28/10/2013 - 05:06

‘Living the dream’ just an illusion

28/10/2013 - 05:06


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The social costs of Perth’s sprawling new suburbs is there for all to see, but little is being done to address the problems.

Along with Australia's most expensive coffee, Perth now boasts the country's most expensive residential land.

Here in the west we're really going places, mainly deeper into hock, but apparently that's the price we have to pay for being the nation's economic engine room.

The regular reports on Perth's property market are routinely accompanied by a shot of some happy young couple that has finally secured a little piece of paradise somewhere on the outer boundary of suburbia.

It's the great Australian dream, right?

At least that's what the property developers have been selling it as for decades; but let's take a closer look at this 'dream'.

Our deep devotion to home ownership is pushing the margins of suburbia further and further into our state's scrublands.

Apart from the environmental impact of this seemingly unstoppable march, there are the more subtle social consequences of creating communities without a strong spine of services and amenities. It's a grim picture of social isolation.

Young families marooned on the edge of suburbia in houses that are poorly designed for our searing summers.

In addition to high energy bills, these financially vulnerable households have no choice but to run two cars because the public transport services are scant and a trip to the local shopping centre is a 'convenient five minute car trip' away, or so the estate agent's brochure said.

It amazes me that, despite its central role, the role of urban sprawl is so rarely mentioned in all the discussion about Perth's increasingly congested roads.

You cannot live in these outpost communities without a car because there aren't any other options.

And the reality is, many of these new suburbs will never be properly serviced by public transport – let alone any of the other government services.

The city is and will remain the epicentre of state government and federal government investment; so why do we persist with building further and further in to the wilderness?

It's a difficult question to address, so developers are doing pretty much the same thing they have been doing for years – clear the land, divide it up and sell it.

So maybe we need to re-imagine the dream.

There are plenty of good economic reasons for governments to encourage home ownership but building a four by two in a new suburb when you're in your 20s seems flawed to me.

We need to educate would-be first homebuyers that less is sometimes more.

A smaller, strata titled property in closer proximity to the city is a better investment, both financially and socially.

As the rental market settles down the option of renting a property and investing in something with good capital growth prospects comes back into view.

It may come as a shock to us here in Australia, but the inhabitants of many of the world's great cities don't share our 'dream' of home ownership.

Australia still has some of the shortest leasing contracts in the world, and in many cases renters are treated like second-class citizens.

This is not the case in many densely populated European cities, where signing up to a long-term lease in seen as a perfectly respectable choice.

A mortgage – as the sub-prime lending crisis in the US so graphically illustrated – does not equal lifelong financial security.

The fallout when young people can't cope with mortgage repayments is surely more damaging than delaying entry into home ownership.

The solution is more higher density and affordable housing in Perth's established suburbs.

The state government is wholeheartedly in support of this policy, but making it happen is hard work and brings it into conflict with residents and powerful local councils.

To this end, the government has embarked on a campaign to radically reduce the number of local councils.

It's early days but the hornet's nest this has stirred up already may prove too great a political risk for the government.

There are also real cost issues that are beyond the reach of state or federal governments, such as the cost of building in Perth.

No-one seems to know why but it's always been more expensive to build in Western Australia.

Some pundits blame the cost of freighting materials to WA, while others point to opportunistic pricing.

Whatever the reason, it would be interesting to see a real dissection of these costs as well as greater focus from the architecture profession on designing truly affordable homes.


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