New social housing projects face increasing ‘not in my backyard’ objections

NIMBYAs the roll out of new social housing projects accelerates under the Federal Government’s Stimulus Package, the media has been full of reports of meetings called by residents and councils to object to housing developments in their area.

On 2 January the Daily Telegraph claimed that suburbs across NSW were in danger of becoming ‘mini-ghettos’ and that residents had been silenced by ‘draconian laws’ that block locals from objecting to public housing. The accompanying editorial was headed “Housing Horror”.

The Stimulus Package in NSW
The Stimulus Package was agreed to by the Federal, State and Territory Governments at the COAG meeting in February 2009. It provides funding for a range of social housing, schools and other infrastructure projects.

Taking into account a subsequent cut of $187m, NSW has received Federal funding of $1.764 billion for new social housing over four years and a further $130m over two years for repairs and maintenance – total of $1.894 billion. This welcome funding is expected to generate an extra 6,300 units of community and public housing by the completion of the program. 

As of early January more than 200 dwellings were already completed, and a further 2,800 were under construction. In return for its investment, the Federal Government has imposed tough conditions on the States, including requirement that:

  • 75% of all projects must be completed by December this year;
  • at least 50% of the new dwellings be provided to homeless Australians or those at risk of homelessness; and
  • ‘a significant proportion’ of the new housing be transferred to community housing providers by July 2014.

These requirements could not be met if Housing NSW adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach to new housing supply.

Changes to planning rules
In order to implement the Stimulus Package projects for both schools and social housing, the NSW Government has implemented a number of measures to speed up the planning approval of projects.

Under the State Environmental Planning Policy (Affordable Rental Housing) 2009, Housing NSW is empowered to self-approve social housing developments of 20 units or less, and the subdivision of land, provided the developments do not exceed 8.5 metres in height and do not involve the demolition of heritage listed properties. NCOSS understands that the vast majority of social housing projects under the Stimulus Package in NSW fall within this provision. The majority are occurring on sites that are already owned by Housing NSW.

While the power to approve such projects under the SEPP rests with the Chief Executive of Housing NSW, the relevant local council and the immediate neighbours are to be provided with the designs for the projects and given 21 days to make any comments.

Housing NSW has adopted design guidelines which require that all projects have a water tank, achieve a 5 or 6 star rating for environmental features, and that 20% of all new dwellings must be adaptable for the frail aged and people with disabilities. It is also proposing to transfer more than 90% of the new dwellings to the community housing sector for ongoing management.

Answering the critics
While the planning and consultation procedures followed by Housing NSW could be improved, it is clear that much of the current criticism is neither factually based nor based on genuine planning considerations.

Much is made, for example, of the fact that many of the new social housing dwellings are two storeys high. The reality is, however, that a two storey dwelling is a complying development across most of the state and does not require special planning permission.

There is equally little evidence for the claim that Housing is building new ‘mini-ghettos’. It is not reasonable to compare a 12 unit seniors complex in a mixed suburban street to the massive public housing estates of the past, built on the fringes of the city. All the material that NCOSS has seen shows that the new housing is quite widely dispersed across Sydney and across the state. There is, however, little development occurring in very high cost locations.

Finally it is clear from the media reports that much of the resistance relates not to specific design issues but reflects a desire to object to public housing per se. Local government is disturbed about losing planning control over these projects and has been encouraging the opposition. With so many households facing housing stress, and so many homeless people, these are disturbing trends.

A variety of groups including National Shelter, Shelter NSW and individual community housing providers have spoken out in defence of the current development program. Greg Budworth, the CEO of the Newcastle-based Compass Housing Services, recently said that every day his organisation sees new people who can’t afford to rent in the private market. “They are individuals and families who have experienced domestic violence, have disabilities, are elderly, have become unemployed or are otherwise financially disadvantaged. These are ordinary people facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances and they deserve a break... We’re pleased to manage these homes and our tenants are elated to be moving into them.”

For further information:

Warren Gardiner
phone: 02 9211 2599 ext 112
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