As a former ministerial advisor to UK ministers now working in Sydney it is clear that our capital cities are in danger of being ‘liveable’ only for those on high incomes or with access to the bank of mum and dad. We have to do better not just to make housing affordable – and boy is it hard given the political power of nimbys to build enough homes to actually reduce house prices – but to provide affordable and indeed key worker housing. I wrote this piece for the Sydney Morning Herald after my organisation, the Committee for Sydney, ran an innovative workshop with younger leaders last week. At the same time, firefighters called to a fire at a warehouse complex in the nearby suburb of Alexandria were required to rescue migrant workers living on site in shipping containers and caravans. I see this as the only way forward: we have to get the previously unheard voice of younger people into the civic dialogue about housing supply. Home ownership is becoming something older people do – and public policy on housing has been dominated by the self-interest of baby boomers, ignoring the coming generation who cannot get into home ownership and increasingly are being priced out of rental in our cities.
If the dramatic events in Alexandria make us focus on Sydney’s acute housing crisis then good will have from evil. It’s often said in Australia that change doesn’t happen without a burning platform.
We have one now.
The discovery that migrant workers were living in Dickensian housing squalor at the heart of our city must now focus the attention of government, community and media on the housing stress being felt in Sydney. And just in case you think that such stress is confined to migrants who can be conveniently filed under ‘marginal case: nothing to do with us’, I remind you there are 60,000 Sydneysiders on public/social housing waiting lists, 70% of people under the age of 35 can’t afford home-ownership in this city and those on average earnings are being priced out of rented accommodation within an easy commute of Sydney’s CBD.
So mismatched are the supply and demand of any type of housing in Sydney that although housing supply doubled between 2009 and 2014 – it is still only at the 2004 level although our population has gone up 13% since then – house prices went up 13% last year alone. Currently housing supply is 30,000 a year in Sydney which seems to be the peak in this cycle. To make up the backlog we need 40,000 a year at least – and year in year out for the next generation. On current policies and attitudes there is no prospect of this. We are just not building enough of any housing type or tenure. This failure is damaging the prospects both of our own children and our city.
Our offspring are having to live with their parents much longer not out of inertia or love but because they simply cannot afford to rent let alone buy. Or they are moving to edge locations with poorer economic opportunities and long commutes. And while all cities are experiencing housing stress, some are doing better. One of the reasons why Melbourne will overtake Sydney as Australia’s biggest city around 2050 is because we are losing mobile talent in their 30s on the basis of housing affordability. Melbourne is retaining that cohort: some of ours is going to…Melbourne.
Obsessed as many of we home-owners are with house price inflation madly deemed to be a good thing in North Shore dinner parties and property supplements, we have missed the crisis affecting our young. Home-ownership is becoming something that older Sydneysiders do.
So beloved are we of this special status that in the form of nimbyism many of us are preventing others getting access to the homes they need. Also, via the uniquely generous tax incentives, superannuation benefits and liquidity available to home-owners in Australia, owners are becoming possessors of multiple units, pricing potential first time buyers out into the rental market. This then puts demand pressure on cheaper rented units, social housing and public housing waiting lists. Increased homelessness and what we saw in Alexandria are at the end of this spectrum of unmet housing need. Something has to be done if we are to have a city with homes for all.
Someone is doing something about it. At the very moment of the Alexandria fire, 60 young leaders from all parts of Greater Sydney were at the first Youth Housing Summit. Brought together by a partnership between the Committee for Sydney, the community organisation, Sydney Alliance and Youth Action, young people from the public, private and not for profit sectors met to thrash out answers .Government and our community need to listen to this voice which has been absent from our sometimes un-civic and often selfish dialogue on affordable housing, higher density development and the future of our city.
These impressive young leaders know what is needed from government. How about targets for affordable and key worker housing? Applying first home buyer incentives to shared equity schemes? Replacing stamp duty with a land tax? Allowing public land to be used for sub market rental? Schemes to prevent homelessness in the first place? And for any nimby readers: from all a desire to see a reformed planning system, an embrace of the benefits of a higher density future and a vision of a Greater Sydney with homes for all.
Underpinning this evolving program were two caveats and one ask. One, that engagement processes around city planning be modernised/digitised so that young people can help shape Sydney as never before. Two, that the emerging Metro strategy really promotes a more polycentric Sydney and the economic development of the West, to divert some of the current ‘close-to-CBD housing’ demand. The ask, politely: that our young premier engages with this key demographic – and becomes a champion for their expansive vision of Sydney.