Port of Copenhagen
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Eye-opening research from UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre last year gave us a warning about our housing market. The centre forecast a shortfall in social and affordable housing of more than a million dwellings by 2036, and estimated the current shortfall in social and affordable housing is over 650,000 dwellings. 

COVID and the recent floods in Queensland and New South Wales have further brought the problem into focus and many people in my industry are now looking at practical solutions to create certainty for Australians who experience housing insecurity.

The housing gap is stretched further by the rapid rise in house prices during COVID – which doesn’t only hurt the lowest income earners. Many middle-income earners might never become home-owners. In some suburbs it can take almost 20 years to save for a house deposit, according to new research released late last year.

This is a huge issue if we consider that home ownership remains a key foundation of a secure retirement.

A shortage of affordable housing is damaging economically and socially. It severely hampers the potential for a city or region to attract and retain critical talent. It creates spatial dislocation of low-income households away from jobs and services, and in turn greenfield projects are used to get housing to market quickly but the land is often not well-located and under-serviced by infrastructure.

What’s the solution? Public land assets will have to play a bigger role in meeting housing needs and governments must commit to big strategic plans to ensure private investment.

We’ve done this before. In the 1990s and early 2000s, cities transformed redundant land and outdated public assets into thriving communities such as Green Square-Mascot in Sydney, Newstead/Teneriffe in Brisbane and Melbourne Docklands. 

These centred on low-hanging fruit, but fixing the current housing shortage will require reimagining a much broader range of areas and assets. 

Revamping existing housing

We could redevelop concentrations of aging low-density public housing properties in the middle suburbs of our cities. Many of these properties sit on well-located land but are physically failing and under-occupied. Some are subject to infill developments that create incremental increases to the housing stock but do not deliver at scale. 

Revamping our social housing inventory requires a precinct scale strategic approach. Such an approach ‘de-risks’ the project for the taxpayer and increases the likelihood of attracting private investment. It also requires state and local governments to use the full range of planning powers to prioritise housing-led renewal.

In Brisbane, a number of the Cross River Rail precincts and Priority Development Areas such as the Yeronga TAFE site are taking underutilised Government land and transforming them through housing-led renewal. There are similar large-scale projects planned around Australia from assets controlled by the Defence Department, Economic Development Queensland and Landcom, to name a few. 

Time to go big and develop at scale

An example of planning scale is Copenhagen’s City and Port development of 1290 waterfront acres. It will deliver more than 33,000 new housing units on government land. In Vancouver there are large-scale housing developments over and around their Skytrain stations and in Denver, Colorado a disused airport has been redeveloped into a major mixed-use community. 

Brisbane is in a unique position to plan for its long-term housing needs because of its selection as the host of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2032. The ability to invest in accommodation infrastructure for the Games – which is repurposed as social and affordable housing at the Games’ conclusion – is a proven strategy and it is eminently suited to public-private partnerships.

We must be innovative and agile in our response: what about air rights over public assets such as the Mayne Rail Yards in Brisbane? It could yield over 3,000 new dwellings and allow rail operations to continue. Such an approach is being planned for Sydney’s Central Station. 

The housing shortage problem has reached such a size in our cities that the big problem needs to be met with a big solution. Governments need to leverage a broad range of public assets to address long-term housing needs, but they also need a strategic vision that gives certainty to private sector investment.


Ben Weaver, Ethos Urban

Ben Weaver is the director and national precincts lead at national urban development consultancy Ethos Urban.
Ethos Urban specialises in town planning, urban design, urban economics, engagement and social strategy. More by Ben Weaver, Ethos Urban


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  1. ……What’s the solution? Public land assets will have to play a bigger role in meeting housing needs and governments must commit to big strategic plans to ensure private investment.
    We’ve done this before. In the 1990s and early 2000s, cities transformed redundant land and outdated public assets into thriving communities …. Yes this was done in the 90’s and it was a disaster, governments made public bodies like education railways and hospitals sell of “surplus” land which then created the shortages that restricted the expansion of essential services.