Communities ‘up in arms’ about construction of social and affordable housing in their suburbs makes for ripe media fodder. A recent SBS article ‘Why residents of wealthy suburbs are fighting moves to create affordable homes (23.4.23) is just one example. The article stated that developers looking to densify affluent areas like the Northern Beaches, Eastern Suburbs and Inner West appear to be facing a wall of “not in my backyard” (otherwise known as NIMBY) opposition to housing projects serving people on low incomes.
This was backed by the Australian Council of Social Services Chief Executive Officer Cassandra Goldie, who contributed the comment that “Australia definitely has a history of major stigma associated with the construction of low-income housing.”
Yes, media coverage of negative community sentiment is prevalent. But there’s far more to the story:
- The NIMBY phenomenon applies to any project, social or not, that is higher density than typical in a particular area. The fact is that residents in established areas are demonstrably resistant to change – particularly to increases in local density, as opposed to airing prejudice against low-income households.
- As a developer of social housing across regional, peri-urban and urban council areas of Victoria, we know well the obstacles to gaining planning approval for new developments. However, whilst we have encountered planning objections and made design concessions to local authorities – as do most residential developers – not one of our developments has been scrapped specifically due to local opposition to social housing.
- There is also traction for the YIMBY movement (Yes, in my back yard), championed by progressive people recognising the housing crisis is one of the biggest problems we face in society and requires pragmatic action to overcome it. The Age recently covered this in ‘Look out Melbourne NIMBYs, the YIMBYs are here (15.04.23).
Unfortunately, this angle is not covered more broadly, particularly given the media is now focused on Australia’s ‘housing crisis’ and for good reason. Our housing industry and the planning environment that regulates it is unable to provide sufficient housing to meet the diverse needs of our growing population. In Victoria, the Government projects the need for an additional 1.6 million dwellings over the next 30 years – requiring an average of 53,000 dwellings per year. At its historical best, the housing industry has only managed to commence 46,000 dwellings per year. With over 30,000 homeless in the state currently, this number is certain to rise.
Our cities have a long-established political problem of catering for growth. Without dramatic intervention, this will only be exacerbated. All the experts are telling us that expansion of our growth areas is an expensive and unsustainable way to meet the needs of our population growth. Therefore, we need a public conversation about NIMBY opposition to increased density to be brought out into the open so that new planning laws and practices can emerge. Specifically, we believe that the state government has to shift the focus from battles around individual lots to broad area planning reform.
Whilst the population within the inner ring around Melbourne CBD has grown dramatically in recent times, a report released last year by the public policy think-tank The Grattan Institute found the problem of NIMBYism in suburbs between five and 20 kilometres from the city centre, has resulted in “almost no change” in population density in the past 30 years. Save our Suburbs – the powerful Nimby pressure group – has been successful in blocking new development in the suburbs in Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, in Sydney.
Articles like the SBS one can be read as a dog whistle to opponents of social and affordable housing, normalising this minority prejudice. Any strata titled multi-residential development will obviously attract a variety of residents across the income spectrum and with uncertain habits. We believe that Australians understand that they can’t be in control of their neighbour’s lifestyles. Wealth is no predictor of good behaviour.
Yes, the planning system and works in a highly politicised environment and considers many factors relating to design and use, but specific prejudice against low-income households is not one of them.
So, let’s be real about the stories of NIMBYism and the narrow and unsustainable view of a loud minority they represent. Instead let’s amplify the voices of people wanting to make positive change for communities.
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