If you were asked to draw your home, what would the picture look like? Chances are you’d draw a standalone building, with walls and a roof, then add in some windows and doors – but does this picture really reflect how your home operates?
Unless you live in a very remote location, your house doesn’t function alone. It’s part of an interconnected system of energy and water supplies, infrastructure, transport, services like schools and hospitals, and social and professional connections with other people.
Too often, Australia’s growing housing crisis is mentioned solely in terms of what it costs to buy or rent a single home. While it’s true that Australian housing is becoming prohibitively expensive, solutions need to go beyond simply lowering rents and purchase prices.
Instead, the answers to Australia’s housing crisis need to work across the whole system. ASBEC has released a new policy platform on Improved Housing Outcomes – for affordable, sustainable housing, which sets out the many areas we need to address if we are to mitigate the worst effects of the housing crisis and ensure the best possible accommodation for all Australians.
First of all, homes don’t exist in a vacuum, but are connected to other places. Transport links, for example, are crucial. It’s no good building homes that have an “affordable” sticker price but are going to cost occupants impossible amounts of money for travel to work or to use health services. Without good transport, people can’t access jobs or health services – meaning “affordable” but poorly connected homes risk trapping their residents in poverty or ill health.
That’s why infrastructure plans need to be part of the solution. Victoria has a 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy, in which infrastructure plans inform housing plans and vice versa. Governments could go even further than this, conducting detailed cost-benefit analyses for new infrastructure and releasing funds to create it.
Homes are also increasingly connected to each other, because our growing population means there’s an increased need for medium and high density housing, such as apartment blocks and townhouses. This is especially true in our big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. Getting high density projects underway in longstanding low density suburbs means our planning regimes need to be effective and efficient. Simplified planning approval processes for higher density housing developments could help as well.
Then there’s the connections between people. Communities can be strengthened or weakened by urban design. And community support or opposition can make or break a proposed development. Working with communities to shape decisions about their local area is essential.
Connecting our homes with best practice urban design is one way to address this. Creating Places for People: An Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities (the Protocol) provides a toolkit to help experts such as planners and architects embed best practice urban design in their work. Governments should embed the Protocol in its planning policies and act as a champion for the principles it outlines.
Homes also need to be sustainable. This means ensuring no net biodiversity loss as a result of the development process. We also need to look to the bigger picture and help address climate change by building quality homes that not only reduce emissions but offer significant savings in energy bills. Governments should also work with industry to implement the findings of the National Energy Efficient Building Project, improving conformance and compliance to the energy performance measures in the National Construction Code.
Getting the power connected is something we associate with new housing. But the cost of a house shouldn’t just be measured in the price paid to buy it or the monthly rent. The cost to pay the bills every month is also crucial. Energy efficiency measures such as insulation, and buildings that generate their own energy via technology like rooftop solar, can help to make ongoing running costs far more affordable for residents. (ASBEC’s Low Carbon, High Performance report sets out in detail the ways in which building can help us achieve Australia’s carbon emissions targets and save the economy $20 billion!)
There is no simple, one size fits all solution to the housing crisis. On a broad demographic level we know that even individual Australians don’t have static housing needs throughout their lives – a young family, for example, has different requirements to an older person living alone. Our housing needs to reflect this diversity, providing the flexibility and adaptability Australians are increasingly demanding.
Each of the measures in Improved Housing Outcomes represents a brick in the wall of better housing policy.
Only by acknowledging the many interconnected factors governing our housing situation can we hope to improve it.
Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director at the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.