You can have as many people as you want in your palace, park as many cars as you want, and completely concrete the backyard. It is your home after all. Those familiar with suburbs such as Balwyn will have experienced this rapid replacement of old houses with new homes with imitation European facades.
However, if you instead want to build a two-storey apartment building with around six houses inside, this automatically requires planning permission. It doesn’t matter if the exterior envelope is the same as a single-family house, any apartment building must go through this process.
That may sound like proper oversight, but the process adds a minimum of six months to the development process and opens up the application for a VCAT challenge that could add another 12 months and tens of thousands in legal fees.
In the planning process, the family-sized apartment building will be assessed for things like neighborhood character and visual clutter, tests that simply don’t apply to individual dwellings. These tests are essential for more intensive developments, but you have to be much more nuanced in the design of what an apartment building is. Two-storey, eight-storey and 30-storey buildings should not be treated the same way. Obviously, the two-story version has a lot more in common with our suburban homes than residential towers, and it should be treated as such.
If the two-storey suburban apartment building in the established middle and inner suburbs were exempt from planning in the same way as single-family dwellings, it would reduce the risks and costs associated with providing this type of housing. Additional public interest safeguards such as compliance with best apartment design standards could be assessed at the planning permission stage and would therefore not add risk or time to development. This would ensure that we don’t sacrifice livability for affordability.
This regulatory change would also make it possible to curb the worst excesses of NIMBYism. While it is clearly appropriate for people to have a say in tower block apartment developments in their immediate vicinity, we must be realistic that all neighborhoods will experience change over time.
We should correct the imbalance between the rights of individual landlords to restrict changes and the public good of allowing some changes to provide more diverse housing options to the community.
What should matter is the overall height, intensity and design quality of a proposal, not whether the accommodations offered are apartments. In fact, if soft density were adopted more widely, the need and demand for higher density apartment towers would be greatly reduced.
The empowering benefit of this increase is that it will keep families and communities together. Your children will have the opportunity to live in the same community without necessarily living under the same roof.
The diversity of housing options in the suburbs also benefits those looking to downsize. Politicians love to talk about providing financial incentives for older people to downsize, but if there aren’t any tiny homes in their suburbs, it becomes a no-start.
So rather than seeing young families thrown to the edges of town and older people feeling trapped in their aging family homes, we need to give people real options for where and how they live.
This is the price of habitability that we must not let go. It is more important than being able to oppose a proposal for two floors next door and it is more important than allowing the suburbs to remain either fixed in time or the dominant habitat of the French provincial mansion.