The damaging ramifications of the apartment boom: Douglas Driscoll

The damaging ramifications of the apartment boom: Douglas Driscoll
The damaging ramifications of the apartment boom: Douglas Driscoll


Sydney buyers looking for a freestanding home are starting to be frozen out with the infiltration of apartments, and property experts are widely talking about unit prices dropping due to oversupply - but is this the only issue? This is just one problem but many others are being ignored. 

Exceptional market conditions in Sydney meant that apartments were significantly more affordable than houses for many buyers – last year especially – and as a result, many development applications were submitted for new apartment high rises. As a result, Sydney took over from Melbourne as the leading capital for apartment development and in July alone last year, the City of Sydney received more than 2,400 development applications, in what was quoted as a record high.

By 2018, the City of Sydney expects 8,000 new dwellings to be completed, while Green Square is expected to house more than 54,000 people by 2030[3]. Looking north of the bridge, St Leonards will have more than 500 new apartments by 2020.

“here’s an apartment boom but where is the foundation? If we look at supply and demand a year ago, apartments were in demand mainly because of the investor boom and many owner-occupiers were priced out of purchasing a family home. What I want to know is are we building the right course for the right horse?

Think about housing diversity five years ago and look at where we are heading by 2020, we’ll have a remarkable number of apartments by then. The size and scale of this issue is much bigger than we even realise and there’s a real lack of research around the implications on infrastructure, mental health and other future ramifications. 

This year, it’s been estimated that almost 45,000 apartments will be completed and settled in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with an additional 53,000 due for completion in 2017.

We are reverse engineering the supply and demand process and changing the behaviours of people as a result.

We are forcing buyers into considering apartments because the reality is that they have very little other option in a semi-affordable price range. We are starting to see some ill-effects from an oversupply of apartments such as rents falling for the first time in three years, as well as vacancy rates rising. A number of reports show that this is already happening but this is not the only issue. There are also huge socioeconomic issues that will arise from this boom.

A report on housing demand from NSW Planning and Environment predicted that Sydney will have an extra 1.6 million people by 2031, and more than 664,000 homes will be needed. It claims that the rise in single-person and couple-only households as well as an ageing population is driving the need for smaller dwellings. This report also revealed how the government would create housing diversity, which included studio flats (self-contained studio apartments that are established with a main house), smaller lot sizes (standard minimum lot size for high and low density areas), townhouses and terraces, and manor homes (four separately titled units within the same building). 

Although I acknowledge the findings in the report, I still believe that a lot of these apartments are being built to feed the investor boom as opposed to a spike in people looking for low maintenance properties. How are freestanding, detached homes not part of a housing diversity plan? We need to have more dialogue on this and think of more creative ways to build more townhouses or single house dwellings for a similar price as apartments – in a way that doesn’t skimp on build quality. Increasing population is a problem for everyone. Let’s not just build tower blocks at extortionate prices, let’s build dwellings that Australians are happy to come home to.

Five solutions for housing diversity that meets demand:

1. Increase ‘stepping stone’ homes. Currently, there is a very small pool of stepping stone properties available for buyers. I don’t understand how we expect people to go straight from a unit into a four-bedroom home if things continue on the same trajectory. Town planners really need to focus on building a bridge for buyers from their first property to their second property because the type of supply is not readily there. Terrace houses take up a lot of space and that’s why they’re not being built as much – but they’re a good example of a stepping stone property.

Likewise, if you look at people downsizing, which many baby boomers are in the midst of doing or considering, they might want something in between their four-to-five-bedroom family home and an apartment. Generally, at the end of the day, younger people live in tower blocks. After the kids have flown the nest, downsizers are usually only open to moving into a 16th floor shoebox with shared walls when it also comes with something as spectacular as harbour views.

Sydney’s Leppington is planning to introduce a contemporary equivalent to the Paddington and Surry Hills terrace-style houses as part of its redevelopment masterplan and I think this is a great example of forward thinking. Sure, the suburb is very much a blank canvas so they have the luxury of planning really thoughtfully and building for the future, but there’s no reason why other suburbs can’t plan for the future – they just have to be more creative about it.

2. An in-depth, socioeconomic study. 

A number of studies have been carried out to determine the happiness of people living in high rise apartment blocks, with one study in the UK revealing some alarming results, including that apartment living can increase your susceptibility to stress and your risk of developing mental health issues, and could even cause a relationship break-up. Furthermore, the study revealed that there are serious concerns for children brought up in apartments; children can suffer from hyperactivity, hostility and juvenile delinquency as a result. Not enough socioeconomic studies have gone into this on a local level and it’s absolutely something we need to explore.

Size is one thing but we also need to consider the emotional impact of living high up in the air. I understand the economics of the situation but I don’t think enough research goes into it. Yes, there’s demand but I think we should start building dwellings that people want to live in – not just because it’s the only option, price-wise. We have a responsibility for future generations to preserve the integrity and ambience of certain areas, and need to take a step back and look logically at this because the mental wellbeing of our community is also very important.

3. More emphasis on planning for the future of our city. 

You can’t just rezone an area for fun. While it’s true that people work longer hours, are information rich and have fewer children, that can’t be translated directly into them wanting smaller dwellings. Residents of family-centric areas are getting together to oppose the rezoning of their suburbs, and we saw just one example of this in the inner-west suburb of Hurlstone Park earlier this year. 

You have to ask why units are being built in family-belt areas to create more diversity from a demographic point of view. People often move to these suburbs for a more peaceful or quieter life, so why are some councils now trying to entice youth into the area? Most young people want to live in a vibrant suburb with all the trimmings, which makes living away from inner-city areas less appealing to them. I think the Federal Government is putting pressure on the NSW State Government to meet various quotas which trickles down to the councils and that’s how we arrived here – building for today but not for tomorrow. 

4. Assess implications on surrounding infrastructure. 

I applaud the government for getting the big ticket items right such as public transport and widening of motorways, but they need to work further on local transport and roads, as well as schools, shops and other infrastructure essential for these new high-density communities. What new apartment developments are going to do is put a lot of stress on small intersections and I’m not sure if we are looking at the full impact on society. Are we still surveying roads and measuring traffic flow like we used to in soon-to-be affected intersections every morning and afternoon? If we’re not, we certainly should be. 

5. Incorporating vertical forests into more developments. 

My concern with apartments is how the lack of greenery negatively impacts residents’ wellbeing. It’s been scientifically proven that green is a calming colour and nature is a calming influence and I think it’s crucial for apartment blocks. Large-scale, inner-city urban renewal projects are really thinking creatively about how they can incorporate plant life. Central Park in Chippendale is a great example, with vertical gardens and surrounding parkland, and developments at Green Square as well as Barangaroo are also focused on incorporating greenery. The developers aren’t doing it just because it looks good, they’re doing it because it’s essential to keeping residents happy.

DOUGLAS DRISCOLL is CEO of real estate agency Starr Partners.

Residential Development Apartment Boom

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