The right step towards a more livable Canberra

Australian cities are crying out for more diversity in housing.

Governments must commit to expanding housing choices in existing suburbs, as well as increasing the supply of affordable homes and supporting voluntary guidelines for livability.

House prices in Canberra are on the up. This may be good news for owners and investors, but it comes as a body blow to those already struggling to buy a home or pay the rent.

Canberra is crying out for more diversity in housing. This is not a new problem, and yet our government is yet to achieve a more dynamic mix of housing types and prices to address the affordability challenge.

Ensuring that Canberra provides places for young people to rent, as well as affordable options for tradespeople and professionals, is critical to attracting and retaining valuable skills to the capital. It is also manifestly clear that we need to make sure older members of our community have more manageable and creative housing choices.

Universal design is about incorporating features that make homes easier, safer and more accessible for people to live in at all stages of life. These ‘livable’ homes embrace basic principles which anticipate the changing needs and abilities of occupants and can be easily adapted as they ‘age in place’ or as their life circumstances change.

However, the recent push by the ACT Government to mandate universal design in all new houses missed the mark and would have diminished the incentive for industry to pursue anything above the minimum standard – to the detriment of consumers.

Canberra is not the only city thinking about how to support its citizens to age in place and embrace the principles of universal design. In 2010, the national Kirribilli Dialogue on Universal Design brought together advocates in the disability, ageing and human rights sectors, as well as governments and representatives from the design, construction and development industries, to explore how we could increase Australia’s supply of homes that are safer, more comfortable and easier to access.

As a result of this dialogue, Livable Housing Australia was established – with seed funding from the federal government and support from all stakeholders – to champion ambitious voluntary targets for the uptake of livable design features in all new housing.

We have taken the initiative and are working together to achieve 100 per cent voluntary compliance with the Livable Housing Design Guidelines by 2020.

The groups who support this voluntary approach are not restricted to the development industry. The Council for the Ageing, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the National Disability and Carers Council all support voluntary rather than mandatory adoption – because they recognise this delivers the best outcomes.

A mandated approach weakens the incentive for industry and consumers to pursue anything above the minimum standard. In comparison, voluntary programs encourage industry to move beyond the baseline. Why? Because voluntary compliance provides developers with market differentiation and brand building opportunities.

Nationally, there is strong evidence to suggest that regulation leads to higher costs in housing design, delivery and certification. These additional costs, including the perceived higher costs of compliance, would inevitably make Canberra’s homes more expensive – and the added costs will be passed onto the purchaser. Accessibility will be achieved at the expense of affordability.

It is no coincidence that LHA’s most significant livable housing project to date can be found in the ACT. Lend Lease’s Isabella Gardens retirement living community, which features 121 villas built to LHA’s Gold Level certification, is just one project of a number in the pipeline. Canberra’s development industry has recognised that embracing livable housing design will meet market expectations for innovative, high-quality homes that are more flexible, adaptable and comfortable.

Research on housing futures for older people has found that the vast majority of people to remain in their own home with assistance, and, of those who do wish to move, 84 per cent wish to move within their suburb. Universal design will help us to meet the needs of future generations as they age in place – but it is unlikely that mandating minimum livability standards to new, detaching housing will meet the needs of the user group that is most in need of livable housing.

The Property Council supports the ACT Government’s long-standing commitment to increase the supply of our livable homes. But we must not go down the regulation route when we have something better. We don’t need minimum standards when we can aspire to world-leadership benchmarks for livability that promote innovation and choice without compromising affordability.

It is crystal clear that ACT Government must commit to expanding housing choices in existing suburbs, as well as increasing the supply of affordable homes and supporting voluntary guidelines for livability. Together, these policies will provide a positive housing future and better lifestyle for everyone.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia