The Minister introduces his consultation program on better apartments

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, is calling for public feedback on his new discussion paper, Better Apartments.

He reckons the growth in construction in Melbourne has “thrown up a red flag” around the standards of some apartments.

While I’ve seen some great apartments, I have also seen some dogboxes – poorly designed with little access to natural light, airflow and storage. The Better Apartments discussion paper raises those concerns and weighs up housing needs, market demands and building standards with the aim of improving liveability and affordability.

The government’s goal is to deliver sustainable housing outcomes, deliver on affordability, respond to the desire to live near jobs and services while also supporting investment. The discussion paper’s focus is on internal amenity, as well as outlook and privacy.

Well Minister, I’m happy to oblige. I’ll look at the individual topics mentioned in the Government’s discussion paper in detail another time, but for now I want to make some general points.

First, there’s no free lunch here. Regulations that impose standards have a direct influence on the affordability of apartments. More space, more light, more storage, etc, costs more.

Second, learn from history. There’s a record of well-meant regulation that in some cases has had perverse effects; those it’s meant to help were made worse off.

Third, apartment residents aren’t idiots. Buyers and renters are relatively well-off and able to make decisions; they can trade-off various attributes like location and size. They’re living in these new buildings out of choice, not because they’re tenants of a housing authority.

They can tell how much space, light and storage they’re prepared to pay for because they can see what they’re getting. They know they’re making trade-offs within the constraint of what they can afford to buy or rent.

Fourth, but they’re not rocket scientists or soothsayers. They can’t tell if a building is a fire risk, if excessive noise will be transmitted between units, or if another building will be constructed too close.

The focus of regulation should be on what future residents can’t reasonably know, can’t reasonably foresee, or is outside their control. That’s where stronger regulation is needed and that’s where you should focus your attention. There’s always a need for better consumer information too.

Fifth, despite its pretensions, this discussion paper isn’t about “good design”. Good design isn’t insisting by law that apartments have more “stuff”, like more space, more daylight, more storage. That’s like buying the next model up and, of course, paying more for it.

Good design is about optimising within constraints. Good design is producing a better outcome with the same givens e.g. same budget.

Sixth, every building project is bespoke; good design properly understood can’t be easily codified in law.

Seventh, you don’t have to live in one of these “dogboxes” Minister, and I’m pretty sure you don’t. Neither, I strongly suspect, do the great majority of those who’re agitating for regulation. You should survey the views of actual residents and find out how they feel about being compelled to pay more for an attribute they don’t value as much as another, or in many cases can’t afford.

And finally, let me reiterate my earlier argument that this consultation process is deeply flawed because it provides no information on either the benefits or costs of the various proposals it lists (see Apartment standards: is this sham consultation?).

Of course more “stuff” is better than less; who wouldn’t rather have a 2.7 metre ceiling than a 2.4 metre ceiling, or a northern aspect in preference to any other? But a higher ceiling or a northern aspect comes at a cost and that means everyone other than the very rich has to trade-off something else to get it.

The consultation process will only provide valid feedback on whether or not that “stuff” is worth making mandatory if the community has sound information on which to assess the implications of each proposal. We need to know what the benefits to residents and the wider community would be and how much the proposals would likely add to the cost of buying or renting an apartment. Your discussion paper doesn’t provide that information.

So Minister, those who want and can afford more space, light and storage will go out and buy or rent apartments with those attributes. But very few are in that happy situation. Most will need a range of “imperfect” housing options so they can optimise their choices. Top of the tree for most is location; residents will trade-off a lot for that.