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It’s hard to get right homes in the right places

The single-block redevelopments occurring are resulting in large, expensive dwellings. Photo: Ron Edgecombe

“The community acceptability of redevelopments and the supply of social housing need to increase if housing inequality is to be reduced,” writes former planner MIKE QUIRK

The Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services recently released its report following its inquiry in the Territory Plan. 

Mike Quirk.

The main focus of the report was a review of the effectiveness of recent changes to the Territory Plan permitting the unit titling of dual occupancies of no more than 120sqm on a RZ1 block of at least 800sqm and for the inclusion of apartments in RZ2 zoning, in delivering greater housing density and choice. 

The changes were to provide opportunities for smaller, lower-impact and more-affordable housing options. 

Many redevelopments have poor solar access resulting in overlooking, loss of tree cover, parking blight and congestion. 

Most in-fill dwellings constructed were apartments, in areas with higher density residential and commercial zoning, unsuitable to the needs of many households. The single-block redevelopments occurring were resulting in large, expensive dwellings.

The committee’s view is the changes will not deliver the desired policy outcomes. 

It argues the emphasis should be on encouraging medium-density and mid-rise redevelopment opportunities that have a limited impact on overall neighbourhood character and amenity while allowing opportunities for affordable housing. Yes, but how?

Suggestions put forward to improve the policy included: 

  • removing the limit on the size of the second dwelling;
  • reducing the minimum block size required to 700sqm;
  • applying RZ2 zoning, which allows for low-rise flats, to RZ1 blocks; 
  • adjusting RZ2 policies to facilitate a wider range of housing types; block amalgamation to improve the quality of outcomes and scope for a wider range of dwelling types;
  • demonstration projects to showcase best-practice urban densification; 
  • tax concessions to encourage the provision of medium-density housing; 
  • allowing Housing ACT to buy land at a cheaper rate and introducing an urban growth boundary. 

The government is required to respond to the recommendations of the committee within four months of tabling. The response would benefit if we were informed by an assessment of effectiveness of infill policy as a component of urban strategy.

The policy has facilitated the provision of additional housing in established areas to reduce car use, infrastructure costs and the environmental impacts of development. 

By 2050 an additional 100,000 dwellings are estimated to be required. How much should be accommodated in existing areas? Committee member Jo Clay and the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment called for the introduction of an urban growth boundary. 

They argue the focus should be on “good infill” with ample green spaces rather than greenfields development, which they characterise as “endless sprawl”. 

But would a growth boundary simply transfer demand for housing into surrounding NSW? Would the result be an increase in car-dependent trips? Is the habitat in surrounding NSW of less value than possible greenfield sites in the ACT?

While no one suggested greenfields development should solely accommodate demand, what is an appropriate level of infill? Has the level of benefit diminished as increased redevelopment has required the augmentation of infrastructure in existing areas? Have the environmental benefits been offset by poor-quality redevelopments? Have the travel benefits been reduced by increased working from home? How much has its failure to provide affordable and sufficient medium-density dwellings, needed to facilitate downsizing and, to meet the needs of households with children, limited housing choice? Has the policy contributed to the upward pressure on house prices? 

An undersupply of detached dwellings is reflected in the increasing price differential between houses and medium and higher-density dwellings. 

Would an increase in greenfields development, if accompanied by substantial employment and well served by transport, facilities and services, widen housing choice and better meet housing preferences? Can such environments be delivered and, if so, at what cost? 

Does infill improve housing affordability? The government’s assessment of the likely impact of allowing a secondary dwelling of up to 120sqm on blocks of more than 800sqm found the price of the additional dwelling would be well in excess of a million dollars in areas with good accessibility. 

The beneficiaries of the policy would be existing land owners and households able to afford the dwellings created with many households having no choice but to occupy dwellings unsuited to their needs.

The community acceptability of redevelopments and the supply of social housing need to increase if housing inequality is to be reduced. 

Redevelopments (including apartments given their greater affordability) need to be designed to better meet the requirements of occupants (especially the number of bedrooms, storage, privacy, orientation and communal open space) and to minimise negative development impacts. 

The essential question for the government is what can be done to ensure Canberra’s housing supply better meets the needs of all households in terms of design, affordability and location? Getting the right homes in the right place is no simple task.

Mike Quirk is a former NCDC and ACT government planner.

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