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.
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:
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.