Friday, 2 March 2018

We need more inclusionary zoning, not less

I don’t often write about politics these days. Twitter has become so much more highly polarised and people have such short fuses, blocking you for nothing but asking a question that is construed as violent disagreement. But this story on the Sydney Morning Herald website yesterday really annoyed me.

The story seems to take the side of the local mayor in the Northern Beaches against the Coalition state government’s Department of Planning and Environment. The mayor, along with a bunch of NIMBY snobs who are more concerned about their property prices than about the welfare of people in the broader community, doesn’t want to allow development of affordable housing despite a state government planning policy that says the council has to do so.

The state government has an entrenched interest in ensuring that affordable housing is made available. Police, paramedics, teachers, nurses, cleaners: there is a wide range of occupations where people on normal wages struggle to live close to where they work because of high rents and property prices. Or even far away from it in the property market or the private rental market. The planning minister is aware of the problem and has even spoken publicly about it. Last year he helped launch a new peak body of developers, the Housing Supply Association, who are interested in being involved in such projects. I wrote about the launch in November.

In a global context, what the state government calls “affordable housing” is referred to as inclusionary zoning. It means that instead of excluding people from communities – by putting up automated gates and hiring security guards, for example – you write regulations that give a broader cross-section of the community access to them. The state environmental planning policy (SEPP) that the SMH story talks about is an inclusionary zoning instrument.

Keeping people firmly within the social fabric who may have problems paying the high rents that properties routinely command in the private rental market is good for everyone.

This type of what’s called “scatter-site” housing is used to embed the disadvantaged within more financially functional communities because when they live there they tend to have a higher sense of self esteem, and they tend to fare better generally. It’s also where they want to live, and this is an important predictor of success in other aspects of their lives. Quarantining the disadvantaged in homogeneous communities where everyone has problems with money, drug use, or mental health issues is bad for them and it’s bad for society in general because it is more expensive to provide services for such people in such circumstances.

There have been exceptions to this rule, of course, such as the Sirius building in The Rocks, which is a block of flats constructed exclusively to be social housing by the Wran Labor government in the 1970s. It never had problems like vandalism and graffiti that beset some developments although mainly people living on welfare were housed there.

And even dedicated social housing, where a building has been constructed specifically to provide affordable housing for the homeless,, will usually also have residents, such as those whose regular wages just keep them out of poverty, and students, who need affordable housing. This is the case with the Common Ground developments that have been built in most of Australia’s capital cities over the past 15 years or so. Such projects are operated by social housing providers and collect rent from occupants but they also provide support services on a needs basis, because some people might have trouble just paying the rent on a regular cycle, for example.

The thing is that inclusionary zoning is good for society as a whole. Over the past nine months or so I have been talking with people who work with the homeless for a series of blogposts, and I have found that things are becoming worse for the financially-constrained in our cities. High rents combined with such things as low social security payments push people into homelessness and then they become even more of a drain on the public purse because of the costs involved in looking after them once they arrive on the streets or on friends’ couches.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) number of homeless deriving from the 2011 census was 105,000. I have been told the number deriving from the 2016 census will be higher but the final figure from the ABS won’t be released until later this month. The ABS uses five different categories to count homeless, which are: sleeping rough, in emergency accommodation, living in accommodation for the homeless, living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing, and living temporarily with family or friends due to lack of housing.

Homelessness and affordable housing are things that as a society we can work together to solve, but the approach taken by the SMH today in their story about the Northern Beaches Council is counterproductive. And in that case it’s not even the homeless who would be offered affordable housing in the development, but rather simply people living on restricted wages! We need more inclusionary zoning, not less, in order to offset the evils deriving from high housing costs in our cities.

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