A dozen cranes branch into the sky where tenants Bri Voto and Jason Martin look out from their front porch. Their yard spills onto an empty block that touches James Ruse Drive, near where the highway crosses the Parramatta River. A plank forms a makeshift bridge over the railway at Camellia station behind them – Sydney’s least visited train station – and leads to their house, the lone residence among 320 hectares of industrial land.
If the house is still standing in 10 years, it will likely be among unrecognisable surroundings and 8000 people. A new Camellia town centre will eventually service 10,000 households and provide jobs for 5000, planning documents say. There will be a new primary school, light rail stop and two 40-storey towers, with more in Parramatta to the west and Olympic Park to the east.
Sydney’s planners envisage its future as a metropolis of three cities, where everyone can reach jobs in the CBD, Parramatta or the western city in half an hour. The hope is that high-rise development will cluster around new transport links, themselves knitted together by a green grid of bike lanes and pathways.
But if planners are painting a rosy picture, demographers are more sceptical. Will we instead be restricted to poorly built shoeboxes, resenting hour-long traffic queues and our more stratified city?
“Whichever way you cut demographically – whether by money, age or cultural diversity – it’s leading to a more segregated city,” says Dr Somwrita Sarkar, a researcher from the University of Sydney’s urban housing lab.
Sydney’s population will be 5,878,238 by 2031, projections say, with half a million new dwellings needed by then.
“Six or seven million people is not really a very large number by world standards,” Dr Sarkar says. “But when we look at where people live, where people travel and how development is being coordinated, we’re creating this mismatch and imbalances in the system.”
Our slowest growing areas will be among the fastest ageing, even though they’re closest to the CBD and lucrative employment. The north-west and south-west will evolve fastest, places such as in Kellyville and Camden, when new housing springs up along transport corridors for young families and immigrant populations priced out of the inner city.
Of the near-1.3 million new people living in Sydney by 2030, two-thirds will settle west of Parramatta. But Transport for NSW predicts more new jobs will be created in the CBD than anywhere else.
“We need options which ensure we’re not segregating the city into rich areas and poor areas. A diversity of housing and financing options that encourage more mixing of people are most desirable, because then it’s intergenerational,” Dr Sarkar says.
The president of the Planning Institute of Australia, Steve O’Connor, says Sydney’s attachment to the Australian dream means it is yet to take full advantage of medium-density solutions, such as villas and townhouses, in its middle rings.
The need for new housing types will be spurred by our ageing population. Canterbury-Bankstown, Blacktown and Parramatta will host the most residents over 60 in 2031, corresponding to population size.
However the areas home to the highest proportion of people over 60 will be Hunters Hill (35 per cent), Mosman (29 per cent) and Woollahra (22 per cent). These are also projected to have the highest levels of lone person households (30 per cent), compared to their proportion of family households.
“The suburban development, with a detached house on a block of land and nice backyard for the kids to kick the ball around, is only going to satisfy about a third of the population’s needs in future,” Mr O’Connor says.
A successful transition will require political grit. Sydney’s increasing density has so far created conflict in established communities that don’t want densification in their neighbourhood. They might not have much choice.
“There’s a desire for smaller households, living closer to employment and commuting less,” Mr O’Connor says. “People with big backyards will take advantage of being able to accommodate another dwelling in the backyard. Where there are three houses there might be eight townhouses developed on the same area.
“Perhaps local residents won’t like it, but that’s the more sustainable way to proceed. ‘It’s always been this way and we want to keep it this way’ – I’m afraid that line of argument just isn’t founded.”
But pushback from both sides of the ‘missing middle’ debate means there’s no guarantee we’ll take this route: developers’ interest in high-density blocks and spot rezoning will be there in 2030 regardless of what planners see as sustainable.
Digital disruption and its limits
Technological disruption and the sharing economy will be “huge” factors shaping housing options in the next 10 years, Mr O’Connor says. Autonomous vehicles and car sharing could make parking stations redundant and free up swathes of inner city land.
“That can be re-allocated for other uses, and it could be affordable housing,” he says. But Dr Sarkar says peer-to-peer interaction opens opportunities for exploitation as well as efficiency. It’s happening today: in apartments around Sydney’s city, international students are paying hundreds per week to share a bedroom with more than four other people.
Gumtree and flatmates.com are enabling behaviours to respond to affordability stress faster than policy can. While the City of Sydney has attempted a crackdown, students can only afford to accept unsafe and unhygienic conditions.
“There would be 10 students living in a two-bedroom apartment, saying ‘our landlord doesn’t allow us to cook because even in the kitchen there are a couple of mattresses’,” Dr Sarkar says.
Such sharing is not restricted to the CBD. “Even in the Parramatta area it’s not uncommon for young professionals to arrive from a place like India and live two families in a two-bedroom apartment,” Dr Sarkar says. “And we’re not talking about 20-year-olds here, but people in their 30s.”
Who can afford to live in Sydney?
People on social housing waiting lists today might finally reach the top of the list by 2030. Sydney has a shortfall of 80,800 social housing dwellings and 55,300 affordable rental homes. By 2036 this is projected to blow out to 141,000 for social housing and 75,800 for affordable homes.
Mark Degotardi, CEO of the Community Housing Industry Association NSW, says the social housing waiting time in most local government areas is now a decade. “The notion you can wait for 10 years while you’re in that income stress is not realistic,” Mr Degotardi says.
While families were once the predominant group accessing social housing, the numbers of single occupant households and tenants over 55 have increased significantly.
Creeping affordability stress warns of worse to come.
“Population growth is going to affect people throughout the housing spectrum,” Mr Degotardi says. “We’ve got housing stress for people who, 30 years ago, would have been well-off. Key workers – police, firies, teachers, nurses – aren’t able to live within proximity to where they’re needed.”
Bri Voto, 21, moved to Sydney from the Gold Coast six months ago. She works at Rosehill racecourse and earns more money since moving, “but the extra I get each week is poured into overpriced rent, tolls and living expenses”, she says.
“Sydney has the most beautiful landscapes and nearly has everything to offer. I wish I could say everything was right at your doorstep, but having to constantly travel makes it hard to settle.”
Will she still be here in 2030? “It’s a no-brainer really, if I found something affordable in Sydney I’d hope to stay. But I couldn’t think of anything worse than trying to raise a child in a shoebox.”
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