The Age reported this week that Victoria’s planning Minister, Richard Wynne, earlier this year rejected a proposal by the City of Moreland to set minimum standards for new apartments constructed within the inner suburban municipality (Government dismisses Moreland Council’s proposed ban on ‘dog box’ apartments):
The council’s proposed new laws included a requirement for one-bedroom apartments to be at least 50 square metres, two bedrooms be 65 square metres and for three-bedders be at least 90 square metres in size. The proposed laws would also force developers to provide balconies of a minimum size, and to ensure “acoustic privacy” for tenants so noise from neighbours was not an issue.
There was the predictable reaction to the Minister’s decision, typified by Greens state parliamentarian Ellen Sandell on Twitter:
- Disappointing to see Labor’s Planning Minister Richard Wynne side with developers on this one, against liveability.
- We need affordable housing policies, and design standards so ppl aren’t forced into tiny dog boxes due to price
Ms Sandell is playing politics; it’s not at all clear the Minister disagrees with the spirit of Council’s request. After all, Mr Wynne has been talking about “dogboxes” for longer than most. Here he is soon after winning the 2014 election arguing that the growth in construction in Melbourne has “thrown up a red flag” around standards.
While I’ve seen some great apartments, I have also seen some dogboxes – poorly designed with little access to natural light, airflow and storage.
A more plausible explanation for Mr Wynne’s decision is that he’s (finally!) going to release draft apartment design standards this month. His Better Apartments policy has been gestating since the days of the former government. His refusal is eminently reasonable. It makes sense to wait for a draft policy that’s state-wide and has involved years of consultation rather than respond to the concerns of just one of Victoria’s 79 municipalities.
The Discussion Paper released in May 2015 by Mr Wynne as part of his Better Apartments policy considers possible minimum standards in a number of areas. They include floor area, ceiling height, mandatory balconies, orientation, access to daylight, access to sunlight, orientation, circulation, ventilation, and more.
But notwithstanding how or when it’s done, is setting minimum standards that are significantly higher than what the market is currently producing the way to go?
There’s a very strong argument that anything buyers and tenants can’t foresee or reasonably understand should be regulated by government; that’s things like structural integrity, water-proofing, noise from neighbouring apartments and buildings, fire risk, and distance from existing and future buildings. The Minister’s proposed central city built form controls is an example of how some of these matters might be regulated.
However, when it comes to matters within an apartment complex that prospective buyers and tenants can readily see and assess for themselves – like floor area, daylight, sunlight, ceiling height, balcony size, internal storage, length of corridors – the warrant for the government to regulate minimum standards is much less compelling.
As I’ve argued before, proponents of higher minimum apartment standards – like the City of Moreland, Ms Sandell and Mr Wynne – need to:
- Demonstrate what effect increases in minimum standards will have on the price/rent of new apartments and how this will impact affordability.
- Show how much of the average $100,000 premium apartment buyers pay in Sydney compared to Melbourne can be attributed to NSW’s minimum standards.
- Explain why so many people are choosing to live in them when three quarters of all new apartments in Melbourne are already “too small” by NSW’s minimum floor area standards (the median new one-bedroom unit in Melbourne’s CBD is 45 sq. m).
- Provide evidence that (a) existing buyers and tenants are unhappy with the trade-off they’re making between price/rent and amenity; and that (b) they’d be happy with being compelled to pay more for the greater amenity Mr Wynne, Ms Sandell and Moreland think they should have.
- Demonstrate that buyers and tenants simply aren’t sophisticated enough to determine for themselves whether or not an apartment is big enough, high enough or has enough daylight.
- Explain why two of the three cities previously cited by Mr Wynne as benchmarks for minimum standards – London and Sydney – have some of the highest apartment prices in the world; while the other city he cites – Adelaide – struggles to attract and retain population.
- Explain why successful cities all over the world have created tens of thousands of 20-30 sq. m apartments by subdividing old buildings but residents have failed to suffer the health-related ill effects from living in these “dogboxes” that critics allege.
- Establish that buyers and tenants are at a serious disadvantage relative to developers in terms of market power, notwithstanding there are around 17,000 approved/permitted apartments in the pipeline.
- Show that alternatives to regulation, like giving buyers and renters access to better consumer information, wouldn’t provide a better net outcome.
- Take into account how developers, investors and residents might respond to more stringent minimum standards. For example, would the number of 37 sq. m studios increase on the basis they could be retro-fitted with lightweight transparent screens to create a “bedroom”?
Hopefully the draft apartment design standards due to be released this month by Mr Wynne will present a more sophisticated proposal than we’ve seen to date. Meanwhile, in Kawasaki City Japan, there’s a proposal to increase the minimum apartment size from 18 sq m to 25 sq m. In New York, there’s pressure to lower the minimum size of new apartments to less than the present 400 sq ft (37 sq m).
Francis McCrae makes an excellent point in this piece, Don’t fear the shoebox, published Wednesday on New Zealand’s Transportblog:
If a cramped apartment is the best someone can find within their budget and other constraints, how would they be better off if that apartment didn’t exist?