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London and Hong Kong have enough public housing, so why doesn’t Sydney?

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

Australia’s housing market has become a competitive sport, says Nicole Gurran, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Sydney. Gurran gave an impassioned talk at TEDxSydney on Friday June 15 in which she shed light on the lack of social housing in Sydney compared to global cities like Hong Kong or (even) London.

Gurran said Australia is becoming a more divided nation between those with and without housing wealth. As many Sydneysiders will already know, getting into the housing market is one challenge – simply finding affordable homes, shared or private, is another issue entirely.

 “A typical [Sydney] homeowner, who lives in their own home – if they bought it without the assistance of their parents – probably bought their homes in the late ’90s, mid-2000s or before,” says Gurran, speaking to Time Out after her TEDx Talk. “The real squeeze of getting into home ownership started to happen in the late 1990s. We still had 70 per cent of people owning their own home up until 2006.”

Gurran leads Urban Housing Lab@Sydney and she’s the author of Politics, Planning and Housing Supply in Australia, England and Hong Kong. Her research looks at the intersections of urban planning and the housing system, examining affordable rental supply and the impacts of your neighbour turning their two-bed into a schmancy Airbnb for summer. She argues that the solutions to the problem are simple – and that anyone priced out of the market should be calling on the government for systemic change.

“We’ve researched affordability for key workers – teachers, nurses, police (people on $49,000-$150,000 per household). By 2006 you’d have needed five years to save up a medium-priced home in Sydney. Now, even if you saved 20 per cent of your income, it’d take six or seven years. It’s that deposit gap keeping people out.”

The deposit gap, or number of years you needed in order to save for a deposit, has widened in Australia dramatically in the last decade, she says. If we continue to accept the status quo, the prospect for young Sydneysiders is grim.

“If we keep on doing what we’re doing, they will be priced out of Sydney or they can wait for their parents to die and hope that you don’t have too many siblings,” she says. “But the real Plan A is to get angry with the political leaders and ask for more. Whenever land is re-zoned, whenever we invest in public infrastructure, we should be getting an affordable housing outcome out of that.”

Gurran says it’s a relatively new issue for Australia, but that on a global scale we’re falling far behind in terms of the percentage of land allocated to public housing – and how and where those homes are built.

Nicole Gurran speaking on stage at TEDxSydney 2018
Nicole Gurran speaking on stage at TEDxSydney 2018
Photograph: TEDxSydney

“Half of the housing in Hong Kong, in the private market, is phenomenally expensive,” says Gurran. “But then they have nearly 50 per cent in low cost housing and public rental – and that’s simply their political philosophy.

“Even in London you’ve got this terrible separation in the market with unaffordable housing, but there’s still a deep commitment [in government] to in intervening in the market when it’s not working.”

In contrast, only two per cent of new homes in Australia are apportioned to social and affordable housing. “We’re seeing public housing as really just for the poorest of the poor. The way around that – to see social and affordable public housing as part of the community – is to have mixed-income people using it.

“Where we do mixed-income social housing in Sydney we do it really well. It’s just that we do it to such a small degree. Bonnyrigg, in South West Sydney, is a really good example. With Sirius [the Circular Quay former social housing block that officially went on the market with a price tag of around $100m], it just symbolises an idea that once we thought that every part of the city should have the entire community, and now we’re content to say the wealthy should have access to the best. It’s a complete mindshift, which is really unfortunate.”

With 40 per cent of Australians living in two main cities it’s important that we’re calling on government to focus on inclusionary urban planning – and not to rely solely on the private property market to increase housing supply.  

“When you have a commitment to social and affordable housing you’re not solely dependent on rising prices to increase housing units, and that is the problem in Australia – the minute prices level off the new house building slows down as well.

“If you want job opportunities, but also all the benefits of a city life – public transport, arts, education – it’s very difficult to get those outside of [the city]. The further you go the less access to economic opportunity, but also cultural opportunities and all of those things. That’s where we’ve been unambitious in our spacial policy in Australia.”

So is the answer to pack our bags and move to Adelaide? Gurran sees nothing wrong with voting with your feet – but the impact of lower income households leaving Sydney en masse will have greater implications for the city’s culture and livability for everyone.

“There’s nothing wrong with people leaving Sydney – and the more creative people that leave, the city will be poorer for it. You might [eventually] find Sydney trying to lure the artists and creatives back.”

TEDxSydney took place at the ICC Sydney, Darling Harbour. Watch the live stream at

Here’s what’s on in Sydney this weekend.

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