16 September 2023

Letter from the Editor: saving our suburbs means accepting smaller houses

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Can apartment buildings, dual occupancy and single dwellings coexist happily in our suburbs? Photo: Living Streets Canberra Facebook.

The long-awaited Territory Plan has been released, creating the framework for adding at least 100,000 homes to the national capital, already one of the fastest growing cities in Australia.

One of the key reforms is allowing dual occupancy on RZ1 zoned blocks, along with changes to apartment dwellings, designated the “missing middle”.

Some think the plan doesn’t go far enough. Others have, more predictably, decried the inevitable arrival of “greedy developers” who will despoil our suburbs and destroy our way of life.

It does sometimes seem that every second person in Canberra is opposed to apartment buildings and dedicated to preserving the character of older suburbs, developed when the main priority was a big backyard for fruit trees, veggies and kids playing cricket.

Of course, there’s been a fair bit of luck involved in owning properties in those suburbs. Well-remunerated career public servants with large superannuation packages are, thanks to our booming real estate market, sitting on a fortune no matter what they do with their large blocks.

So re-zoning RZ1 for dial occupancy was always the low-hanging fruit for increasing density: there’s room, the land is available, it adds value and is attractive to buyers.

The government have grasped their chance, albeit with a proviso.

READ ALSO Claims the interim Territory Plan will send housing density backwards refuted by government

Under the new plan, dual occupancy is only for blocks of more than 800 square metres, and the dwelling can be no more than 120 metres in size – roughly the equivalent of a standalone townhouse. Apartment buildings will also be permitted in RZ2 areas, but can’t exceed two storeys in height.

So we’re not talking about the advance of giant residential towers across the Inner North and Inner South. In fact, given existing house placements, it’s reasonably likely you won’t even see the extra dwellings, tucked along driveways at the back of existing houses and meeting requirements for soft landscaping.

And of course, none of this is compulsory: if you don’t want to subdivide your block, you don’t have to. You don’t have to sell to people who intend to subdivide. You could subdivide yourself if you want to ensure it’s done well.

What we do have to fix is the housing crisis. The very people who purchased those small houses on big blocks back in 1972 would not be able to afford a house in Canberra today. We are squeezing out young families, single people, retirees and everyone not fortunate enough to have a substantial double income.

READ ALSO Long-awaited Belconnen Transitway given three year deadline to become reality

This is a city that values equity and we need to recognise the genuine injustice of forcing poorer people further and further from the centre of the city.

If we value home ownership – and most Australians do, despite pleas for us to become more frequent renters – then we have to give young owners and their families some chance at getting their foot in the door.

If we can let go of the obsession with huge houses on small blocks and focus instead on well-designed smaller dwellings, those families might have a fighting chance.

We need them across the whole city. Just as we distribute public housing in the much-valued salt and pepper model, evenly distributed demographics also make a community bustle. Canberra has mostly avoided social enclaves, and that’s a good thing.

I’m an Inner North resident during the working week. One of the things I love about my neighbourhood is that within four blocks there are apartments, houses big and small, public housing and a distribution of residents that ranges from newly arrived refugees to some of the nation’s most senior politicians before we reach the reserve at the end of the street (which is mostly home to kangaroos).

I’m less thrilled by the demolition of old houses and the construction of very large houses that cover most of the block with blank walls, dominated by soulless driveways, repetitive garden installations and enormous garages. They’re expensive, often ugly and also alien to the character of the neighbourhood.

The bush capital is a beautiful place: pretty much every one of us lives within 10 minutes of native bush or a horse paddock, something incomprehensible to most urban dwellers around the world. Our ridge lines are protected by longstanding planning decisions, there are trees and reserves everywhere.

Well-designed small dwellings at the end of driveways won’t be the end of the world. They might even make your suburbs better places to live.

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The Greens will have to give up their homes in Forrest and Yarralumla

devils_advocate12:48 pm 19 Sep 23

The lease variation charge is a fixed dollar amount per unit – apparently now $55k – whether the unit is a 2nd townhouse in greenway or a 5brm townhome in Forrest.

What incentives do you think a punitively large LVC has for developers? How do you think they’re going to recover that cost? Through affordable small townhouses?


“Well-designed small dwellings at the end of driveways won’t be the end of the world. They might even make your suburbs better places to live.”

How? By cramming in far more residences and residents than the suburbs and infrastructure were designed for? This is what you consider an improvement?

You are against large houses and all for cramming people into tiny shoeboxes. If you want to live this way, great for you but the VAST majority of people don’t, which is why these properties are far more expensive than the small ones.

Everyone starts out in a smaller house, living further out from the amenities and if they choose to work their way up to a better house in a better location then that is their choice but their parents never had their multiple time a week takeaway, yearly iphone updates and overseas holidays, the next generation have come to expect.

This is exactly the opinion I would expect of someone who uses the term equity rather than equality.

Bob, 120 sq m is far from a “shoebox”. My first house was under 90 sq m, and three of us lived comfortably in it. I bought it from a family of five. Perhaps too small for a family of five, but not for three people, esp. for a first home. The average household number in Canberra is 2.3 people. Many houses have one or two person living in them.

devils_advocate1:44 pm 19 Sep 23

“their parents never had their multiple time a week takeaway, yearly iphone updates and overseas holidays, the next generation have come to expect.”

What is the point of economic progress and real income growth if your only wish is for subsequent generations to suffer as you did?

I personally want my children to do better than me in life, including their enjoyment of it.

William Teach5:44 pm 24 Sep 23

“Everyone starts out… living further out from the amenities” but constant growth means that your outer-suburban starter home in the a—e end of nowhere is now in the middling suburbs, and today’s young people are forced even further out to worse locations.

“overseas holidays”: compare the price of a week in Bali or Vietnam to the Australian holiday destinations of times past – because they aren’t paying Australian wages or land prices, those overseas holidays are often cheaper.

“multiple time a week takeaway”: todays young adults spend less of their income on dining out, alcohol, tobacco, entertainment, etc. (even pre-Covid) than people the same age did in the 1970s.

If you want to live in anything other than a cubicle then expect to be taxed to pay for the pleasure.
Its not like we don’t have the land around the older suburbs. However its easier to raise taxes quickly when you get charged twice for your land. Rates isn’t halved when you decrease your land size, as everyone else is in the same boat they’ll just charge the same for each property. Effectively doubled. It also hides the double your rates, as now its doubled but you get two bills.

Goodluck trying any infrastructure upgraded. Promised upgrades are always 10 years away in some parts of Canberra. If you live in a favoured area, it gets done at the drop of a hat.

I live in what I call the edge of the inner city. This area would be ideal for adding extra houses, so others could enjoy the area too. Walking distances to supermarkets, cafes and other facilities, and a bus every 15 minutes. However, there are not many blocks of 800 sq m. Mine is 650 sq m, and this is fairly typical in this area. There are a few exceptions, but not many. I think it’s great to add more housing, and I wouldn’t have minded living in a town house with a smaller block, but I built an energy efficient solar house, and townhouses don’t come this way. Also with enough room for a good sized (sunny) vegetable garden and two or three fruit trees. I don’t need the whole 650 sq m block to fit that. The rest is just work I don’t want. Of course if I had built a monstrous McMansion (I didn’t) I wouldn’t have unnecessary garden space to have to maintain. However, no building should be allowed to shadow their neighbours. Keep them to one storey (unless there are no neighbours to overshadow). One of my neighbours was allowed to build a two storey second house almost on the fence line and it shades part of my house in winter. They likely got away with that by calling it a mezzanine. I asked for a shadow diagram, buy my request was rejected. When my house was built, part of it had to have the single storey roof line lowered (reasonable), so as not to shadow my neighbour, but the same consideration was never extended to me.
Yes, add more dwellings but work in with neighbouring houses, so as not to shade them.

Some really good points Maya. The map I saw in the Canberra Times showed a lot of inner areas of the city were blocked from increased density and the majority of eligible RZ1 blocks sat on the outer fringes of suburbs with poor access to adequate public transport, services and amenities.
Surely there was an opportunity for smarter density?
For example, blocks over 1500m could have a secondary dwelling bigger than 120sqm, blocks close to public transport, schools and employment between 500-800sqm could allow for a very small second house, etc etc.
The current proposal is a one size fits all, without taking infrastructure and geography into account. That’s dumb urban design not smart urban planning.

bj_ACT. “blocks over 1500m”
It would be better for blocks that size to be allowed to build more than one extra 120 sqm house, or townhouses, than another McMansion. There are more than enough monster houses already taking up too much land.

Actually that’s an even better idea.

Why don’t you bugger off and leave my suburb alone , I don’t want more house s and cars parked out on the street

Gee davo1 calm down!

Ms Jacobs says “ I’m an Inner North resident” and I agree that’s the perfect location for much higher density with all that access to great public transport, great public schools, nearby jobs, walk around the corner to great restaurants, bars and so many amenities, entertainment options and services.

The problem is that so much of the large RZ1 blocks that the government has just announced for secondary houses sit around the outskirts of Tuggeranong and West Belconnen with poor access to all those amenities that inner north residents take for granted.

What’s the chance of the government providing public transport, community services and jobs in these dual occupancy blocks in the outer burbs?
Unfortunately like many other cities around the world, property developers will build crappy houses, on the cheapest available land, at the edges of cities and walk away with a tidy profit without having to worry about providing adequate infrastructure, policing, education and community services.
I lived for 12 months in a medium sized English city that did this type of development change and it was a horrible part of the city to live, full of the working poor and migrants who caught one to two hour buses into the city and back each day.

HiddenDragon7:35 pm 16 Sep 23

Some of the commentary from people who are (very) unhappy about the 120 square metre limit on dual occupancy developments have pointed out that the alternative of a knock-down rebuild, with no need to go through the development application process and no requirement to pay hefty lease variation charges, will remain for people who decide that the new planning rules are more trouble than they are worth.

If the government really wants to “unlock” Canberra’s suburbs for “gentle urbanism”, it should look at further tweaks to the planning rules which preference, or at least put on an equal footing, dual occupancy (whether original dwelling plus new dwelling, or two new dwellings on the block) over knock-down rebuilds which involve one substantially larger new dwelling.

Aside from furthering the objective of densification, this could also alleviate some of the broader concerns about the pressures on RZ1 suburbia by reducing the risks of privacy and/or solar access being destroyed by a McMansion going up on a neighbouring block.

The real issue in all of this is trust. The ACT government has a long and disgraceful record of, when it suits, doing whatever it likes with planning decisions regardless of official policies and guidelines. Dealing with the resultant massive trust deficit will be a mountainous obstacle to these new policies even if, this time, the intentions are worthy.

We should also be realistic about prices. None of what is proposed under these new rules will do much, if anything, to arrest or even slow the relentless rise in the insane price of putting a roof over one’s head in this town – much bigger forces are at play on that score.

you lost me with line about well remunerated public servants with large superannuation packages sitting on a fortune. why make such sweeping statements when this is unlikely to be true in all cases?

There are so many people who cannot afford the rates, because they are not well-remunerated public servants with masses of super. For those who downsized to an apartment to save on rates, they’ve been shocked with massive increases in their rates that they must pay, on top of the cost of their body corporate fees.

How is this government going to help them? No, they’d rather they left. Rates on a unit in Canberra are higher than a house in Sydney and then there’s those constantly rising body corporate fees. What is the less well paid or the elderly person expected to do?

Sell up, move on and re-start their lives elsewhere, away from family and familiar environments when this is not easy for anyone, let alone those who are older and have less funds, with no chance of increasing their income in future.

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