Habitat21 (previously known as Sustainable Affordable Home Initiative) House Four Photo: Peter Clarke

There is something wrong with Australia’s approach to housing. We build among the biggest houses in the world, yet most of them are under-occupied, with almost half of them having at least two bedrooms more than are needed. Many people own multiple homes. A declining proportion of home buyers can afford to buy – usually not because of the cost of the building itself, but because of exploding land prices.

At the same time, quality control of new construction is a problem, with leaks, mould, cracking and other problems too common. Then there are the homeless…. And quite a few homes seem to be unoccupied. Bushfires and floods have created housing shortages in many areas. Thanks to Covid, many urban dwellers have found they can work remotely for at least some of the time, so they have bought up housing in outer urban and regional areas, driving up prices and rents beyond the capacity of locals.

Many retirees and empty nesters would like to downsize, but can’t find the right kind of housing in the location they want.

And many of our homes are thermal disasters with high energy bills.

Allowing people to raid their superannuation [as proposed by the former Morrison government] or share the cost with government [proposed by the new Albanese government] just inflates prices.

In principle, if supply of housing exceeded demand, prices and rents should fall. But the situation has been complicated by low interest rates, which have allowed buyers to pay much more while still keeping repayments within manageable levels. This has, however, meant that those who can’t build up a deposit are disadvantaged relative to those who can.

But the question remains: if more people could meet the deposit threshold, would that just drive prices up further due to lack of supply?

For me, the questions then become how can we increase supply of housing? And how can we control the increasing price of land? Also, how can we enhance home owners’ ability to repay loans, and help renters to pay their rent? Energy efficient buildings and appliances, complemented by on-site renewables, smart energy management systems and storage are part of the answer, but they don’t tackle some fundamental issues.

How can we quickly increase the available housing? There are a few possibilities.

First, can we encourage more sharing of existing homes, to utilise the empty space? For some, this could mean sharing a home. But that doesn’t suit a lot of people. Maybe we can make it easier to adapt existing homes and design new homes so that two (or more) households could occupy one house. This could help people to afford a home, as they could gain income from parts of the home they were not using. This could benefit new home buyers and also high wealth low income retirees.

Over a decade ago, I worked with VicUrban on the Sustainable Affordable Home Initiative. We designed several floorplans that could be adapted to provide accommodation for one or two households, or to provide separate accommodation for older children or different generations. We built four display homes near Dandenong. Students at the University of Western Sydney some years ago explored how a “McMansion” could be converted into three homes.

Some years ago, when I visited friends in London, I was surprised as I approached their home, which looked like a two storey plus attic home that I thought would have cost much more than they could afford.  When I entered, I discovered the house had been converted into three units. My friends had the ground floor (and the open space).

London house converted to into three units. Photo: author supplied

So we could dramatically increase utilisation of existing Australian housing. This would require us to change some regulations, and to develop low cost mechanisms to address fire risk, noise and sharing or conversion of existing plumbing and wiring.

We need to do this. It is not rocket science. But regulators and policy makers would have to act. So I am not optimistic.

Alan Pears, RMIT University

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a senior industry fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant. He writes a column in each issue of Renew magazine: you can buy an e-book of Alan’s columns from 1997 to 2016 at shop.renew.org.au More by Alan Pears, RMIT University

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