Shaun Carter
Shaun Carter

Shaun Carter, founding architect of Carter Williamson says that it’s vital for people to access social housing close to places of work. Separating and segregating the housing market is leading to entrenched disadvantage, he says.

Safe, secure and sustainable housing is a human right, he says. 

Shaun Carter made a splash a few years ago in the battle to save the brutalist Sirius building at Millers Point. 

Save Our Sirius was a fight for heritage listing of the building and important for several reasons. First and foremost, Carter says, heritage buildings (and the people in them) tell important social and cultural stories. 

“Heritage buildings are a vessel for those really important stories that society needs to understand and keep, and retell to others,” he says. 

“If we start losing buildings like this… you effectively lose all the stories that make you a society. A society that keeps renewing itself, that doesn’t develop culture, is a shallow and hollow and soulless society”. 

The Sirius building was designed by Tao Gofers in the 1970s to rehouse displaced public tenants after a controversial redevelopment of The Rocks in Sydney’s historic inner-city. 

From 2015, the building was at the centre of a public outcry thanks to plans to evict tenants and redevelop the site. Carter and the Save Our Sirius sought to secure its protection as a heritage building.

The public housing block sold in 2019 for $150 million, and was promptly transformed into a luxury apartment complex sold off for $435 million.

It’s a trajectory that Sydney is no stranger to, and it mirrors the rapid metamorphosis of the city’s working class history into exclusive and inaccessible real estate investments for the ultra-rich.

“It’s a crying shame, and it’s a great loss for the social story, which is both a heritage loss and also a cultural loss. Affordable housing is a necessity that we need to make efficient and productive cities.” 

Without the provision of Commonwealth Rent Assistance, 72.5 per cent of low income households would have experienced rental stress in June 2021, according to the Productivity Commission. Rental stress is described by the commission as the payment of more than 30 per cent of income on housing. 

The expected wait time for a two bedroom home provided by the NSW government in Sydney is at least 10 years. More than 400,000 households are in need of affordable housing.

The expected wait time for a two bedroom home provided by the NSW government in Sydney is at least 10 years, with more than 50,000 households on the waitlist. Under this scheme the tenant will pay between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of their household income as rent, to keep it under the threshold for rental stress. 

A joint ACOSS and University of NSW report released last year found that across the country more than 155,000 households are registered on social housing waitlists, with more than 400,000 households in need of affordable housing. 

The way that social and affordable housing is currently being organised is leading to a social and economic divide between regions of Sydney.”

Carter believes that the current system needs a radical redesign, saying that the way that social and affordable housing is currently being organised is leading to a social and economic divide between regions of Sydney.

“The current government are putting social housing way out west. You’re setting up socially disadvantaged people to have to travel far and spend more. You are entrenching disadvantage.

“The greatest egalitarian thing that Sydney has ever done is to have social housing in the cities. It’s really important to have social housing close to places of work. A city is like a clock – the cogs need to keep turning, the whole social spectrum needs to keep turning. If you are exclusive, if you separate and segregate, you will create enclaves of disadvantage and of wealth, and create an imbalance of society that eventually leads to social unrest.” ?

A city is like a clock – the cogs need to keep turning, the whole social spectrum needs to keep turning. If you are exclusive, if you separate and segregate, you will create enclaves of disadvantage and of wealth, and create an imbalance of society that eventually leads to social unrest.”

Experts have warned of a “ghettoisation effect” of the NSW capital, as social polarisation between suburbs increasingly locks in low-income earners into specific areas.

That is also what Carter believes the new Design & Place State Environmental Planning Policy or SEPP is doing. The planning minister Anthony Roberts’ plan to scrap the broad-ranging policy package that called for walkable communities and sustainable buildings has been widely lauded as ‘”a bad idea”, because it means that areas with higher temperatures will have no policy protection to stop new developments from feeling the heat, as there will be no tree-cover or black roof requirements.

“Western Sydney will have regular days of 50 degrees soon. Australia will be more adversely affected by climate change. If you have structural problems in the cities and infrastructure like not enough trees, the temperature will become hotter and rainfall will stop. 

“You are building-in climate disadvantage. You are setting the city up to fail on a grand scale. The government walking away from this… is short term [thinking]. Economic acts of development are limited to the short term, and ignore all other aspects.” 

Carter would encourage the government to go back and stay the course. 

It’s been “subcontracting the design of public places and infrastructure for too long”, he says. Instead it needs to set a high bar and a high standard all through the public system. 

“Poor housing leads to a poor public domain.”

He also says the architecture community should be concerned that four years of hard work by the government (and many other professionals, we’ve heard) to develop a policy – that was still embryonic and in its early stages – can be junked by a new minister. 

“It is very disappointing to say the least.” 

New work

At present Carter’s firm is working with the NSW Land and Housing Corporation on creating affordable housing. 

He looks to London’s model of housing affordability that provides “key worker housing” to allow people who work in essential areas like health, education, and safety to afford to live in the areas that they work. 

Both Sydney and London rank among the most expensive housing markets in the world. But Carter believes that better regulation of the housing market will fix this. 

“Good regulation promotes social good. It’s a useful thing to put the human aspect into any issue. 

“The market is an abstract thing. It prefers making money and profit over other things. Those things need to be regulated quite sensibly to consider the human effects, so people can afford homes in the areas they need to work.”

It’s a social and an ethical problem, Carter says. “Housing is a right. We should all have the right to live in safe and secure housing.” 

The heritage challenge

And it’s important to save old buildings not just to preserve communities, but also to reduce the carbon emissions wrought by new developments. 

The firm is working on heritage retrofits of multiple venues in The Rocks “that have been sensitively cared for and prepared”, including the Harrington Street Terraces. 

Located at 55-71 Harrington Street the buildings are representative of typical Victorian two-storey terrace houses, part of The Rocks Urban Conservation Area.

Another address at 101 George Street in The Rocks is being prepared for hospitality brand Swillhouse’s new restaurant called Le Foote.

“I just don’t get what people in government don’t understand about the existential threat of climate change… if we’re not planning for it, we’re really stupid.” 

“There’s a great environmental message there, if you can save these old buildings.

“We think about reuse as much as possible, with alterations and additions instead of new builds. When we do build, we plan for 200 years instead of 20 years. 

“We’re building tomorrow’s heritage today… All of the construction energy is locked into the house.

“I just don’t get what people in government don’t understand about the existential threat of climate change… if we’re not planning for it, we’re really stupid.” 

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