arch-peace editorials

18 December 2006

Melbourne’s housing crisis

Melbourne’s housing crisis – Practicing outside property lines
December 2006, by Eleanor Chapman

In September of this year I was fortunate enough to hear Guatemalan-born architect Teddy Cruz speak on the subject of Border Urbanisms. His practice, Estudio Teddy Cruz, is confronted with a particular border condition, informed by its location in the US city of San Diego, sister city of Tijuana on the Mexican side of the border; the two separated by a 20 minute drive and a world of difference. This border territory represents an intense collision of disparate cultures and social classes, and at first glance may appear to have limited relevance for the situation here in Australia. The border zone that divides our nation from the world at large is embarrassingly large and abstract; our government’s indignation at the trickle of occasional boatloads of asylum seekers seeming a pathetic gripe alongside the swelling human tide that pounds daily against the Mexican side of the Tijuana-San Diego border, while the other side retreats. However, Cruz’s border crossings are beginning to uncover other, less visible borders, with both universal and particular significance to the problems of Melbourne’s urban condition.

The first suggestion of common ground is a cosmetic one: outer suburban San Diego is not so removed in appearance from the bloated, homogeneous housing developments enabling Melbourne’s steady spread outwards. At home, the buoyant spirit of the suburban dream that envelops these developments and drives their sales pitch belies a bleak reality for prospective home buyers. While inner city property values climb, lower income earners are increasingly shut out of the market; pushed further to the periphery without access to adequate infrastructure or public transport systems. It is being touted as a housing affordability crisis. In fact the real crisis is playing out in the lives of those who are not even in the market for the tiny and diminishing proportion of housing stock available to low income earners. This crisis manifests in the length of the waiting list for public housing vacancies (close to 35,000 in 2003
[1]). The prospect of accommodating public housing needs in city fringe developments threatens to marginalize these groups further and is not a viable option; affordable housing is needed in inner city areas close to public transport, support services and job opportunities. Unfortunately affordable housing strategies implemented in Melbourne’s recent history on the fringes of the CBD – those sombre grey towers bearing mournful witness to the tragedy of dashed Modernist dreams – have only served to reinforce the divide between the haves and have-nots. In the words of Ed David from the Office of Housing, they are ‘concentrations of disadvantage’[2]; islands cut adrift from the street within a surrounding no-man’s land of ‘public’ space and viewed with a mixture of suspicion and fear by the wider community. In inner city areas, as redeveloped apartments and infill housing increasingly appropriate the leftover industrial fabric that once represented the working class, opposite ends of the means spectrum are ironically brought into closer physical proximity, while the rift between these groups yawns ever wider. Local governments are proud of this social diversity, and their planning policies cite the importance of maintaining this character, as if it reflected an interactive community spanning the breadth of the means spectrum. In reality, cafes, quirky boutiques and bars crowd in, regenerating ‘activity centres’ for the enjoyment of yuppie apartment-dwellers, while the remains of past public housing policy stagnate. The rapid urban transformation taking place in inner-urban Melbourne is geared towards fostering not social interactions, but divisions.

Kensington housing commission flats overlook construction works at the 2006 Commonwealth Games village site. Source: DHS website

It is divisions of this nature, arising because or in spite of the intentions of planning authorities, that architects and other building professionals have an ethical and professional responsibility to address. Cruz is critical of the reluctance of architecture as a profession to engage with political boundaries, and advocates the idea of ‘urbanism beyond the property line[3]’. It is hardly surprising that a profession already beset by self-doubt is loath to venture onto the political stage. Our claim to a legitimate place in the building industry is tenuous at best, and difficult to communicate, limiting our core client base to an elite group with the means and inclination to place a monetary value on design. Added to this, a splintering of specialist interior is squeezing the architecture profession’s market share, landscape and project management streams and the rise of design-build firms. Architects have always performed a curious marionette’s dance of compromise – charged with other people’s dreams, and the task of sustaining them amid a myriad of additional constraints also beyond our control - budget, site selection, planning regulations. Adding political involvement to the top of this precarious pile might seem akin to balancing in the middle of a wobbly bridge above piranha-infested rapids, and choosing to stand on one leg. Yet while we are talking about boundaries, it is precisely this imaginary line that Cruz has identified as ‘the gap between social responsibility and artistic expression’[4] that has to be crossed. An isolated, excusive practice of architecture that fails to challenge the accepted limits of its operation will remain impotent and its reach limited. Instead of imagining ourselves to be at the mercy of planning codes, we should be looking to question and subvert them. Cruz speaks of ‘injecting’ ambiguity into seemingly rigid regulations; in fact this ambiguity may already exist – in strategies that refer vaguely to the creation of public/private interfaces and the transformation of ‘hard’ urban edges – but it needs to be interpreted and exploited. Doing this requires a good understanding of planning strategies and appreciation of their intent, to be kept in sight once the discussion sinks to the level of setbacks and car parking requirements. It is not always the intentions at fault, but their execution. For all the frustrations of dealing with shortsighted planning authorities and ill-conceived guidelines, I would suggest – perhaps naively as a recent graduate – that there is potential for building professionals to channel the energy already invested in this area into seeking out a more active and politically engaged role and opportunities to begin a dialogue between authorities and communities.

Where does Melbourne’s housing crisis come into this? Ironically, the failures of past affordable housing models and their contribution to the current bleak situation could present the most promising opportunities for stakeholders in the public housing sector. The need for new models is now widely apparent, and there are significant obstacles to their development; not least of which is the stigma attached to public housing. Critical to success, then, are efforts to cross boundaries, to establish a meaningful dialogue that addresses both a development’s immediate physical context and its place within the bigger picture. The architect’s role in this scene is neither social engineer nor subservient window dresser, but mediates between these worlds and opens the doors to other players. One recent project, the redevelopment of the Derby St commission flats in Kensington as a mixture of public and private housing stock, sought to integrate affordable housing units into new private developments. The development is ongoing and it is too soon to gauge its success, but as noteworthy as the outcome is the process, involving collaboration between state government, a private developer, non profit organisations and architects, and lengthy consultation with existing tenants and locals
[5]. A similar process took place in the VicUrban/Devine Homes/Try Youth venture of December 2004 that engaged architects to design an affordable home and unemployed youths to build it. Perhaps collaborative processes of this kind, crossing discipline boundaries and encouraging dialogue as a means of generating unknown outcomes, rather than a tool introduced belatedly to justify the project and placate stakeholders, can lead to a genuine architecture of participation. The alternative is to hang back on the periphery, becoming increasingly irrelevant and incapable of positively influencing the urban environment. A willingness among architects to cross political and disciplinary lines could be just what is needed to stretch the limits that currently dictate our professional and social engagement with the built environment.

Community house project,
Live Load Architecture/VicUrban/DHS
Source: The Age

Demolition of existing public housing stock,
Source: Angela Baileyio

[1] Chris Middendorp, ‘This is the real housing crisis’, 1/11/03, The Age
[2] Ed David, lecture at Re:Housing conference, 8/10/06, Capitol Theatre
[3] Quote from Teddy Cruz in Solnit, R. ‘Non-conforming uses: Architect Teddy Cruz at the borders of tomorrow’
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kensington Estate Redevelopment Social Impact Study, prepared by Swinburne University of Technology for the DHS, August 2004


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