Access to housing and basic services

This content forms a part of our issue briefing on sustainable cities and communities.

SDG 11.1 By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “The outlook for the built environment is mixed.”

Despite the dominance of cities as the preferred location of much of the Australian population, the last two decades have been characterised by ad hoc urban planning policies at national and state levels, with changes driven heavily by the interests of developers and investors.

As noted in the SoE 2016 report, this lack of strategic urban planning has seen a divergence in urban growth. Peri-urban expansion is continuing, while inner-city areas in some cities have seen drastic increases in density through high-rise residential development. As a result, urban access to housing and services has seen mixed outcomes both socially and environmentally as the Australian urban form has polarised spatially.

Australian housing throughout the 20th century was characterised by the construction of detached, free-standing residential dwellings, a category that has subsequently grown to accommodate 8,286,073 (72.9 per cent) of Australian households at the time of the 2016 census.

Correspondingly, continued expansion of housing areas based on the ideal of the “quarter-acre block” has led to extensive suburban low-density growth, with most new urban development over this time having occurred through expansion of established capital cities into peri-urban agricultural zones, greenbelts and reserves.

Although historically viewed as the cornerstone of the “Great Australian Dream” (wherein suburban home ownership was argued to provide the basis for household security and economic opportunity), the environmental and social shortcomings of continued suburban growth, coupled with the increase in secondary and investment-based home ownership, has seen a marked decrease in housing affordability over the last two-and-a-half decades.

The Grattan Institute, for instance, calculates that median dwelling prices have increased from around four to more than seven times the median Australian full-time income over the last 20 years.

Australian housing occupancy by tenure

One outcome of the decline in housing affordability is evident in Figure 2, which visually demonstrates the reduction in the share of households owning their home outright from 41.8 per cent in 1994/95 to 30.4 per cent in 2015/16.

The proportion of Australian households renting from private landlords has also increased from 18.4 per cent to 25.4 per cent, while the share supported by state or territory housing authorities has fallen by a third.

These shifts have a range of consequences:

debt-burdened households are less able to invest in more sustainable housing materials and efficiency upgrades, while renters are both constrained by legislative limits to housing modifications as well as lacking the financial incentives for investing in environmental upgrades.

Over the last decade, Australian cities have seen a shift in new residential construction away from detached dwellings towards other forms of housing.

This change has been driven in large part by the construction of high-rise apartment dwellings within capital city central business districts (CBDs) and along major transport corridors, with more than 75 per cent of all apartment developments between 2001 and 2017 located in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Although often more affordable than detached dwellings, high-rise dwellings are not necessarily delivering environmental benefits, despite generally encouraging the use of more sustainable active and public transport modes. An EnergyAustralia study, for example, found that high-rise apartment dwellings can result in per capita operational greenhouse gas emissions more than double that of both detached houses and low-rise apartments.

Quarterly construction of new dwellings in Australia.

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