Canberra needs housing that everyone can afford; housing that is close to shops, work and schools so we don’t spend hours commuting; and housing that leaves space for trees and the other vegetation that makes Canberra the bush capital. We need housing that doesn’t cost the earth (literally and financially) to build and then run with heating and cooling costs.
Recent suburban development in Wright (RZ1 Zone). Only three blocks have space for large trees on the block and less than half have room for outdoor play.
Despite the apartment boom, new Australian homes are the second biggest in the world, only behind the USA. This is driven by very-large ‘McMansions’ that are unaffordable for most in the community.
Because these large houses are allowed to fill almost the whole block, older suburbs are losing their tree canopy and new suburbs are being built without room for deep rooted shade trees. This has a cost for the whole community. Neighbourhoods without good tree canopy shade can be up to 13 degrees hotter on a hot summer day. Canberra’s trees are also a big part of our status as the bush capital and garden city.
Our housing market is largely building two types of new homes – very large houses and apartments that are designed for speculative investors, not future residents.
The large houses/investor apartments divide means that many in our community miss out on the housing they need. Many people are looking for small homes, but are excluded by lack of affordability and supply.
Apartments in town centres are great for some, but are not for everyone. Older people who downsize often want to stay in their existing area. Families looking for a more affordable or environmentally-sustainable small home prefer to stay near their school and want a small garden.
So how do we fix these problems? The Greens believe action is needed on planning rules, lifting the quality of development and strengthening the Energy Efficiency Rating (EER) Scheme.
Starting with planning rules, the ACT Government is currently running a ‘Housing Choices’ consultation process looking at possible changes to the rules for our residential areas.
Our planning system currently makes it hard to build smaller houses, duplexes and townhouses in established suburbs. We need to find ways to provide homes that meet the changing needs of community while respecting the current streetscapes, and our garden city and bush capital character.
Given Canberra’s new houses are so large, there is real scope to build two smaller homes with less visual impact and more green space than a McMansion. For example, two duplexes of around 100m2 each could leave more green space than one McMansion of around 300m2.
In my ‘Housing Choices’ submission, I called for a reduction in the amount of each block that can be built over, protection of room for trees and gardens, and careful changes to the planning rules to encourage smaller housing such as duplexes and terrace houses.
On the quality of infill, I often hear that people would support infill development if it were better quality. My ‘Housing Choices’ submission called for planning rules that provide incentives for better development such as environmental certification above standard industry practice, quality affordable housing distributed fairly across all suburbs and heritage conservation work supported by the ACT Heritage Council.
Another option for lifting quality that has been successful both in Australia and around the world is showcase housing precincts. These bring together government, industry, the community and researchers to deliver housing that is well above the normal standard.
There are many benefits. These precincts lift industry standards and skill levels, test innovative designs and construction methods, and bring together buyers who want better housing with builders keen to build it. Importantly, they also deliver affordable and environmentally-sustainability housing.
In June 2017, I tabled a successful motion in the Assembly that required the Government to deliver showcase housing precincts. Now it needs to be delivered on.
On strengthening the EER scheme, it is currently based on minimum energy efficiency ratings for new homes. This is helpful, but is not enough to substantially improve our housing. It does not ensure that new homes are oriented towards sunlight or have cross-ventilation to allow summer breezes. It only rates the ‘shell’ of the house, such as insulation and double glazing, and fails to consider the full life cycle impact of the dwelling. My ‘Housing Choices’ submission called for the EER system to be updated and expanded, especially to anticipate the effects of climate change.
Currently, real estate agents are required to print the EER rating in ‘for sale’ ads. However, very few print an EER rating in ‘to let’ ads, so renters are not given the option to rent better houses.
The good news is improvements to the EER scheme may be coming. The Greens-Labor Parliamentary Agreement includes a review of the EER Scheme and this work was funded in the 2017-18 Budget.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times