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Arrested Development

Housing developments in Lynch St. Hawthorn - But, Yimby Melbourne says, 'It's not enough'

Australia’s lack of adequate housing has dominated news and politics in recent months and in the rush to point the finger of blame, the claws have come out for some of Melbourne’s most desirable inner suburbs, including Hawthorn. A recent report published by Yimby Melbourne accused Boroondara Council as ‘not pulling their weight’ when it comes to allowing new housing developments on to the market, even labelling them as Victoria’s ‘worst offender’.

The issue has highlighted a split in the broader community between Yimbys (yes in my backyard) and Nimbys (not in my backyard). In simple terms, the idea that people are either for or against new inner-suburb housing developments is at its core.

Presently, housing development is restricted by planning schemes which control land use and development and protect and conserve land. Planning schemes are set out by each local council and guided by the Planning and Environment Act 1987. They establish zones and overlays on land, in which zones dictate land usage such as; residential, industrial, commercial, building heights and density among others. An overlay further protects land due to a special feature on the land such as a heritage building, significant vegetation, or flood risk.

Yimby Melbourne are highly critical of Boroondara claiming that the council has the “most restrictive zoning controls in metropolitan Melbourne” and that the planning scheme has “made housing scarce and unaffordable”. Yimby Melbourne have popularised the concept of the ‘missing middle’ across Melbourne. Inner suburbs, like Hawthorn, predominantly feature large, single dwelling residential properties. In the city, building height and density dramatically increases and therein lies the issue according to Yimby Melbourne.

As far back as 2002, the Melbourne 2030 Plan was established by the then Victorian government as a roadmap to managing sustainable housing growth. Glenferrie Hawthorn was identified as a major activity centre featuring strong links to public transport and therefore, a good prospect for high-density dwellings. However in 2009, Melbourne 2030 was criticised as not working as the urban boundaries were being pushed out, rather than inner development occurring. An article in The Age claimed that medium and high-density housing around suburban transport hubs would “fail to materialise” and “nothing would wean Australians off their love of cars and traditional suburban housing.”

Indeed, Melbourne has expanded outwardly rather than upwardly. High rise apartments are in no short supply in the city, but our inner suburbs fall short both figuratively and literally when it comes to medium-density – approximately six-storey developments. This so-called ‘missing middle’ is either directly or indirectly a result of a time when, as our suburbs grew in the post-war era, we placed the detached, single-storey dwelling front and centre of the Australian dream.

In his book, Australia’s Quarter Acre, author Peter Timms waxes lyrical about the romance of suburban Australia’s detached houses with their backyard granny flats, veggie patches and rose gardens as a measurement of idyllic living. He speaks of the classic suburban block as resplendent with a balance of nature and man-made structure, where housewives would plant flowers alongside concrete paths and children would dig in backyards, before coming inside to wash dirt off knees and hands in glimmering porcelain basins. Australia was very successful at selling this lifestyle and it became ingrained within ‘our character’.

To say this of course implies that ‘our character’ is a stagnant concept. As Australia’s population has grown dramatically, so has the demand for housing in major cities. Land values have increased, and residential development opportunities arise with apartment building complexes making financial sense for developers responding to demand for housing. A push for higher inner suburb density challenges Timms’ cultural character of the leafy inner Melbourne suburban lifestyle and generates anxiety in some local citizens who view this rate of growth as hostile, giving rise to the Nimby. Perhaps Boroondara’s planning scheme is simply a reflection of a community still holding onto the Australian dream.

Dr Max Holleran, a Melbourne University lecturer in Social Policy explains that “The city can no longer be a vertical and cramped space immediately flanked by single-storey family homes.”. Yimby Melbourne’s report believes “Boroondara could comfortably accommodate at least 4,900 new homes per year in order to do its fair share of housing growth.” A Boroondara spokesperson confirmed that in the 2022-23 financial year, they “approved approximately 440 dwellings in Boroondara” and that they refuse “less than 5% of planning applications, which consist of applications for offices, shops, dwellings and other uses.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), since 2016-17, approvals for new multi-residential buildings in Boroondara have declined from 1,304 to 281, while houses have dropped from 446 to 255, yet these statistics only tell half of the story. Boroondara Council pointed out that “Housing targets do not create housing. They are window dressing which hides the real reasons housing is not being built. The cost of living crisis, interest rates, shortage of building materials and labour costs are key drivers which need to be addressed. Without this, targets are meaningless.” Boroondara Council explained that “Many approvals are not being constructed by developers for reasons outside Council’s control.” Concerned about the housing crisis, in 2023 the Victorian government introduced 32 new planning reforms. The new reforms were designed to override Council and, by extension, resident’s objections to new developments, with the intention of meeting the target of one million new homes in Melbourne’s inner suburbs by 2050. Boroondara Council hit back, describing this weakening of their powers as “the constant and gradual erosion of community and Council rights in planning matters.” As it stands, with Yimby’s singling out Council and Council pointing the finger at developers and the general state of the economy, the housing crisis looks set to remain in gridlock, leaving some in limbo still waiting for a home.

Abhinav and his family in their Hawthorn apartment - a medium density development completed in 2017

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