OPINION: Building towards the housing future we want

Image of Professor Emma Baker with a quote from her opinion piece

By Emma Baker | Professor of Housing Research, The University of Adelaide | Director of Ideas for Australian Cities, Stretton Institute |

Our national conversation about housing is a long way from the lofty dreams and aspirations of post-war Australia.

That was a time guided by a belief that housing is a “foundation of civilized society …[and that we should] not rest until we find that this greatest human need has been satisfied”[1], and “no Australian should feel that a comfortable and well-built home in pleasant surroundings is beyond his dreams”[2].

Over time, we seem to have drifted away from a shared dream where housing was a means to provide a meaningful, productive life to all Australians.

We are a nation now mostly caught up in the ‘busy-work’ of the housing system – in interest rates, buying, selling, capital gains and wealth. Housing researchers, governments, the media, and ordinary Australians have all been equally distracted by this ‘busy-work’.

We’ve all closely followed the rapid house price increases during COVID-19, the popular press have given us numerous stories of rental unaffordability, we have all speculated on when interest rates will rise, and the government has pondered first home ownership. All of these are important of course, but to what end?

What kind of housing system would we like to leave for the next generation? What aspirations do we share, and what should we prioritise for the future?

Here are some thoughts…

What if we aspired to provide affordable, but also well-built homes to all Australians? This is a real challenge that we currently don’t achieve.

Australian housing is not as well-built as you would think. Over recent decades, our building codes have burdened many households with dwellings that are expensive to heat, poorly constructed, and, following the recent World Health Organisation’s Healthy Housing Guidelines, considered ‘unhealthy’.

Further, up to two million Australians currently live in housing that is unaffordable[3] – where the cost of mortgage or rent is so high that they are unable to afford other life essentials, such as healthy food.

There is also no good reason to unthinkingly replicate post-war housing into the future. We have certainly moved on from sprawling suburbs of quarter acre blocks and detached bungalows. We were previously unrestrained by considerations of sustainability and liveability in a climate adjusted future, but scientific advances provide us with new solutions. What if we aspired to build a better housing stock, that leverages our expertise in new technology, materials, and construction methods?

It might surprise you, but Australia has moved on from outright home ownership as the dominant national tenure. There are now almost certainly more renters than outright owners. This is a significant shift. It means that renting needs a place in our national housing aspirations. In an ideal world, the experience of renting should be much more similar to the experience of home ownership.      

Finally, Australia needs a plan. An ongoing plan that allows us to align what we do, and build towards the housing future we want.  This would mean that the outcomes we achieve would be planned and intended, rather than accidental.

Over recent months I have pondered these questions with some of Australia’s most well known and respected housing experts[4]. We believe there is much common ground in Australia from which to build shared aspirations for our housing system.

Let’s think about it, talk about it, and let the dream be lofty!  

About Emma Baker

Emma Baker is Professor of Housing Research at the University of Adelaide, and Director of the Australian Centre for Housing Research.

Her work examines the health and human impacts of housing and location, producing academic, as well as policy-relevant research.

A particular focus across her work is the generation of robust evidence utilising longitudinal, spatial and administrative big data. She is currently leading a national project to develop a publicly accessible housing conditions infrastructure.

[1] Speech by Prime Minister Menzies, 20th March, 1957

[2] Speech by Prime Minister Whitlam, 14th September 1973

[3] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.10.001

[4] The Mayfair Group (Professor Emma Baker, Professor Andrew Beer, Professor Robyn Dowling, Professor Nicole Gurran, Professor Chris Leishman, Professor Rebecca Bentley, Professor Rachel ViforJ, Assoc Prof Joseph Liu, Assoc Prof Taha Hossein Rashidi, Assoc Prof Dallas Rogers, Dr Lyrian Daniel).