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Searching for affordable housing in Toowong, Brisbane

Denis Bright invites discussion on social impact of the attrition of affordable housing in the inner suburbs of metropolitan and regional centres. This local perspective is from Brisbane’s thriving inner western suburb of Toowong. Is the slowing local property market shaping a fairer Australia or promoting more economic apartheid in our cities?

The inner western suburb of Toowong is a hub of thriving commercial activity. Retail and residential choices abound in this riverside setting. Public transport links Toowong to the Brisbane CBD by bus, train and Citycat ferry. The campus of the University of Queensland is just two kilometres away.

Previous conservative governments in Queensland have shown little interest in defending both the architectural heritage and affordability of inner suburbs like Toowong.

The Bjelke-Petersen Government used the Toowong Railway Station Development Project Act 1985 to over-ride opposition from the Brisbane City Council (BCC) to the construction of the Toowong Village shopping and office complexes.

Positive precedents

Even a century ago, the problems of affordability in both housing prices and rents were highly topical issues. Before the sedating effects of constant eyewitness news coverage, public participation in politics demanded real solutions.

A time-traveller from 1917 would have been very conscious of the challenges to housing affordability a century ago (High Street Toowong in 1917 from the Toowong and District Historical Society).

Elected in the electoral landslide to Labor in 1915, Premier T.J. Ryan responded to these concerns through the Workers’ Homes Act 1919.

In nearly forty years of state Labor Administrations before 1957, families with up to twice the average annual wage were assisted with the acquisition of home sites and affordable houses.

This social market arrangement for affordable housing loans shaped suburban development in Brisbane near popular transport hubs like Toowong.

Land subdivisions for new housing were still the responsibility of the private sector. The state assisted buyers with access to well-constructed dwellings from a network of registered builders with a preference for unionized labour.

In a presentation to the Royal Society of Queensland in 1993, Judy Rechner noted that the amended Workers’ Homes Act 1919 permitted affordable loan advances of up to four years of average salaries. Repayments could extend to 20 years. The means test for housing loans was liberalized to twice the average annual wage rates.

Loan conditions were modified throughout the inter-war period to respond to changing wage rates and housing prices. Successive state Labor governments were mindful of the importance of middle class voters:

Judy Rechner for the Royal Historical Society Journal 1994

 

Constituents from all backgrounds appreciated this commitment to affordable housing.

Most electorates across Brisbane returned Labor members during the inter-war period apart from the single term of conservative government in 1929.

Even during the spikes in Labor Party support, Toowong always remained a conservative seat along with a sprinkling of hillside and riverside electorates across Brisbane. Little has changed as the state election approaches in the redistributed local state electorate of Maiwar.

The attrition of housing affordability and some alternatives

Increases in the prices of houses and rents in Toowong are usually perceived as a healthy sign by the business sector and investors generally.

Taxation concessions through negative gearing reward Australian property investors. These concessions cost $11 billion in the current federal budget.

For overseas investors in property here in Toowong, there are opportunities for new cash flows and asset accumulation in a strong Australian currency.

Future policy options should be available to channel some of this new investment to assist in the delivery of more affordable housing and other community development goals. Overseas investors would be more than welcome in these projects and not just through ad hoc current market ventures.

In Sydney’s Central Park redevelopment on Broadway near Central Station, major companies like Sekisui House and Frasers Property have been involved in the successful redevelopment of old industrial sites. The resources of these construction firms could still be at the service of progressive housing policy initiatives.

Some new financial incentives might be needed for these companies if they are to become more interested in the delivery of affordable housing and community development options in their investment mix.

Corporate investment inflows through a future public sector Urban Investment Fund might assist with the delivery of this new investment mix in a manner which is now impossible from the resources available to government authorities. This Fund would need to be the agent of a public sector business investment fund with commitments to affordable housing and other community development options from funds invested by the corporate sectors in Australia and overseas.

Some problems like a decline in housing affordability and traffic gridlock on major arterial roads are challenges which have increased with a reliance on the market model for the provision of housing.

Traffic gridlock is evident on arterial roads in Brisbane’s inner west (Brisbanetimes Online 2011).

Removing commercial ribbon-development adjacent to Moggill Road along the approaches to Indooroopilly Plaza would be a multi-billion public investment if new tunnel thoroughfares were added to divert traffic.

In place of commercial ribbon development of service workshops and specialized retail outlets along Moggill Road, opportunities would exist for new integrated development projects including some affordable housing.

This type of integrated re-development would be beyond the resources of most companies and loans might be available through an Urban Development Fund with a capital base injected by the corporate sector. Dividends would be paid on the mix of investments undertaken by a Queensland Fund as the co-ordinator of the Urban Investment Fund.

There are fewer options for some well-established predominantly residential areas. Here the re-development projects might cover only two or three adjacent properties but an affordable housing mix and other initiatives like a better storm-water drainage system might be added.

Sylvan Road precinct in Toowong: Opportunities and Problems        

Join me on a walk up Sylvan Road from the Regatta Hotel Citycat terminal in search of the remnants of affordable housing.

Despite many years of buoyant returns from the property market, some affordable rental options still remain in Toowong.

During any future down-turn in the property market, owners might be willing to sell their properties to construction companies for medium-rise housing ventures with some ground-level commercial activities. Even home-owners benefiting from rising property prices are concerned about the social consequences of declining housing affordability.

The current plateau in the property market prevents an easy exit from the market in favour of more affordable properties for holders of investment loans and mortgages.

At 1/20 Croydon Street just off Sylvan Road, a room for rent was available for $130 weekly with access to a shared kitchen and other facilities. A broken window pane comes as an included extra.

Next door at 1/18 Croydon Street, a house is available for rental with a downstairs yoga studio. This site is too dilapidated to appear on online real estate sites.

BMC International is the owner of both properties which have a combined market value approaching $1.2 million. Asset values of this magnitude invite redevelopment on a combined area of over 1,000 square metres. Opportunities also exist for the acquisition of nearby properties but this is a challenge while property prices remain high.

A former nursing home, known as Sylvan Lodge, next to Toowong Memorial Park and Wests Districts Rugby Club has been protected from gentrification by its sprawling internal lay out. Under the current Brisbane City Plan, the owner can redevelop the site.

The style of accommodation offered includes some access to shared kitchens and other facilities. At a rental of $130-150 weekly plus $520 for the security bond, this is a highly affordable facility by Brisbane standards (Asset plus Rentals Online 2017).

Further up Sylvan Road some existing redevelopments have a good aesthetic appearance (Google Maps 2017).

The Corner Café is popular as a social meeting place during the week and at weekends.

Next door, Elizabeth and Co. is a residence upstairs and a hair and beauty salon downstairs in attractively landscaped surrounds.

At 137 Sylvan Road, a former workers’ dwelling is a busy accountant’s office with a highly presentable appearance.

Other former suburban stores or trade service offices are vibrant additions to the street-scape as a clothing and needlework store or an alternative health centre.

The current Brisbane City Plan (BCC Plan) restricts development because of the Character Residential Infill Classification. Older residential structures must be incorporated into any proposed redevelopment to obtain re-developmental approval.

It is a different matter opposite on the corner of Sylvan Road and Milton Road with an industrial classification under the Brisbane City Town Plan.

An administrative office of Hutchison Builders has a popular car wash service at street level. The neighbouring sales office of Subaru attracts customers from a wide catchment.

No Dogmatic Fixes

The precinct covered on this walk along Sylvan Road and some adjacent streets shows that the supply of sustainable affordable houses and rentals is becoming exhausted. New storm-water run-off networks are urgently needed.

It would be a pretentious exercise to offer detailed specific solutions to the presenting problems in this precinct. The finer details would draw upon the multi-dimensional skills of a team of financial and legal experts, architects and engineers with appropriate consultation with the community and its elected representatives at all levels.

Our veteran time-traveller from 1917 might be perplexed that the constituents of Toowong are still so committed to market forces as the cure-all solution when earlier generations sought solutions to housing affordability problems through the Workers’ Dwelling Scheme.

Changing times call for new approaches.

Opportunities are knocking for a new generation of leaders with a commitment to housing affordability which is still as daringly different and responsible as the initiatives once taken a century ago when our veteran time-traveller first walked the streets of Toowong.

Hopefully the constituents in this precinct of Maiwar will want to challenge the Miracle of the Market myth as their surrounds dry out from recent local storm-water which has once again presented its ongoing challenge to quality of living on one side of Sylvan Road.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion about progressive pragmatic public policies compatible with contemporary globalization.

 

 


17 comments

  1. Michael Taylor

    Both an interesting and entertaining read, Denis.

  2. Kyran

    There was a post on RN’s Rear Vision on Sunday which provides excellent historical perspective, on a global basis, regarding ‘public/social’ housing policies.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/the-housing-crisis/8379724

    The detail is both significant and pertinent to the current discussion. The problems that are detailed in your article are not peculiar to Toowong, Brisbane or Queensland. They are national issues.
    Regrettably, we have a federal government suffering from ‘policy paralysis’, which can only be likened to the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ syndrome.
    The problem is further exacerbated by Australia’s incredibly cumbersome political system of three tiers of government and no cohesive, overarching policy. Whilst the markets in the various states are different to the extent that some have plateaued whilst others are accelerating, there is an underlying problem insofar as local councils decide much of the planning, state governments allocate much of the funding in the ‘public/social’ housing space and the federal government is responsible for the levers that control the direction of funding in the private sector.
    All of whom are on different pages.
    As long as the ‘conversation’ is restricted to politicians, developers and the banks, there will be no resolution of the problems underlying their conversation.
    As long as planning and policy issues, everything from housing to infrastructure, are ‘managed’ in such an ‘ad-hoc’ fashion by those very same politicians, developers and bankers, there will be no resolution of the underlying problems.
    The housing issue is but one of many that need to be addressed as a national issue. Where to develop, what to develop, resultant community requirements, are all issues that should be addressed by the likes of Infrastructure Australia. To assume a persons needs differ because of their location is as absurd as assuming that politicians, developers and bankers will act in the interests of their constituents or consumers.
    As mentioned in the RN broadcast, there is no political appetite for such change. The ‘systems’ that worked well for so long have been dismantled and broken. The beneficiaries of the ‘new world order’ are those we entrust to design the rules. Go figure.
    Whilst I believe we need radical change in so many areas, stuffed if I know how we can even start to agitate for change.
    Thank you Mr Bright. Take care

  3. Paul

    Excellent article on such a complex topic with so many competing interests of the various stakeholders involved.

    It’s a real challenge for current leaders. It will take leadership and conviction to turn this issue around.

    Thanks for the interest read Denis. It really felt like I was walking along Sylvan road.

  4. Leila Smith

    Interesting article Denis and no doubt one that could be replicated in regard to other ares of Brisbane close to the City. For those of us who live locally it describes a very rel picture of the area and highlights the history and difficulties people face in securing reasonable housing.
    Thank you for continuing to provide comment coupled with in depth research of the important topics of our times.

  5. Mia

    Interesting history of past attempts to make housing affordable and also of Sylvan road streetscape. All levels of government need a commitment to achievable suburban futures.

  6. From Greater Ipswich

    Ipswich City has done a great job in harnessing the energy and resources of the big property development companies into own town planning agenda. This model can be applied across Urban Australia and works better with government assistance from new infrastructure. By comparison, the federal government’s Smart Cities Programme is too market driven. It will not bring the achievements made in Brisbane’s Outer West. There is hope for Inner Brisbane, Caboolture and Logan City if the Mayor Pisasale’s Vision from Ipswich gains momentum elsewhere.

  7. Jasper

    I like the time traveller theme in Denis’ article. In a historic suburb like Toowong, modernism in town planning should tune into historical precedents. Even conservative voters should relish in these suggestions. By there very nature, conservative traditions do not overlook the past in shaping the modernist future.

  8. Boris

    Traffic gridlock demands more investment in infrastructure like road tunnels for through traffic by cars and buses.  The busy Taringa Station is a disability black spot with no lifts or escalators which could connect to an overground urban precinct with housing and community facilities like a new bus link to the University of Queensland, a new Council library and fitness centre plus a range of commercial services.

  9. Ali

    We all know what huge issues overdevelopment, poorly planned development and insensitive development are for residents in Toowong and suburbs like it – my view is that the pressures that push forward badly planned projects and thoughtless developments would be somewhat alleviated by putting an end to negative gearing. Here’s hoping!

  10. Rubio@Coast

    Working people everywhere are paying for the property boom in higher rents and housing prices especially here in Sydney. I like these alternatives which do not wreck employment in construction by offering alternative approaches for our inner cities. Central Park is an outstanding project in Sydney but more affordable housing could have been added in the development even if the housing towers on the former brewery site were a little higher.

  11. Pat

    It seems like our inner suburbs like Toowong can have a better future through planning and government support for affordable housing.

  12. Rubio@Coast

    Agree so much Pat. Politics had got itself into a rut and most people don’t real out for this planning and government support.
    The changes needed are not at all radical as this article shows but even Labor leaders are afraid to act on our behalf.

  13. Maria H

    Perhaps the problem that we face is that our Councils that control development do not believe they have any responsibility for housing affordability.
    It seems that the Brisbane City Council keeps approving new apartment developments and accepting developer’s infrastructure contributions without addressing many of the issues that concern residents. In the western suburbs of Brisbane there is increasing housing density with little attempt to address transport and traffic headaches. Toowong and neighbouring St Lucia residents have had local meetings begging Council to protect the few recreational parks remaining. Pre-1911 houses that are heritage listed disappear from the character housing register.
    New student accommodation in the western suburbs is designed for the international market rather than self- supporting students. This forces many students to find accommodation in more affordable suburbs and struggle with daily transport.
    Brisbane City Council is decades behind neighbouring Ipswich City Council and Logan City Council as it does not allow owners to rent out a secondary dwelling on their property. More progressive councils are exploring alternatives like tiny house projects and rebuilding housing commission properties at higher densities financed by partial sale of land or housing stock in order to be cost neutral.

  14. Maria

    Denis, thank you for an interesting article on the topical and complex issue of housing affordability. This is a major issue for governments of today. Whilst, the tax system of negative gearing is great for investors, I don’t believe it suits the current market, investors don’t require further incentive. Australian infrastructure and investment is now well developed. Whilst it had a time and a place, it’s no longer equitable and the government needs to be more responsive to the issue of the day – evidence based declining overall ownership. Increasing the supply is another policy option.

  15. Maria

    Failure to support Medicare and the burgeoning healthcare costs and failing to get rid of negative gearing will ultimately, unravel the Australian egalitarian society of previous generations.

  16. Harry

    Let’s hope they take some of your sound advice Denis and start to move towards rejuvenating the area so that students aren’t forced into a life cycle of renting. The ALPs negative gearing policy should surely help that.

  17. Rubio@Coast

    Labor’s policy will definitely help Harry.

    Activists in the Labor Party need to push for more proactive policies to extend the affordable supply schedules for new inner city houses where Generations Y and Z prefer to live.

    A century ago the Workers’ Dwellings and that system worked well but now there is no new land left for subduivision in the inner suburbs.

    Now construction companies are prepared to work with progressive governments willing to improve investment in both housing and community development projects.

    Investment in such projects could come from the corporate sector through Queensland’s own Infrastructure Funds as suggested in this article.

    The Queensland Government’s QIC invests already heavily in both housing and shopping centre projects like the $900 million Castle Towers Project in our own city of Sydney (http://www.qic.com.au/investment-capabilities/global-real-estate/australian-retail-assets/castle-towers)

    All this investment flows into NSW comes from the QIC’s own corporate clients within Australia and overseas.

    The QIC operates independently of the Q Government. However, since Labor was elected in 2015, there are moves to diversify its international investment portfolios.

    There are a lot of QIC investments in US shopping centres and real estate projects through Forest City Enterprises. Interested readers should check the Annual Reports from QIC.

    QIC’s investment consultants have to evaluate the wisdom of maintaining these investments while the US share market is temporarily at a very high level.

    Will this last with President Trump in charge of the US Public Finances?

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