Beyond the Australian Dream: Australia’s future housing and the failure of the political classes.

Last week I presented a paper at a great conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Future Housing Global Issues and Regional Problems Conference. Its was organised under the auspices of MPS. For me the conference reinforced the view that housing design, housing research and housing policy is a critical issue in the context of Australian policy debates. It reinforced for me that architects and urban designers are at the forefront of this issue and that it requires policy responses that are not left to the property markets.

Any approach to infrastructure policy, cities policy and urban sustainability must address housing design, housing policy and housing issues. Sadly, for numerous reasons policy makers, developers, contractors and the political classes housing policy has arguably been a casualty of neoliberal policy that in effect ignores the needs of different demographic strata and groups in Australian society. As the Grattan Institute pointed out in its 2013 report Renovating Housing Policy housing policy in Australia is in need of “renovating” (full marks for the pun) as well as a number of prior reports including The Housing We Choose, Getting The Housing We Want and a report called Productive Cities. 

Housing or cities have not really been a central feature of Australia’s current election campaign. The taxation arrangements around negative gearing have had a bit of a run. The real estate agents have squawked a bit. But generally the politically classes and the media don’t really see it. Its ok for the investment bankers, lawyers and union apparatchiks to talk about smart infrastructure, and so called smart cities, and city sustainability but it is housing that is the key policy element in all of these efforts. Yes, the Coalition will invest up to $100 million in a Smart Cities Policy renewable energy and energy efficient technologies in cities, if re-elected. But, the policy lacks real vision and looks like it is specifically targeted at Western Sydney with a whole lot of give aways like “better lighting, it could include better traffic management, it could include better water management,” I wonder why that is? So much for the rest of us. Why not devote the money to R&D in alternative housing financing, ownership, typologies and housing design. Why not fund ARC research that explores urban densification that isn’t simply about building apartments being developed developers who contribute to political parties. What about regional housing issues?

In contrast a recent Australian Senate Committee published a report on affordable housing in May 2015. The report containing over 200 submissions from different stakeholders in Australia’s housing sector.

The Senate report concluded that concluded that:housing affordability was also exacerbated by policy fragmentation. The report concluded that Australia’s housing system needed to be considered as a interlinked system which had both public private and the numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions. Policy was needed to give “coherence to the numerous local, state and national incentives and schemes intended to contribute to the provision of affordable housing.”

Organised by the Centre of Design Innovation at Swinburne University, and under the Auspices of MPS, the conference covered a number of diverse topics. A survey of the topics presented at the conference indicates the degree to which housing is a complex issue that requires more than property marketing, think-tanking and political spin. It is a policy area that requires alternative propositions through design research and experiment.

The conference covered the full gamut of this area of research and for me it underscored that housing policy cannot be boiled down to any singular catch cry. For example academics at the conference presented papers and research on affordable housing and issues in other cities and countries such as Iran, Sweden, the UK, South Korea, Mumbai and Vietnam. Researchers presented who examined alternative housing typologies in Australian cities as well as work regarding remote, rural and regional housing. Indigenous housing got a guernsey; as well as research into Australian social housing, rental affordability, housing finance and Australia’s urban poor; there were also papers on ageing, disability and housing design.

One intriguing paper investigated the notion of neighbour hoods and neighbouring patterns in Australian cities. Not a topic that is often discussed in the context of housing policy. Mostly, these days all the talk of neighbourhoods is in the glossy marketing materials. One of the more innovative papers, based on a MSD design studio explored proposals for the redevelopment of the Prahran housing estate. This paper reminded me that design research is an essential component in terms of housing policy and housing futures. Call me cynical, but the lawyer trained political apparatchiks and marketing minded developers really don’t care that much about design or design research.

Yet, architecture schools and architects themselves have been at the forefront, for the many years if not decades, by producing and proposing alternative typologies to the housing question. Architects are well placed to understand the interdependencies and intricacies of housing. Yet, as a profession and within the graduate studios of architecture school this work has had little impact on Australian policy debates. It has been largely for no avail and mostly ignored. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a politician  talk about the “Australian Dream” we would all be extremely wealthy. But for some reason Australia seems to be stuck in a limited number of market driven approaches to the housing question. The Australian dream of universal and egalitarian home ownership has gone now. It has slipped away. To keep talking about this dream only masks the stratified, and as I muse increasingly extreme, demographics that is the real nature of Australian society.

As many architects already know housing brings together interdisciplinary perspectives across economics, finance, planning, architecture and urban design. Creating new knowledge across this area requires a bottom up approach involving both community participation, nuanced data analytics and concerted design research. Meanwhile, the global marketing machine that spins a lifestyle of, minimalist danish modern designer homeware bright breakfast morning margarine advertisement living, just rolls along.

The Australian dream is of home ownership is now just another phantasm in the spectacle.

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