If the Market and the State Cannot Provide Affordable, Sustainable Housing in Australia, Perhaps ‘Housing for Degrowth’ Can.

Having access to adequate housing is a human need and human right. Everyone deserves to have a home. In Australia, residential buildings are provided either by the market as private housing or by the state as social housing. Yet, modest income households are falling into a gap between them. Furthermore, housing stock does not meet sustainability standards. 'Housing for degrowth' offers a way of thinking (with tried and tested examples) to address both of these challenges. Regulators and the built environment professions must get in on the act to enable housing for degrowth at scale.

Australia has an insufficient stock of diverse types of housing. This is a burgeoning issue, not simply because Australia’s population is projected to grow from 26 million in 2023 to more than 37 million by 2050, but also because income inequality is rising and some of the population increase is due to net inward migration. This makes housing demand more complex than simply needing more houses for more people.

More than 5.5 million houses are projected to be built between 2023 and 2050 and new housing supply is currently increasing at a faster rate than population growth, yet the housing market is not meeting socioeconomic needs. The 20th century filtering process, whereby an upwardly mobile household vacates a property to move to a higher value property producing a chain effect that enables first time buyers and renters to enter the market, no longer applies. Richer households are buying second homes as an investment, not vacating one; overseas migrants are buying into the market, not selling into it; and transaction costs are a barrier to turnover. A vacancy tax would release many empty second homes onto the market, but developers are known to respond to shifts in market prices by slowing the release of new developments, creating an artificial scarcity to maintain their profitability. Lower income households face a dwindling stock of affordable, liveable homes, forcing people to commit to larger mortgages or rents, accept low liveability options, move in permanently with relatives or move between temporary solutions. Homelessness is rising.

Adequate housing is a human basic need and a human right recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Social housing is part of the answer, but must focus on the most vulnerable. Many people with modest means at their disposal fall into a gap that is currently not being served by the market or the state. Filling this gap is a moral imperative. But how?

What’s needed are new pathways to creating innovative solutions to provision the needs of people who are structurally inhibited from obtaining an affordable, liveable home in the market.

A second, equally pressing issue is the low sustainability performance of existing and new residential buildings. This issue is quantified with regard to energy use, carbon emissions and materials use. Construction, operation and maintenance of residential buildings account for 24 percent of electricity use and 12 percent of carbon emissions in Australia and 70 percent of Australia’s total built infrastructure material use, of which 60 percent is concrete and only 4 percent is wood. The minimum energy efficiency standard was only very recently increased; and while there are several voluntary sustainability ratings tools for buildings projects, these have an extremely low penetration rate – for instance, a mere 0.5 percent of residential buildings are Green Star rated.

Not only are Australian homes embedded with substantial energy, water and carbon emissions, they include unattributed impacts on communities and workers in the supply chain during the extraction and processing of materials. Projecting current construction methodologies to meet population demand, it’s possible that material use could double by 2060, restricting Australia’s ability to meet net zero emissions goals and increasing embodied injustice in building stock.

Developers are calling for greenfield land to be rezoned for residential development to increase the land supply pipeline to meet their expectations of demand for detached homes over the next fifteen years. Yet, residential building impacts on biodiversity are particularly significant in the urban fringes due to loss of habitat, not to mention invasive garden plants that jump the fence and domestic pets that threaten native species. Suburbia continues to expand with scant evidence of improvement in sustainability. Green growth is not happening in housing, only growth.

What’s needed are easier pathways to the responsible creation of homes and larger obstacles to developments that create harms, locally and globally.

A third issue is around how the various dimensions of housing provision align and connect with important adjacencies, including the wellbeing and cultural interplays between housing and urban form, the electrification of homes to enable a national shift to renewable energy and the crucial factor of food security through protecting the productive capacity of regions surrounding cities.

What’s needed are shared guidelines for policy makers, planners, architects, engineers, developers, farmers and ecologists and protections for productive landscapes from urban encroachment.

The housing problems outlined above all point to the need for commonwealth, state and city level regulatory overhauls and removal of the assumption of the profit motive from the provision of housing in order to achieve a sufficient stock of affordable and sustainably built and operable homes. This is transformational and demands a shared aspiration across the built environment industry ecosystem.  

Housing for degrowth is an emerging, shareable vision. The general concept of degrowth is a ‘matrix of alternatives’ (PDF) to the growth paradigm to bring about a systemic transition in ways of living and doing business so that society can operate at very low levels of production and consumption, thus enabling ‘a good life for all within planetary boundaries’. Degrowth is a democratically decided downsizing of the economy. Housing for degrowth ensures distributive justice as downsizing occurs and is therefore a key element of the degrowth social transformation. It comprises a matrix of alternatives for filling the gap for affordable, sustainable homes.

Residents of degrowth housing projects avoid having a large mortgage or rent and are part of a more collaborative and self-sufficient community, releasing them from the bind of fulltime, lifelong paid work, increasing their resilience to the ups and downs of interest and inflation and providing a context for sociability. Over time, expansion of degrowth housing projects would enable more of society to operate successfully in a post growth system, detached from consumerism and capitalism, through transforming dwellings from being assets for investment to being structures arranged for better ways of living.  

Examples of housing for degrowth range from the prefigurative act of exercising the right to inhabit the city and oppose property laws by occupying unused spaces (ie the activist squatting movement), such as the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages in Spain, to mutual home ownership projects, such as Lilac in Leeds, to architecturally designed residential and commercial projects, such as Kalkbriete in Zürich. Some degrowth housing projects, such as Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, have been developing organically for decades and have struggled with regulations, others are more recent and have found ways to use existing legal structures to their advantage, such as Mietshäuser Syndikat in Germany. The wide mix of case studies provides a platform of tried and tested ideas for the broad church of tastes among those venturing into degrowth and can be reapplied and adapted to multiple contexts, generating further innovation. There is no single housing for degrowth solution, there are many; however, key common attributes include high levels of self-governance; environmental sustainability and social justice as core values; and porous boundaries with their surrounding neighbourhood. Environmental sustainability, for example, is sought through both minimal use of resources and maximal use of amenities, not through living in small spaces alone, but through sharing spaces among co-residents, while also preserving private spaces.

Housing for degrowth cannot happen at scale in Australia unless it is enabled through regulatory change. New regulations sympathetic to housing for degrowth would increase the sovereignty of residents to work together and with built environment professionals to innovate around socio-ecological goals, including through enhancing the commons, refurbishing existing building stock or creating simple self-built dwellings and creating community value from the built environment in the forms of liveability, wellbeing, food security, climate resilience and lower costs of living.

Specific regulations could include regulating dwelling size or allowable space per capita in order to redistribute access to housing space, and incentives to renovate existing buildings using reclaimed materials rather than building new and using new materials. Other possibilities include social rent schemes that limit rent to a maximum percentage of income, tax reductions for house sharing and restrictions on gentrification and on subletting to tourists.

The existing regulatory framework assumes growth. Growth is hegemonic, meaning that it has the continual consent of those with power in society whose interests are vested in the stability of growth-based systems, ranging from industrialists and bankers to politicians and the media. Systems theory tells us that there are places to intervene – ie leverage points for systems change – including (with increasing difficulty, but also with increasing effectiveness) changing the rules of the system, self-organising new parts of the system, changing the goals of the system, changing the beliefs that underpin the system and exposing the paradigm of the system as just one of many legitimate worldviews. Finding points of intervention will be crucial to a successful transition toward housing for degrowth.

A good place to begin is with peak body organisations that influence housing policy. Of course, they are steeped in the growth paradigm – a search query on the word ‘growth’ in the websites of several peak bodies (eg AHURI, AIA and Shelter NSW) returned hundreds of results, while searches for the term ‘degrowth’ returned virtually no results. Australia’s mainstream housing experts, even those concerned with affordability, homelessness and sustainability, are not abreast of the concept of degrowth. This points to the need for a nationwide campaign by the degrowth movement to inform peak bodies about degrowth, generally, and about housing for degrowth, specifically.

Finding funding from campaign targets themselves is far from impossible. Peak housing sector bodies may be convinced to commission housing for degrowth information to enable leading edge discourse with their stakeholders to help catalyse innovation. Government departments, such as those responsible for the environment and for housing, may be interested in funding development of integrated assessment model climate scenario narratives that envisage post growth housing solutions. University architecture and urban planning departments may see the benefits of introducing housing for degrowth thinking into their teaching programmes, especially since students are already self-introducing it. Finally, built environment professionals are questioning the relevance of the growth motive and how their professions must change to be able to work to different goals, which must surely soon prompt the various professional bodies to explore whether and how to adapt to evolving worldviews.

These points of leverage can help establish a broad-based foundation for the development of housing for degrowth thinking, leading to regulatory change and policy making in Australia to enable new ways to meet the shelter needs of the many millions of Australians now and in the future whom the market and the state may fail to serve.

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