To address the worsening housing affordability crisis, the hunt for worthwhile development land is maturing in New South Wales, but the state is still at the goo-goo thumb-sucking stage compared to the efforts of other nations.

How very NSW: perhaps sensing an impending construction orgy, a lot of pro-development groins are stirring with solutions to the housing crisis.

Shedding his chaste pre-election opposition, Premier Chris Minns soon flashed cautious support for increased urban density, which is now fully-engorged in his announcement that seven locations near inner city rail stations will be rezoned for high density dwellings, with more likely in the near future.

But, will all this be enough? The Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t think so.

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Some of the targeted areas had long been slated for higher density. Airport height restrictions will limit density in well connected Sydenham and, following air traffic recovery post Covid, aircraft noise and the opening of Badgerys Creek promises to torment those moving into other higher density areas.

So, for zoning changes announced long ago, why will greater development suddenly be unleashed by announcing it again?

It won’t of course, and the answer to why is well understood: for-profit developers aim to maximise those profits, which means that whilst ever they dominate housing provision it is in their interest to sustain the current housing undersupply.

Serious competition – beyond the for-profit industry – is required, but where is the land?

More democratic land supply

One part of the answer may be contained in the balance of the announcement; “missing middle” housing (long advocated by Elizabeth Farrelly) will surround hi-density zones.

Some consider that numerically greater dwelling increases can be obtained by modest densification within the much larger undifferentiated “white zones” – those areas between the coloured blobs and arrows beloved by planners in their structure plans – than within specific up-zoned precincts.

The variety of potential development abounds. Farrelly’s favoured inner-city townhouses are familiar to most Australians. ADU’s [ADUs or accessory dwelling unit, a word mostly used by architects, is “a smaller, independent residential unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone single-family home] are popular in America but are not a complete solution. Co-housing addresses affordability through density, procurement, and inhabitation protocols. De-restricting allowable uses on suburban allotments could well better serve emerging under-supported age, household and workplace cohorts.

If regulated well, the greater number of small-scale individual dwellings might be delivered with shorter lead times, thereby being more responsive to current dwelling shortages than lengthy, capital-intensive and lumpy supply of apartments.

Crucially, missing middle intensification would likely be delivered by, and mostly benefit, genuine mum-and-dad property owners – literal YIMBY’s – rather than the popularly-reviled developer class.

More varied land supply

Another part of the answer is hinted at in recent some news articles.

Example #1: some months ago, the Singapore government announced it will take back 120 hectares of land leased to its turf club, the last horse-racing facility in the island nation.

In its place the government will build more urgently needed housing, leisure and recreation facilities; a renewal theme similar to the exemplary Harold Park trotting track redevelopment by the developer Mirvac.

Example #2: the global Scandinavian architecture firm, Snohetta, recently announced completion of a large commercial building on the former Hong Kong airport site, next to the Kai Tak river.

This author has previously explored the conditions favouring, and opportunities for, redevelopment of Mascot, hmmm.

Example #3: Michael Koziol and Michael McGowan investigated the 566 hectares of open space – equal to three publicly accessible Centennial Parks – devoted to eastern suburbs golf courses within the area bounded by Southern Cross Drive, Sydney Harbour, Botany Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Many of these courses are only accessible to members, few of whom are thought to be homeless.

To the horror of some players, one part of one course was recently earmarked by the Premier for public open space to serve the needs of nearby residents.

Example #4: located within this same area and the operator of one of the golf courses, Woollahra Council apparently failed to deliver affordable housing within its area over a period of some 14 years.

Example #5: some months ago, the NSW productivity commissioner, Peter Achterstraat, reported that the Sydney’s eastern suburbs warranted significant increases in density in order to address the housing shortage meaningfully.

At least one theme connects these seemingly disparate reports; in Singapore and Hong Kong, formal systematic and sustained attention by dedicated agencies is paid to land availability.

Thus, Singapore’s turf club and Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport site are being developed because it was long-ago recognised that scarce land was under-utilised by then existing uses.

When compared to the efforts of these other cities, Sydney’s efforts at sweating under-utilised land looks as feeble as its housing crisis response looks ad hoc.

But what to do???

Fortunately, the Premier has repeatedly signalled his determination to override local opposition to zoning changes.

Commenting on his proposals to allow greater density near Macquarie University, Ryde, he said,

“You can expect more of this across Sydney. We’re not going to do it in an arbitrary way, but we certainly will do it where we believe it’s crucially important for the growth and diversity of Sydney. For too long we’ve been in a situation where the NSW governments haven’t been able or willing to intervene where appropriate to provide housing. We’ve made that decision. We just think the alternative is just intolerable.”

This author has previously suggested that land occupied by some transport infrastructure, such as roads, warrants closer examination of the business case for their ongoing use.

Placing them underground would be costly, but consider, for example, $3.9 billion was spent on the WestConnex spaghetti junction bored beneath predominantly single-storey Rozelle.  

Recall too that when originally conceived WestConnex was to be a “city making” endeavour, not just an asset delivery boondoggle for a privatised toll-road.

So compared to Rozelle, can we really afford to retain the surface and elevated trunk roads running through higher density inner city areas, like Pyrmont, Glebe Island and parts of greater Green Square?

So how should the problem be addressed?

In addition to its planning department, the state government already operates other development agencies that could be explicitly tasked to prevent any further housing crisis in the longer term.

Its immediate remit might, for example, require other government agencies to justify their land-takes against the heightened urgency for more inner-city housing.

As illustrated by the Singapore and Hong Kong examples, this would be a long-term project, which, as the Premier observed, would require bipartisan support.

However, this should be relatively forthcoming – in theory at least.

To illustrate, let’s suppose eastern suburb golf courses were rezoned for residential development (social, affordable, and for-profit housing) and public open space.

Rather than government intervention to acquire the land, it would be left to the “market” – a perennial conservative shibboleth.  Presented with lucrative offers, clubs could cash in their tenured interests and acquire land further out to develop new and more extensive facilities with their handsome proceeds.

Many will recognise this approach as “asset recycling”, which was applied by the previous conservative government to valuable inner-city social housing stock, the crystalised value of which (allegedly) paid for greater numerical provision further out from expensive central Sydney.

Furthermore, zoning of public open space within these areas would result in a net increase from the current zero amount, accessible only to club members.

A good start but must try harder

Some experts consider that even with recent announcements, not enough is being done to address the housing crisis

And, as Alexandra Smith observes, the Premier is on borrowed time on this one issue.

Compared to the urban achievements of other nations, our persistent collective lack of planning foresight, wit, will, interest and tenacity is just depressing.

In the management of our cities, we’ve become a Bunnings nation.

We are baffled when bigger problems, like the housing and climate crises that we’ve seen approaching for years, can’t solved at the last moment by buying a few sheets of MDF and a snack from the sausage sizzle.

What can’t be accomplished in our backyards over a weekend, or in a city over a single electoral cycle, is simply too difficult, it seems.

Thus, hard and sustained political effort is required to prevent this early promise rapidly turning to the dust of mere pre-electoral crisis management.


Mike Brown

Originally from Adelaide, Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.
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  1. Let’s avoid further incursions into peri-urban agriculture and habitat and instead think about a substantial tax on owners of empty apartments who invest purely for capital gain and have no intention of renting out their properties. And while we’re at it, let’s restrict short-term rentals to a maximum of 30 nights per year, like Amsterdam, and ban tourist rentals in apartment buildings, like Mallorca. Serious players could apply for a furnished tourist accommodation licence, like in Paris. Would be interesting to calculate how much “new” housing would be freed up by this combination. Not to mention a reduction in Air BNB horror stories! Housing is a bit like food – the problem is not about supply, it’s about equity of distribution.