Steven Burgess has spent the past three decades creating better cities overseas and interstate, consulting on transport and city planning.
- According to the 2016 Census, flats and units make up just 8.6 per cent of dwellings
- Experts say the lack of housing in the inner-city is forcing people out to suburbs they don’t want to live in
- Hobart’s council says it’s been receiving and approving more applications for medium-density housing, but developers say heritage restrictions have been a major roadblock
But when he moved back to his hometown of Hobart, the engineer and urban strategist was shocked.
“When I came back, someone had sort of changed all the settings and filled up one of the most beautiful cities in the world with cars,” Mr Burgess said.
“People think, ‘oh we’ve got a traffic problem’, but it’s not a traffic problem, it’s a housing problem.”
Looking around Hobart for somewhere to live, Mr Burgess could not find what he wanted.
“There’s not enough of that inner-urban housing to go around, which is forcing people who don’t really want to, to move to the suburbs,” he said.
“And once you move to the suburbs, you’ve got to buy one car, possibly two — every school trip’s a car trip, every football trip’s a car trip.”
Mr Burgess said Hobart was not offering what a growing number of young baby boomers and millennials escaping the mainland want — smaller homes, close to the inner-city action.
Engineer and urban strategist, Steve Burgess, who recently moved back to Hobart, May 2019. (ABC News)
House prices pushing upwards
So why is Hobart still growing out into the suburbs, instead of up, into medium-density apartments?
At the 2016 Census, more than 90 per cent of dwellings in greater Hobart were separate houses or semi-detached homes, townhouses or terrace houses.
Flats and apartments made up just 8.6 per cent of dwellings, compared with 13 per cent in the rest of Australia.
Brian Wightman from the Property Council of Tasmania said that was not the case anymore.
“That has been a change over the past five years, where once we looked to more broadacre-style housing, 800 square-metres for example, now people are looking for amenity within the city,” he said.
At the 2016 Census, more than 90 per cent of dwellings in Greater Hobart were separate houses or semi-detached homes, townhouses or terrace houses. (ABC News: Brian Tegg)
Tony Collidge from the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania said previously, the business case for medium-density developments had not stacked up.
“We’ve never really had inner-city apartment living because our median prices were so low that it was fairly difficult for a developer to come in and put up structures of 20 or 30 or 40 units in blocks,” Mr Collidge said.
But things have changed.
Greater Hobart’s population grew by 1.5 per cent, or 3,300 people, between June 2017 and June 2018.
House prices have pushed upwards, the rental vacancy rate is at a record low and the real estate lobby claims the city is short about 2,000 properties.
“We could put 1,000 apartments in the city tonight and we could sell them within a month,” Mr Collidge said.
The Hobart aversion to medium-density development has pushed people out to suburbs they don’t want to live in, experts say. (ABC News: Brian Tegg)
Not all smooth sailing for developers
Developers are taking advantage, and the Hobart City Council has been receiving and approving more applications for medium-rise, medium-density housing.
But developers have complained the large number of heritage-listed properties in Hobart was making it difficult to find appropriate sites.
Tony Collidge says the business case for medium-density development has not stacked up. (ABC News: Ellen Coulter)
Quinten Villanueva has had his proposal for 34 residential apartments on Hobart’s Bathurst Street approved but said there was a disconnect between the planning scheme and what members of council wanted for their city.
“I don’t believe that the wants of the community should ever outweigh the needs,” Mr Villanueva said.
“I’m not pretending that every development is an instant fix but I believe that any supply, no matter where it is in the market, will restrict some of that imbalance that we’re seeing at the moment in both supply and demand.”
The Lord Mayor said the Hobart City Council, Anna Reynolds, was receiving more applications for medium-rise apartment buildings, and they were being approved.
But Councillor Reynolds said developers also needed encouragement to change the face of the city.
Developers say the large number of heritage-listed homes make it difficult to find apartment sites in Hobart. (ABC News: Brian Tegg)
“Many of our developers in Tasmania just want to go with what they know, which is the sub-division in the outskirts and Sorell and these sorts of places,” she said.
She said valuable inner-city real estate along Campbell and Argyle Streets that was currently zoned as commercial land could be freed up to house Hobart’s growing population.
The State Government has begun consulting with councils to create a new planning zone to encourage four to five-storey apartment blocks in the inner-city and rail corridor.
The consultation process is expected to take a year and result in new planning rules to make it easier for medium-density, apartment-style developments in areas that have not traditionally been zoned as “residential”.
‘We really saw the opportunity’
Di Elliffe and Robert Gavin have bought into one of the new inner-city developments that has already been approved — the Commons on Bathurst Street — which is due for completion next year.
“There haven’t actually been many nice, attractive medium-density opportunities in town. And now that some are coming onto the market and starting to be built, people are starting to look and think about it for themselves,” Ms Elliffe said.
Dave Martin is with the group developing the Commons in Hobart.
The developers have had success in Melbourne with a similar apartment, based on sustainability and community, and Mr Martin said Tasmania’s capital was the logical next step.
“I think timing, we’re at the right time,” he said.
“We really saw the opportunity in there, we saw it on its uplift and its population growth and we thought, yeah, let’s jump into it.”
While the developers behind the Commons had an easy run with approvals, there was one hurdle they did not expect — a lack of labour in Hobart.
“They were re-doing the hospital, there’s so much development, so many projects down there so it’s a real supply and demand in shortage of trades and building down there which has an inflation on prices,” Mr Martin said.
According to an August 2018 report by the Institute for the Study of Social Change, growth in the building and construction sector had plateaued even though there was an increasing demand for residential and non-residential construction.
It found a “commencement gap” delaying the construction of new residential dwellings following an increase in the number of approvals since 2017.
Mr Collidge said the trades squeeze was unlikely to go away, with the University of Tasmania making its move into the Hobart CBD.
“I know a concern of several developers is that [the University of Tasmania] will pay whatever costs it needs to pay a builder to build its dwellings, and that will become the new square-inch benchmark for Hobart,” he said.
But Councillor Reynolds said she was not convinced increasing private housing supply would solve the housing crisis for low-income Tasmanians.
“Just building a lot more houses will not provide the kind of affordable housing that we desperately need in Hobart,” Ms Reynolds said.
For Mr Burgess, an inner-city apartment without a carpark would be the dream, but it’s something he has had great difficulty finding.
“I looked at three places [when I first moved here] but it was still extremely limited and all of them had car parks which I don’t want,” he said.
“Small cities are the new black, but young people will often only come to places where they can live without a car where they can be close to stuff, walk and meet their friends.
“There’s still a proportion of the market that want a suburban house and we’ve got that covered.
“But what we don’t have covered are those close-knit urban villages where you can walk to the butcher, baker, grocer or candlestick maker all in your small little community.”