Urban consolidation policies in Australia presuppose apartments as the new dominant housing type, but much of what the market has delivered is criticised as over-development, and as being generic, poorly-designed, environmentally unsustainable and unaffordable. In contrast to the usual focus on planning regulation and construction costs as the primary issues needing to be addressed in order to increase the supply of quality, affordable apartment housing this paper uses Ball’s (1983) ‘structure of provision’ approach to outline the key processes informing apartment development to reveal a substantial gap in critical understanding of how apartments are developed in Australia, and identifies economic problems not previously considered by policymakers.
Using mainstream economic analysis to review the market itself, the authors found high search costs, demand risk, problems with exchange, and lack of competition present key barriers to achieving greater affordability and limit the extent to which ‘speculative’ developers can respond to the preferences of would be owner-occupiers of apartments. The existing development model, which is reliant on capturing uplift in site value, suits investors seeking rental yields in the first instance and capital gains in the second instance, and actively encourages housing price inflation. This is exacerbated by lack of density restrictions, such as have existed in inner Melbourne for many years, which permits greater yields on redevelopment sites. The price of land in the vicinity of such redevelopment sites is pushed up as landholders' expectation of future yield is raised. All too frequently existing redevelopment sites go back onto the market as vendors seek to capture the uplift in site value and exit the project in a risk free manner.
The paper proposes three major reforms. Firstly, that the market for apartment development be re-designed following insights from the economic field of ‘Market Design’ (a branch of Game Theory). A two-sided matching market for new apartments is proposed, where demand-side risks can be mitigated via consumer aggregation. Secondly, consumers should be empowered through support for ‘deliberative’, or ‘do-it-yourself’ (DYI) development models, in order to increase competition, expand access, and promote responsiveness to consumer needs and preferences. Finally, planning schemes need to impose density restrictions (in the form of height limits, floor space ratios or bedroom quotas) in localities where housing demand is high, in order to dampen speculation and de-risk development by creating certainty. However restrictions on over-development on larger infill sites needs to be offset by permitting intensification of ‘greyfield’ suburbs. Aggregating existing housing lots to enable precinct regeneration and moderate height and density increases would permit better use of airspace thus allowing design outcomes that can optimise land use while retaining amenity.