Sydney Harbour Bridge

Two new reports released at the Sydney Summit this month highlight a significant drop in satisfaction of quality of life, housing affordability, and cultural diversity for Sydneysiders. 

The reports, Life in Sydney and State of the City, were launched at the Sydney Summit, an event organised by the Committee for Sydney, held at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre on Monday 7 February. 

The Life in Sydney report is an annual survey of 1000+ people from across Greater Sydney. The main takeaways were that:

  • there’s been a big drop in satisfaction of quality of life in Sydney since 2021, along with an increase in dissatisfaction. Increasingly, Sydneysiders expect a worse quality of life in the next 12 months
  • most Sydneysiders are concerned about the cost of living, and sometimes or always forgo essential goods and services because of the high cost of living, although they earn more than the national average
  • there has been a significant drop in international migrants, and also a drop in movements within the city. People are still unwilling to commute within the city or beyond it. They feel safe living in Sydney and would prefer to keep working from home

The State of the City is a new annual report that looks at Sydney’s key metrics. The main takeaways in 2021 included:

  • governments were expected to solve big problems, and citizen expectations are high
  • house prices at record highs, far outpacing the rising incomes
  • an increase in migration out of the city, as well as a lack of migration into the city, has led to workforce shortages especially in hospitality which has affected vibrancy and culture  
  • The city’s pipeline of infrastructure delivery is approaching its peak amidst pandemic shutdowns, labour and supply constraints and changing travel preferences

Most noteworthy was the drop in satisfaction – a huge 74 per cent in, along with a 10 per cent increase in dissatisfaction. 

Expectations for a better quality of life in the next 12 months have fallen too.

But overall that is on par with other global cities including New York, London and Toronto, so at least Sydney knows it’s not alone. If that’s any consolation.

The biggest problem is cost of living and concern for that has surged in recent times. 

Nearly everyone, a massive 85 per cent of Sydneysiders, are concerned about the cost of living, while only 14 per cent are not concerned (no doubt saying something about the big wealth divide). 

And in what will surprise some readers – and is more concerning – is that a whopping 62 per cent of Sydneysiders sometimes or always forgo essential goods and services because of the high cost of living. 

“The rising cost of living is becoming concerning and taking a toll on my health”

In housing, it’s no surprise that a big number – 36 per cent – says Sydney doesn’t offer affordable decent housing. 

More than half say housing is the single most important issue facing Sydney and Australia today, with cost of living coming in second in Sydney.

But in Sydney some households at least earn better than most. 

About 30 per cent of households earn between about $80,000 to $150,000,  but 24 per cent must make do with between $40,000 and $80,000. Data from the Australian Tax Office 2018-2019 reveals that the average salary Australia wide is just over $60,000. 

But an increasing gap in wage growth means that Sydney property ownership may not be as accessible as it once was, especially for young people: “a growing generational gap in home ownership is evident in the past 50 years”.

The price of a typical house in NSW grew by 22 per cent in the 12 months to June 2021, 10 times the rate of wage growth. In fact, in 2021 house prices reached record highs following pandemic disruptions, fuelled by record-low interest rates and a surge in mortgage lending. 

Rentals however for both houses and apartments dropped by 10 per cent in the six months from March 2020. House rentals recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels by June 2021, while apartment rentals remained at 7 per cent below pre-COVID-19 levels. This indicates that Sydney renters are preferring to live in houses rather than apartments, probably because many are still working from home, and temporary residents such as international students remain offshore. 

Construction

Major construction projects were halted by lockdowns and labour shortages supply chain issues, but the residential construction sector has seen steady growth in the number and value of residential dwelling approvals in the Greater Sydney region since the start of the pandemic:

?  In 2020, there were roughly 36,000 dwelling approvals granted, worth $14.7 billion

?  In 2021, approximately 44,000 approvals were granted, valued at $19.1 billion

Why the long face?

Some may ask why so much dissatisfaction? 

Considering the rising cost of living it’s no wonder that dissatisfaction has led to what looks like a mass exodus out of Sydney and Melbourne in pandemic years. 

In 2021, around 5100 greater Sydney residents moved to regional NSW, while another 3100 moved interstate in the March 2021 quarter. However, according to the Centre for Population forecasts, Sydney is forecast to lose 38,900 people during 2021-22 and Melbourne 32,000 people.

However, one reason the rest of us may be staying is due to safety. 

Almost half (43 per cent) of Sydneysiders feel safe in Sydney, compared to other cities like London where people are leaving “to move to a safer place less crime and less expensive to live”, and New York where people want “more affordable housing and a safer environment”.

Last year Sydney was rated fourth safest city in the world and safest in Australia by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Safe Cities Index which assesses 76 indicators including digital, health, infrastructure, personal, and environmental security. The world’s safest cities in 2021 were Copenhagen, Toronto, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo. 

And in pandemic times we can confidently assume that Sydney’s low rate of mortality from COVID plays into this feeling of safety. Despite the rapid growth of Omicron “the number of cases overall through 2021 and the level of COVID-related morbidity in Sydney was far below global peers”. This might be related to the fact that Sydney has amongst the highest rates of vaccination in the world with 90 per cent of eligible Sydneysiders now fully vaccinated. 

So perhaps the safety factor contributes to the report results that more than half (53 per cent) of Sydneysiders say they are unlikely to leave the city. 

Working from home is so good, we’re staying put

Sydneysiders are comfortable with the work from home revolution. More than half (55 per cent) are still working from home in 2022 –  no change since 2020. 

This is despite the fact that almost half (49 per cent) say that their place of work is encouraging them to come back.

It seems they would prefer to ignore this call, as 49 per cent of Sydney residents feel that they will not immediately be comfortable travelling even within the greater Sydney area.  

And if they do travel, Sydney residents are choosing to avoid public transport and drive instead. 

While public transport has recovered from the dent of various outbreaks, it has recovered to only 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels. Car traffic outpaced the growth in public and active transport modes.

Transport choices affected by lockdowns and outbreaks.

While 33 per cent of Sydneysiders think that the city has reliable, efficient and high-quality public transport, and public transport is cited as the number one most important aspect when choosing a home, more than half (57 per cent) of Sydneysiders are not comfortable to use the system thanks to Covid concerns.

Most also don’t want to travel interstate in the next two to three months; just 33 per cent will be and only 7 per cent will feel fine about going overseas.

The workforce is thin

A dramatic drop in migrant numbers has compounded workforce shortages in hospitality, sales and health care.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics June 2021 arrivals decreased 93.4 per cent compared to pre-COVID levels in June 2019. Cultural and linguistic diversity has dropped significantly to now only 28 per cent – from nearly half in the 2016 Census (49 per cent). The City of Sydney is (or was, in its heyday) one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Australia.

Life in Sydney and State of the City were launched at the Sydney Summit event organised by the Committee for Sydney.

Keynote speakers at the Sydney Summit included: 

  • NSW treasurer and NSW minister for energy Matt Kean, NSW minister for infrastructure, cities, and active transport Rob Stokes.
  • Professor Rae Cooper spoke about women’s participation in the labour market: we have the most highly educated female labour force in the OECD, what business and government can do to boost women’s participation and support pandemic recovery. 
  • Professor Veena Sahajwalla spoke on balancing economic growth and minimising waste by repurposing the carbon in tyres to replace coking coal in steel production. 

Panel sessions included: 

  • Reuniting east and west for a Greater Sydney was chaired by Australia’s policy experts Peter Shergold, with Lindy Deitz (general manager of Campbelltown Council), Professor Ian Hickie (co-director of Sydney Uni’s Brain and Mind Centre), Maha Abdo (chief executive officer of Muslim Women Australia) and Natalie Walker (social commissioner at Greater Sydney Commission).
  • Pathways back to a global destination after Fortress Australia was chaired by Ann Sherry, with Phillipa Harrison (managing director of Tourism Australia), Professor Tim Soutphommasane (Sydney University), Nick Bryant (former BBC foreign correspondent to Australia and the US) and Professor Andrew Parfitt (UTS vice-chancellor).
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