To buy, to build, to share, to print – how do we make accommodation affordable?

| May 5, 2017

All too often it is the economics of making housing affordable that is the focus; however, alternative forms of housing already exist and could be adapted for use in our towns and cities. This story introduces some of those models, both existing and new.

Much of the conversation around affordable housing is around the economics but less about new forms of housing.

Negative gearing, foreign investment in the housing market, Australia’s immigration intake, home owners investing in short term rental property to service the Air B&B market – these are all issues that impinge upon regulation. But are there housing models that can be adapted to increase affordability? For some, we can look at reinventing and adapting models from the past. Others are to do with new technologies and ideas.

Let’s consider a few.

Share housing/housing co-op

In the popular mind, sharehousing is associated with student accommodation and with counterculture lifestyles of the late 1960s/70s.

It is generally considered to be a form of temporary accommodation; however, it is one of those models that may well suit the lives some people lead today.

Selli Hoo is an Adelaide, South Australian sharehouse that started in 1970s and continues as a positive example of the model. Residents have a room each with shared kitchen, lounge and garden. Occupants share household tasks. Selli Hoo has proven a durable and achievable form of home ownership and is not the only example of its type.

The question is how we would take this model and structure it as a replicable, affordable form of joint property ownership.

There’s another form the idea could take. That is its potential to convert old commercial buildings into shared accommodation, a mix of ownership and rental accommodation with personal rooms and common kitchens, energy systems and so on. Perhaps the best financial model for this sort of initiative is the housing co-operative.

An iteration of the idea of converting existing buildings could be found in the 1980s when an organisation bought an apartment block in inner urban Marrickville, Sydney. Members and their families occupied the apartments and one was kept as communal space for meetings and office.

The sharehouse model offers affordable accommodation through reduced costs of shared facilities, the small scale of accommodation and the co-operation of residents.

The land-trust

Like its counterparts in the US and elsewhere, Sydney’s Waratah Community Land Trust aims to provide affordable housing.

Community Land Trusts — CLTs — purchase urban land and housing or rural agricultural land and hold it in trust for specified land uses, such as housing or farming. The model has been working for quite some time in the US and would surely have applicability in Australia.

Affordability comes through secure, long-term leasehold of the trust’s assets and, through holding land and housing in trust for specified purposes, it is removed from the market. Only ‘improvements’ built on the trust property are saleable.

The ecovillage, an Australian model

When Crystal Waters Permaculture Ecovillage made its start in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in the mid-1980s, it became the first such development in Australia and the world.

What the ecovillage model does is take what worked with the intentional communities, which did not have freehold title to parts of the land, and improve it. Through the Community Titles Act NSW and analogous legislation in other states, the ecovillage offers freehold title to an area of land on which a dwelling is built and shared ownership of common land, water storage and land uses. Land can be leased for individual initiatives, such as market gardening. Most ecovillages have a community building and in some, such as Crystal Waters, residents have established small businesses like cafes and bakeries. That, though, requires a large enough village population to support the small enterprises economically unless they are on a main road and can attract passing trade.

The model works; however, because most ecovillages are in rural areas, potential residents face the challenge of finding an income, and work in many rural centres can be hard to come by. Those who can engage in remote, computer-mediated work are perhaps better situated for ecovillage life.

It is the lower cost of entry and shared facilities that potentially makes ecovillages a source of affordable housing.

Co-housing communities

It is from Scandinavia, where the model has been running for decades, that co-housing came to Australia.

Like the ecovillage, it offers freehold title to the dwelling and shared facilities that each household would otherwise buy individually.

This is seen at EarthSong in Auckland, Aotearoa-New Zealand, where the residents of the attached buildings share laundrette, kitchen and dining room and food gardens. Water is harvested and stored on-site via a water harvesting system across the urban property that takes water to a small dam-type storage. The dwellings are fitted with solar hot water to reduce costs and energy use. Cars are garaged at the property entrance, leaving the co-housing beyond vehicle-free.

Australia’s first was Cascade Co-housing in Hobart. The development consists of an energy and water efficient block reminiscent of the terrace housing found in older precincts of cities.

Costs of entry to co-housing varies with location and dwelling size. Shared facilities, smaller dwellings and renewable energy technology keep costs down.

Going prefab

There already are companies offering energy efficient prefabricated housing that is assembled on the buyer’s land. Frequently marketed as holiday housing, the prefab model has great potential to reduce housing costs through standardised panels and roofing and modular design that can assemble houses of varying size.

Prefab has potential to scale-up to small apartment buildings and there is further potential to integrate solar hot water and rooftop photovoltaic (solar electric) systems and storage batteries to power the household and sell surplus electricity to the grid.

Reduced costs are potentially achievable through standardised, modular components assembled off site in a manufacturing facility, trucked on site and assembled, reducing construction time.

Going smaller

Small houses — in reality, small cottages or large shacks — have become a popular form of affordable housing especially in the US.

To get around restrictive regulation, small houses are sometimes built on a wheeled chassis and can be towed to a new location. One small house I visited in Taranaki, Aotearoa-New Zealand, was built on skids for mobility on the property while the owners built a larger, permanent house on the rural selection.

The closest we already have to the small house is the ‘granny flat’, a dwelling built in the suburban backyard supposedly to accommodate an ageing parent or relative. It provides an existing model for affordable small-housing.

Another idea doing the rounds of small house aficionados is the small house park, an area of land legally set aside to accommodate a number of small houses.

There are now companies making small houses in the US and Australia. It is the modest scale, the potential use of independent energy systems and the lack of space for furnishings that positions the small house as affordable home ownership.

Going with additive technology

Additive manufacturing, also known as production via CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines or 3D printing turns a plan on a computer into a physical object by laying down successive layers of material.

That additive manufacturing will probably be deployed in house construction on the builder’s land in the near future is signalled by prototypes of house printing machines being trialled. Various construction material blends are being developed.

We might expect resistance from the building industry to making houses with additive printing technology. That’s happened so frequently when new technology has threatened old ways. Think of the recorded music industry, the media, industrial production. Understandably, builders might fear technological unemployment as has happened, and as is happening, in other industries. Yet, there are those who will see the new technology as an opportunity and invest in it. Builders have been using essentially the same techniques for thousands of years. Additive printing promises a new approach to building.

The method seems appropriate for constructing small houses, the size and short printing time reducing costs compared to traditional construction methods. Doorways, window spaces, conduit channels and other fittings can be designed into the computer-assisted drafting plan and followed by the printer.

Legislative change – a critical ingredient

Some of the models I describe already exist. Some have existed for some time. If there are ways to make them more achievable at less cost and to become more widespread as options in affordable housing, then what are we waiting for?

To go with some of these models of potentially affordable housing requires local government to recognise the unaffordability of housing in our cities and to amend and introduce — to modernise, in effect — legislation around housing. As we find in many sectors today, technology outruns legislation and this can lead to either a clash or a worsening of circumstances. Within limits, this lag is a positive thing as it allows a new idea to be tried and to be debugged before it emerges as something achievable. Left too long, though, the lag becomes an impediment that worsens the problem a new idea sets out to solve.

To effectively address our affordable housing crisis and to open the housing market to income and asset-poor young people, it may well be time to step out beyond the economistic mindset and to seriously think about how new housing models and technologies can be made to work in the interest of all who seek somewhere affordable to live.

Housing Affordability Online Consultation:

Q: What can be done to improve housing affordability?