16 June 2021

Are landowners hogging too much space in Canberra?

| Zoya Patel
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Aerial view of Weston Creek

Is it time most homebuyers gave up the dream of the quarter-acre (or even more) block? Photo: Region Media.

Not that long ago, my partner and I were part of the teeming masses of young people trying to get into the housing market in Canberra.

Like many of our peers, we had grown up in this city in comfortable suburban houses on gloriously big blocks of land. We had enjoyed the luxury of both a front and backyard and the privacy of at least a few square metres of distance between our house and the fence line on either side.

Naturally, when thinking about the type of home we wanted to own, we had the vision in mind of a nice big Canberra block like the ones we grew up on. Of course, it took about 30 seconds of scrolling on property sites to realise that dream would be well out of our reach.

For a while, we still visited homes on 600-square-metre-plus blocks and wistfully wandered the backyards, toying with “if only”. But we eventually settled for the townhouse we now own, grateful to be able to own anything at all given the prices we were contending with.

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Now that we’ve settled in, I can see the benefits of living in multi-title developments, not just from a lifestyle perspective but from an accessibility standpoint.

By virtue of being situated on a smaller amount of land as part of a development, our house was far more affordable than the same size residence on a big block (and we didn’t have the added costs of renovations and repairs to the ageing properties in question). In fact, with the housing unaffordability crisis reaching new depths each week, it seems like the long-held dream of a detached home on a decent block is becoming less realistic and may, in fact, be exacerbating the lack of affordable housing supply.

Land is a finite resource, but when our population was lower, it was possible to see how Canberrans could retain the bush capital culture so many enjoyed and still be accessible for the majority to gain the security of homeownership.

But now this seems less realistic. With appropriate planning, densification provides more houses on a smaller amount of land but can have higher energy efficiency and a lower environmental impact.

I’ll confess that I have long been anti-development in Canberra, especially the obsession with building apartments on every scrap of land in the inner north where I live.

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Aesthetically and philosophically, I prefer lower density housing and more integration of nature with suburbs. Bigger blocks, single-storey buildings and less crowding would be ideal, but it isn’t realistic in the face of the inequity we see in the property market.

Having experienced the difficulty of buying a home, I can see how people in my generation and other new home-buyers are being pushed further and further out of the inner suburbs because the house-to-land ratio is too low. The further out, while most workplaces are still located around Civic and Barton, means the more you have to spend on transport, the more time you spend travelling between home and work, and the harder it is to access many of the amenities that are localised to major town centres.

We snuck into one of the last townhouse developments in our area. I’m grateful that we didn’t have to compromise on lifestyle/access to the amenities we enjoy to live in a reasonably sized home. We might not have a backyard or front yard, but we have a mountain behind us and a nature reserve across the road, and I’d rather see land used for communal parkways than fenced in around big blocks that are only enjoyed by the few that can afford to own them.

Apartments and townhouses may not fit with the vision of Canberra many of us hold dear, but is it time we faced facts and let the dream of the big block go in favour of a fairer use of land across the city?

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PlasticScene4:14 pm 04 Jul 21

It is a disgrace to allow the infill policy to encourage the urban densification of Canberra.

It is a disgrace that the city creates new subdivisions yet only releases tiny blocks of land.

It is a digrace that future generations will not be able to enjoy wholesome hobbies like gardening & growing food, keeping dogs or chickens, etc.

It is a disgrace how many homes are built where rooms (including children’s bedrooms) look out upon a neighbor’s wall or fence.

It is a disgrace how densification/infill is encouraged in our land policy in order to drive up prices, making housing unaffordable for people trying to enter the market. (I guess we can all look forward to watching a lot of tv and sitting in front of the computer.)

Interestingly, when I drive around, I see a lot of mult-unit development and I see a lot empty spaces! It’s perplexing.

And I do concur with others who’ve said that Kambah is an undiscovered gem where you get large lots for very reasonable prices.

Hogging land!!!???? we paid for our house and the rolling 99 year lease of the block.

And we pay rates.

Silly, too! No territory government would dare to do any such!

The haves and the have nots. 10% of ACT residents live in public housing. Seems like a cheap option and something to strive for. Why buy when the government can look after you?

George Watling10:49 pm 18 Jun 21

This story is not based on evidence or research. Higher density planning policies have been driving up property prices around the world for decades. Recent Australian research clearly demonstrates that density leads to higher house prices. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346713407_We_zoned_for_density_and_got_higher_house_prices_Supply_and_price_effects_of_upzoning_over_20_years

Keep the population low and there’s no issue. Worldwide the population is far too high. Australia is an island and we do not need to take in so many people. Stop high levels of immigration.

How do you suggest we do that?

By policy, aka china’s old one child only policy?

Compulsory sterilisation?

Euthanise people above a certain age?

Nah not easy is it?

Did you miss the bit where Jorie has said stopping high immigration as the means?

JC, The Australian birth rate is below replacement, so none of your fantasies would be necessary. Sorry to ruin your strange dreams.

Yep thats the problem look at europe

Living in the inner north is a desire not an entitlement. No different to another person’s desire to live on a big block. One isn’t more valid than the other.

HiddenDragon7:49 pm 17 Jun 21

In this, as in other things, the people who run this town seem to be unable to find the happy medium – it’s straight from one extreme to the other.

A proportion of people will, of course, want to keep “hogging” (such charmingly subtle language) their big blocks – and paying the ever-increasing rates which the ACT government charges for the privilege of doing so. Others might be perfectly happy to move if given more choice at a more reasonable price (and that includes the price of strata fees and levies) and with much more certainty about building standards. This government has been going to do something serious about building standards for much of its long and sorry life – we are still waiting.

More broadly, this is about the Australian genius for having so much land (and yes, we don’t have as much liveable land as the similarly-sized US, but we do have a lot) and still making it so insanely expensive.

ChrisinTurner7:20 pm 17 Jun 21

I know people living in the inner north on huge-sized blocks who have been told they cannot subdivide. Seems the rules are against more concentrated dwellings.

No, it just shows that you still need a mix of development types in most areas and that densification needs to be controlled and not just allowed to occur anywhere.

It is inexcusable that there isn’t more medium density development (such as duplexes, townhouses) on the huge blocks of the inner north and inner south.

If they own the land it’s no ones business except theirs.

Given that we are facing a global food shortage in the next 20 years I’lll continue growing food on my ‘huge’ block.

Capital Retro12:05 pm 17 Jun 21

If I sell my house on a large block to downsize I get no concessions on stamp duty (for the smaller place) or any other incentives to make the move. So I’ll stay and get a “stay at home care package” when the time comes.

Did you pay any stamp duty and did you get a first home buyer’s grant when you “snuck into your new townhouse”, Zoya?

Why would you get a concession to move? Concessions are usually used in cases where people would otherwise struggle to afford something, which is very rarely the case for inner city landholders who want to downsize.

Although as previously discussed, you are clearly a big supporter of the ACT government’s change away from stamp duty to land taxes. The removal of disincentives to move and the increased efficiencies in landuse achieved through the change are exactly what you’re after.

I agree those types of increased incentives and housing mobility options are a great feature of the new system, they should make the change faster so you don’t have to pay stamp duty at all.

Capital Retro8:11 pm 17 Jun 21

I have bought two residences and one commercial property in Canberra in the past 40 years. I assure you I struggled to raise the deposits, pay back the loans and PAY THE STAMP DUTIES AND LAND TAX but I got no concessions or subsidies.

According to you I am complaining about “missing out” yet my circumstances were the same as your imagined battlers. I also employed people and contributed to the local economy positively.

My reward is abuse and ridicule from people like you who have probably never risked a dollar of your own – you really don’t have a clue do you?

Capital Retro,
You’re funny because you have zero perspective about how relatively well off you are, with your claims. You aren’t a battler.

You talk about how you “struggled” to buy multiple properties but the reality is most people these days struggle to buy one if they even get that far. Housing costs are many times more expensive compared to incomes from what they were decades ago. Yet you complain and wonder why you don’t get concessions and benefits.

Unfortunately for you, I am nothing like you think. I recognise my position as fortunate, perhaps its time for you to do the same.

Capital, good for you but why should you get any subsidy/wealfare to move?

And oddly you are the kind of person who would actually benefit the most from the governments stamp duty policy. With that policy you could downsize, pay less to do so and then enjoy more cash in your pocket to enjoy the fruits of your hard work. Instead you would rather sit on wealth that’s can only be realised if you sell it.

Capital Retro,
It wasnt “withdrawn” it was always in place for a set period of time with a sunset clause.

As a policy, it is woeful middle/upper class welfare that should never have been enacted. As I’ve been saying, wealthy landholders should not be given concessions or benefits because they dont need them.

The change from stamp duty to land tax is far more equitable and efficient in achieving a better outcome. As above, they should get it done as fast as possible which will help you achieve your apparent wish to downsize.

Judy Elferkh9:22 am 17 Jun 21

While I agree with the sentiments and ideas behind this story, I also have to disagree to some extent. I am one of many self employed people who were deeply affected by Covid in terms of loss of business and income. At closure I had no idea if I’d be allowed jobkeeper and I had to wait 9 weeks to get any assistance financially and no funds at all for my business. I understood this.
Without my larger block to build a workspace on my only option would have been to close permanently. If I have to close again, which is quite likely in my business, I at least have no rental payments to keep up and only will need to work out personal expenses. My block was my saviour. There will be limited ability to work from home in the future if you require extra space to work from and you need to meet requirments and regulations for your business.

I do find it strange that whilst I agree with the general thrust of the article, is the author seriously saying that her preference when purchasing a home was for a larger block but instead they “settled” for a townhouse in the inner north due the price?

Must have been a very narrow search.

Not a single mention of kids. Or families. Or the need for space to play and relax in your own private secure away from the world backyard. That is the Aussie dream that is being replaced with the socialist ideal of worker ants packed into identical compacted bland apartments. With no backyards.

How is densification a Socialist ideal?

It would actually seem that the opposite is true in the urban sprawl utopia you’re talking about where people get to have large blocks with great services and amenity all funded by other people.

Just to cover off the people who haven’t been helped by the stamp duty switch (and Chewy, we know this is our main area of disagreement).

You have to recognise that what you say is not true for everyone in Canberra. NOT ALL people with large blocks have great services and amenities funded by other people. It might be true for me in Deakin and all the inner housing ring of lucky Canberrans.

But Zoya in her Inner North townhouse will have much better services, amenities, nearby entertainment, employment and education options AND BE paying less annual rates than Jo Bloggs on his large block in Richardson or Banks. Areas that Zoya could have afforded to buy that decent sized block she wanted. .

The outer suburb large blocks aren’t being slated for densification, don’t have good services and aren’t as expensive. I agree.

You actually highlight part of my point. The mythical urban sprawl that Acton talks about as the “Australian Dream”, only really works if you’re one of a tiny amount of people who managed to get a large inner city block decades ago on the cheap. Blocks that are now typically worth millions.

Not nearly as much of a “dream” if you are forced ever further from services and amenities to the fringes of the city all so wealthy inner city landholders can continue living in the manner they’ve been accostumed to. All whilst not paying very much tax for the benefit.

We roughly agree, except for the bit where the cheap outer suburban house isn’t paying much tax. Try $2,500 a year in rates on average for very little services and amenity.

That amount is heading for $5k a year in today’s dollars when the full Rates switch kicks in.

I’m still calling for a fairer rates calculation system, that factors in some offsets for the working poor in poorly funded and poorly serviced areas. Would you love to pay extra rates, when your local bus service goes, your school closed and the community hall got sold off to property developers. I certainly wouldn’t.

That might have been the Aussie dream circa 1950’s-1990’s and it may well be the dream of some but no where near as much as years gone by. Many, and I am one are happier with a smaller block and a more functional house compared to the 1200m2 block and 11sq house I grew up in with not enough room to move. Especially in the colder Canberra months where the yard was under-utilised. And even when we did utilise it we could have done with a lot less.

$2500 in rates is a block value of around $340000, you aren’t talking a cheap piece of property.

The rates are set based on the value of the land with progressive step ups as it gets more expensive. How could it be fairer when the market sets the price which reflects the true amenity afforded from the block.

No one has to own a property, we need to get away from the notion that owning some land is a necessity. It isnt.

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