Planning decisions and tenancy laws need to change if Australia is to avoid a dystopian future with socially polarized cities, argues urban sociologist Peter Walters.
Home ownership, the Australian Dream, is becoming a fading hope for those without an existing foothold in the market. For increasing numbers of younger Australians, the dream will give way to a future as tenants. This will have far-reaching negative impacts on how people live together in both the inner city and the suburbs unless housing, planning and investment policies come to terms with this shift.
Robert Menzies’ Australian Dream of home ownership is beyond the reach of increasing numbers of young Australians. This is due to a multitude of factors, including the tax treatment of property and our attractiveness as a haven for foreign investment. If we are to become a “nation of renters,” how are our cities equipped to deal with this?
Changing the way we live
The inner cities of our capitals are seeing the results of the “compact city” growth model. According to this model, former industrial sites are being re-purposed for high-density residential developments. These developments are heavily marketed to overseas and domestic investors and are already disproportionately occupied by renters – 60-70% in the three biggest capitals. These renters tend to be young professionals or international students, affluent, without families and with high occupancy turnover.
These apartment developments are high-security and impersonal. Inner-city developments tend to be expensive privatised fortresses creating barren “anti-neighbourhoods,” which are unattractive to those wishing to rent over the course of their lives. Little attention is given to a strong public realm where a diversity of lifestyles, age groups, ethnicities and economic statuses can interact daily on vibrant, activated streets with adequate local green spaces.
Without a strong independent planning vision from local authorities, developers will continue to build according to this same model in the belief it provides the highest return on investment. The prospects for change are not encouraging.
In Brisbane late last year, the Brisbane City Council and state government announced the Kurilpa Riverfront Renewal project. This was a master planning process to incorporate the conversion of 25 hectares of inner-city river-front land from its current outdated industrial use. The project was announced not to the people of Brisbane but to the property industry of Brisbane at a sold-out A$150-a-head launch.
The council wanted to:
… optimise the commercial potential of the site and provide developer certainty.
Initial land sales were priced on the expectation of a high-density per square metre development, rather than a more imaginative use of land in the interests of creating enduring, diverse inner-city neighbourhoods. A subsequent change in state government and general community outrage meant that the new Labor government has called in this development from the LNP-dominated council, but to what end is uncertain.
In the suburbs, renters face different challenges. In Australia, suburban communities, when they exist, have traditionally been dependent on a certain sameness in life stage and tenure. Home owners and renters have been an uneasy mix in the suburbs.
Renters are seen as transient, untrustworthy and aesthetically undesirable. Many homeowners see renters as threatening their property values because of the perception that they are not as concerned with the appearance of their homes. Whether renting in the suburbs becomes less stigmatised than it is now will depend to a large extent on the level of certainty and dignity that long-term renters are afforded.
What does the future hold?
In a less-stigmatised scenario we will mature as a nation of renters and become more like the Dutch, the Germans or the Swiss. In these countries, 40-60% of the population live in either social or private-sector rental accommodation. They enjoy security of tenure, underwritten by strong consumer protections and tenancy terms, including indefinite rental contracts.
To achieve this outcome, governments would need to take a leadership role in planning decisions and tenancy laws. They would need to compel property developers to build diverse, accessible housing incorporating a strong public realm where renters can build lives rather than transit.
Both inner-city and suburban renters would need to have political representation by governments willing to take on the powerful vested interests represented by property ownership. This scenario would require a great deal of political will and leadership. It would need an effective winding back of that part of the neoliberal project that allows homes to be treated as speculative investment vehicles.
Provided renters have competent political representation, the sheer weight of renter numbers may in time be sufficient to drive some of these changes.
The alternative more dystopian scenario is that the property-owning classes respond to their basest instincts and retreat into high-security enclaves and gated estates. This will further privatise the public realm and polarise our cities socially and economically. Until now, this undesirable outcome has been something that happened only in other countries.