier, knowing no doubt, he wouldn’t win; it was a signal. So he’s shunted from Planning Minister to a new specially created portfolio, that at first glance sounds a bit like gold stars for turning up.

On Monday though, he gave such a  well reasoned, well researched, well argued speech about the nature of our cities and how they can be brought to life for people – rather than cars that dominate our urban planning – that we’ve published the entire thing.

We hope this speech becomes compulsory reading for students of liveable cities, place makers and planners. We hope the riders of bicycles and electric bikes and scooters will hold their heads up a little higher, ennobled by the elevation that Stokes has managed to give this portfolio that didn’t even exist before. Perhaps it was created to appease the likes of the sustainability industry, because it’s pretty clear a drover’s dog could win most elections now with a few sustainability platforms.

What Stokes did was turn the humble notion of active transport – where the big end of town will automatically think recreational bikes on Sundays, lycra and play with the kids – into a symbol of democracy. And freedom, in its original sense.

Stokes cited Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, who “talks about how investing in footpaths and cycleways is an act of democracy, because while not all of us can drive, or ride, all of us regardless of age or ability at some point are going to be users of the footpath”.

“Cities exist where people come together – yet if we all arrive in a two tonne, 10 square metre metal box, there simply isn’t space to accommodate the benefits of cities,” Stokes said.

“If there are no footpaths people can’t get around except in this big hulking things that take up all the oxygen – metaphorically, and destroy it in real life.”

That’s before we talk about the energy consumption of cars.

Check out another great article this week in our OpEd section, Spinifex, by MairiAnne Mackenzie who for a decade has been trying to stop a highway through her rural patch near Ararat in western Victoria. She points out all the fuzzy-to-misleading arguments to support the road and points out that most of the energy is used to move the hulking “metal boxes” instead of its passengers. “After a whopping 85 per cent heat loss, that means about 1 per cent of the car’s fuel energy is used to move the driver”, she says, among other illuminating things about the dominance of our car culture.]

Melbourne-Sydney rivalry is alive and kicking

The start of Stokes’s address on Monday kicked off with some big picture thinking about cities, which you’d expect with the impact from Covid that’s hit CBDs. And he couldn’t resist a bit of a dig at Melbourne. Sydney was more resilient than Melbourne, he said, because it had multiple commercial centres while Melbourne “really only has one”.

Poor Melbourne. It’s been hammered under Covid. We think some people there pretty much lost the will to live – certainly, more than a few moved out as soon as they could we heard (while others stayed behind to pump up property prices so that they’re starting to rival Sydney’s ).

But one audience member picked up the issue in a question during a QandA session. Were dispersed centres of activity in fact better? He was the impression that it was Melbourne’s concentration of activity in a single zone that made things so buzzy there, he said.

Well, it works for New York and London.

But let’s not underestimate Melbourne. It’s like it’s got a touch of the Collingwood football club in its genes. It can do down and out but this only serves to make it more determined to rise up again. (In no apology to anyone. Some of us at The Fifth Estate may just have been Maggies supporters in our Melbourne days.)

The city was on its knees two decades ago after premier Jeff Kennett cut things to the bone as a response the Labor state government that went before him, but the city regenerated. A bit like a rose bush apparently when slashed to the ground.

Maybe the Covid ruin will do the same.

Dan Hill is back…

There’s plenty of talent already in Melbourne, especially in urban planning, in robotics and off site manufacturing and pre-fab… it tends to lead in these fields in our view.

Dan Hill

But on Thursday afternoon we got wind of some news that will help give the southern belle some additional wings. Dan Hill, urbanist, planner, academic – we’re not sure, he seems to be so many things – has been snapped up by the Melbourne School of Design to become its director.

Hill, who’s worked previously in Australia with Arup and was adjunct professor at RMIT University captured our imagination in the early days of The Fifth Estate when we bumped into his thinking and started dipping into his totally engaging blog City of Sound.

He’s been busy since, racking up a whole treasure chest of experience that has been irresistible to his new employers – across government, corporates and cities, most recently as director of strategic design for the Swedish Government’s innovation and research agency, Vinnova.

And we understand he’s also well versed in the progressive integration of technology with our built environment, which will be increasingly central to this industry.

The graduate program he will lead will focus on solving the big issues that coalesce in the built environment – and let’s face it we will be relying on these young ones to get us out of the jam we’re in.

A statement from the university said, “Hill has developed and delivered city strategy and urban development projects for city governments in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Stockholm, Manchester, Sydney and London, as well as for Alphabet and Lendlease.

“He has devised and delivered place-based approaches to Swedish and Finnish national innovation strategies.

“Hill has particular expertise in designing social and cultural infrastructures, in urban contexts such as Melbourne Innovation District, Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Google’s global campuses, and the University of Melbourne campus, and on buildings such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, British Library, UAE Museum of the Future, State Library of Queensland, ACMI, Collingwood Yards, and central library strategies for Melbourne and Sheffield.” 

Among the gigs he talked about around 2012 caught our attention –  chief executive officer of Fabrica, which he described at the time back in 2012 “a communications research centre, part of the Benetton group, situated in the Italian countryside, near Treviso, and not far from Venice. Behind that definition lies a hybrid organisation—part communications research centre, yes, but also part arts and design school, part think-thank, part studio. My kind of place.”

Most of the massive problems we face in climate and pollution are generated in the built environment.

We’ll need the biggest brains and the best will in the world to solve them.

It’s good to see Hill will be part of the talent pool that’s taking on this challenge.

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