Slums
Slumming it in Melbourne? Spencer St Melbourne, Dec 2014 (source: Google Street View)

It doesn’t take long in any discussion of the Victorian government’s proposed apartment amenity standards before someone claims those city centre towers are “slums” or, in the more temperate version, they will be in the not-too-distant future. Even Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, has invoked the spectre of slums.

Slums? Seriously? Let’s start by looking at what a real slum is. The key characteristics are insecure tenure, overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, and decrepit housing. In western countries they’re generally populated by residents who’re locked-in by very low incomes and, although it’s not true in all cases, some have high levels of social dysfunction.

So are city centre high-rise apartments really the slums that some opponents claim? I think not, because unlike a slum:

  • Residents have security of tenure. They’re either owner-occupiers or renters protected under the state’s landlord-tenant act. The latter isn’t perfect but it’s light-years away from the horror of stories of the past.
  • Residents have a relatively large allocation of space per person. A 45 sq. metre one-bedroom apartment might seem small compared to the familiar detached house that dominates the psyche of Australians, but the size of households occupying them is small too; almost entirely one or two persons without dependents. Residents also get the benefit of controlling their own space rather than having to compromise in a larger dwelling with flat-mates or family.
  • Residents have access to high quality infrastructure. In the first instance, they usually have exclusive use of some hardly slum-like communal facilities such as a roof garden, common room, gym, pool. Further, these buildings are in or very close to the CBD which is the most well-endowed location in the metropolitan area in terms of transport, health, education, cultural, and recreational infrastructure.
  • These towers are brand new. They aren’t decrepit old buildings that’ve fallen into disrepair with no water or no heating. They’re constructed in accordance with the requirements of the building code of Australia. While there’ve been some well-publicised cases where the code hasn’t worked as well as it should, these were regulatory failures rather than some intrinsic failing of residential towers. They could equally apply to the other building types covered by the code e.g. office buildings, low-rise residential.
  • The stereotype of the rapacious slum landlord who ignores maintenance doesn’t apply here. Ongoing maintenance isn’t the responsibility of a single building owner; it’s managed through the body corporate whose members are drawn from among all apartment owners.
  • Residents of small apartments aren’t poor. Most aren’t rich either, but they’ve got sufficient income to buy their apartment or to pay upwards of $400 p.w. for a one-bedroom apartment. Most are young and well-educated with high lifetime income-earning potential. Living in a high-rise tower means they live slap-bang in the middle of the largest concentration of jobs and education services in the state.
  • Residents can choose where they want to live. There are many other apartmentss to choose from and more in the pipeline; indeed we’re always hearing about the imminent prospect of an apartment glut. Home seekers dissatisfied with a small or low-amenity apartment have other options – they can pay more for something better nearby; move further away from the most desirable locations; or share a suburban house.

As for the future, small apartments in the city centre are arguably the least likely dwelling type to become a slum because:

  • They’re in tune with projected demographic patterns. One and two person households are expected to comprise the great majority of the projected increase in households over the next 30-40 years.
  • They’re in a location where there’s expected to be strong demand in the future. Policy-makers and analysts are unanimous that the ongoing shift to a knowledge economy will continue to reinforce the benefits of density and the advantages of the CBD.

The extraordinarily rapid rate of growth in the number of small apartments might scare some observers, but the way they’re transforming the city centre is part and parcel of a bigger and wider change. For many households, the old ideal of space – exemplified by suburbia – is being rapidly replaced by the new ideal of urbanity and cosmopolitanism (e.g. see The war on sprawl).

The centres of cities like Paris, London and New York are crammed with very small apartments – typically less than 30 sq metres – carved out of old buildings. These are much smaller than the minimum 50 sq. m floor area required for a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney, or the 45 sq. m common in new-builds in Melbourne.

Many have poor daylight and a host of other amenity deficiencies when judged by the housing expectations of Australians, but they’re in neighbourhoods that couldn’t even remotely be described as slums. Moreover they make a valuable contribution to the vitality of these cities because they allow more people – and a greater diversity of people – to live in places such as Manhattan and Paris intra-muros.

Small city centre apartments with imperfect amenity don’t make a slum. The compromises they necessarily entail are the trade-off for the considerable benefits – almost all of them lying beyond the front door – of choosing to live in a highly sought-after location.

Times have changed; critics need to move on from the old “space” paradigm. It’s important because the old mindset wants to impose so-called amenity standards that will very likely reduce affordability (see Will these standards really make apartment residents better off?). That might ultimately detract from the distinctive vitality of Melbourne’s city centre; Sydney is a poor model on that score.

Slums 2
This apartment on Queens Rd Melbourne is available for rent of $440 p.w. But it would be different and cost more to build if the new amenity standards proposed by the Victorian government become law. It’s shortcomings according to the standards include: it doesn’t have two aspects, the study doesn’t have a window, there isn’t 6 cu m of general storage, the balcony is too small, and the ceiling is too low.
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