It’s no exaggeration that when it comes to how Australians are living, they’re moving out of homes and into apartments – and they’re doing it in droves.
On Census night in 2016, 10% of the entire Australian population was sitting in an apartment, and almost all of them were located in one of the capital cities. It’s an almost 80% increase in apartment living over the past 25 years, and is now so significant that more apartments are being built every year than houses.
Why’s it happening?
There are a few reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, there’s just been an attitude change, with apartment living now seem as genuinely attractive rather than a ‘second best’ option. House prices are sky high and apartments are simply more affordable, but they also allow residents to live near or in the city for a low-maintenance, convenient lifestyle.
But state governments are playing a role, too.
“Part of it (the apartment phenomenon) is due to governments allowing more infill land to be zoned for higher density residential,” said Angie Zigomanis, a residential research expert.
But Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Graham Quirk is not reading from that script.
After commissioning a survey, Brisbane City Council listened to the feedback of 100,000 respondents to “understand what residents love most about Brisbane and how we can shape the future”.
The result is the Brisbane’s Future Blueprint document – and one of the resolutions is to “Stop townhouses and apartments being built in areas for single homes”. That decision was on a page in the blueprint called ‘Protect the Brisbane backyard and our unique character’.
“Protecting Brisbane’s way of life will mean our exciting future looks familiar, by retaining the things we love about our city. More choice about how residents live and relax will mean families can still choose to spend time in the quiet of their own yard,” the Blueprint explained.
But as a policy, it’s not quite on song with how Australians are choosing to live.
To get there, Brisbane City Council will restrict townhouses and apartments to medium density residential areas only, whilst re-zoning newly released land as low density residential land “where appropriate”.
In other words, no apartments.
Brisbane journalist Madonna King certainly approves, having written a few years ago that the city is becoming “downright ugly” because of “grotesque, out-of-character developments”.
“At the heart of the unrest is resentment over development applications being approved without any genuine analysis of how it will change the city,” she said.
Domain.com.au reports that Brisbane City Council was “overwhelmed with complaints” about the “densification” of suburbs across the city. So those angry Brisbane residents will now be relieved as they read the Lord Mayor’s new Blueprint.
But not everyone is quite so relaxed about the controversial plan.
“They talk about more choice of housing but this goes against it if we’re stopping townhouse and apartment development,” he added. So while he agrees that there have been some dodgy developments in Brisbane, he also thinks the Blueprint is the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.
The Real Estate Institute of Queensland has mixed thoughts. CEO Antonia Mercorella lauded the idea of protecting Brisbane’s backyard character, but said the city also has to face up to the reality of the future.
“If you think about good suburbs with a good block of land with a freestanding home, we already know there’s a huge level of competitiveness for that property,” she said.
“What we need is to balance that with providing for Brisbane’s future growth, making sure we avoid a situation where we have insufficient housing.”
She said it’s no surprise that Brisbane locals are in support of the apartment ban for low density residential land, as it’s been a phenomenon far more typical of cities like Melbourne and Sydney.
“Brisbane doesn’t have a history of high density,” said the REIQ chief executive. “Down south it’s prevalent and far more normal.
“But the way we are living in Brisbane is changing and we are seeing the community struggling with that a little bit.”
Queensland’s Property Council also thinks the Lord Mayor is closing his eyes to the way every Australian city – Brisbane included – must face up to reality.
“We will need more of all types of housing – from studio apartments to traditional housing, and every housing type in between – if we want to avoid following Sydney’s path to eye-watering levels of unaffordability,” said executive director Chris Mountford.
Queensland University of Technology’s community planning professor Phil Heywood agrees that banning apartments in suburbs will only mean more and more apartments in the centre of the city.
“What we will get is continued developments going up beyond 12 storeys, to 16, and in some cases to 22 storeys in the centre of West End,” he said.
Fellow town planner Brad Jones agrees that the answer to some “bad development” in Brisbane in the past years is not simply to issue a total ban in response.
“I think we should always be advocating good development – and it should be supported regardless of what it’s called,” he said.
Is the apartment ban right for Brisbane?