The face of housing in Perth is changing in response to problems of housing supply, rent spikes and a crumbling sense of community. The traditional model of a modest house on a large block is being scrapped by subdivision and replaced with du-and tri-plex configurations, while new suburbs are built with huge houses crammed onto smaller (but by no means small) lots. Despite this token increase in housing density, ultimately the housing form maintains the status quo - semi-detached dwellings "protected from the machinations of the world". Whether you inhabit a traditional inner city home with a sprawling garden; a tile-and-render duplex in a re-zoned area; or a McMansion in the new urban fringes, you are essentially living in the same housing stamp, regardless of the colour of ink used. Note that the face of housing is changing, but housing itself is changing little. This new mask is also only changing the problem, not solving it.
The provision of apartment and townhouse style living does exist. Yet Perth's slummy villas and ugly flats are often seen to disrupt the otherwise 'nice' suburban landscapes. Meanwhile, the desirability and modernity of new high-density developments has also increased the price along with the provision, pushing those that would benefit most from such living arrangements out of the market. By those that would benefit most, I refer to people who are more interested in participating in the public realm than secluding themselves in a spacious home. In Perth, that public realm is centred around the CBD, Fremantle and surrounding areas - hubs of bars, clubs, restaurants and cultural hotspots. Retirees too are looking for smaller domiciles close to services and entertainment. The socio-economically disadvantaged have a need to live in these areas also, as they do not have the luxury of private vehicular transport. These high-demand precincts are increasingly becoming the least affordable.
The housing boom which has marked Perth's recent history is a bubble that has to burst. Space and resources are finite, particularly the fossil fuel resources upon which suburbia relies. There is here a disparity of housing supply and demand. While the argument can be made that demand will dictate supply, the fact that many people struggle to meet rental payments while many more are pushed into the ever-growing peripheral suburbs indicates that something else is at work. Most of the new and redeveloped suburban areas are gifted with large setbacks and private open space, straight from the 'Australian Dream Housing Catalogue 2013'. And yet these gardens are neglected and overgrown, the 'low-maintenance' paving unsightly and unused. These residents do not value the quarter acre dream. And so why do they live in them? Because "current metropolitan strategies do not come to terms with the dispersed, suburbanised nature of much economic activity and employment, and the environmental and social issues that flow from that, and they are unconvincing in their approaches to the emerging issues of housing affordability and new, finer-grained patterns of suburban inequality and disadvantage". The supply-demand disparity widens. Despite the influx of new ideas and people to Perth, the status quo seems to stay preserved. The melting pot is doing just that: melting down a diversity of ideas and resources into one mass, to be forever poured into the same mould.
Why can't a student find a 60 m2 apartment in an unused commercial building, fitted with a toilet, shower and kitchenette? They will be eating out, entertaining friends at bars or cinemas, exercising at recreation centres and relaxing at cafes. They have no need for a modern 2 bedroom 2 bathroom aparment with excessive requirements to secure tenancy.
Why can't single parents or small families share the rent and maintenance of the typical semi-detached home? Instead of struggling to juggle children, finances and chores while letting large tracts of extensive properties lie unused. Who knows, we might even see an increased sense of community and a deeper social fabric. Cloudstreet springs to mind.
Why can't quality grouped dwellings exist without the sigma? Just because the current outdated stock is sourced from sand-coloured quarries and landscaped with dirt and dying grass, this doesn't mean that they aren't a viable option. Imagine groups of friends or extended families living together in arrangements where they have their own spaces, yet can meet and interact when needed and utilise shared common areas.
The answer to these questions often falls to either poor return-on-investment or a 'lack of demand'. And yet these systems work in other cities. Mid-rise urbanism has created a balance of density and scale, offering housing, transport, work and play within self-contained centres (see below). The value of apartment living has been proven, from the large and spacious to the small and functional. Self-built communities are appearing globally, bringing people together while reducing costs and instilling a sense of place and pride. The densest places are experimenting with micro apartments, as people seek to make best use of limited space while interacting with the world beyond their doors. The philosophy of 'build it, and they will come' is obsolete. It is time for us to either ask for it to be built, or build it ourselves.
Perth's existing housing supply is a product of multiple interrelated factors: provision by developers, State and Local regulations, the expectations of the public, and the tradition of home ownership within the Australian Dream. As Perth's population and living costs boom, the semi-detached suburban dream is going to descend into a nightmarish situation of two-hour commutes, bankrupting fuel and rental prices, and increasingly unhealthy and disconnected communities. Disease abhors diversity, yet Perth seems to abhor diversity too. This does not bode well for Perth's urban ecosystem. The homogeny needs to be mixed up, because we're burning in the melting pot...
Feature image: 'The Australian Dream' - Bernhardine Meuller