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Solutions to the Housing Crisis VII

The complication of too many houses

One of the argument I'm exploring in this series -- as a hypothesis -- is that building lite and using supplements to extend such structures environmentally -- by using effective insulation for example-- is preferable in regard to flexible options than building solid heavy structures that come at a high green house gas price

The first problem I think is retrofitting. The second is finding the space ( and win the community support to exploit it)in already existing urban areas to locate any new housing (and accommodation) we need so that already existing infrastructure is utilised more efficiently. The third problem is developing the means to build sustainable houses quickly, and cheaply which also offers an option that , in fact, they can be moved elsewhere if needed, or raised up or dismantled and recycled.
EG:The one piece of lumbar harvested and cut in 1910 can still be in use and recycled a century later.Whereas a house brick caked with yesterday's mortar, isn't always so long lived.
Here where I live in Queensland thermal mass isn't a major factor in ecological design so much.I'm also considerate that the houses we need to build are bush fire and cyclone resistant( and when you talk tin roof you have to be careful on how that roof is pitched and curved). And in my head -- relative to the grid, I think there is a lot to be said for designing allotments that are as much plug in /switch on as a caravan site's are.

On the question of space --while we can go up, how far do we want to go up? Three stories?

Making more neighborhood living space

Aside from unused industrial land and the possibility of dividing already existing blocks , on average one third of the suburban space is taken up by the roads network. So how much can that be harnessed for living and recreational and community use? And how is that to be done?

It's easy to imagine a 'future' house but altering the ecology of already existing suburbs now, today, is another matter altogether.

We know what can be done because we've witnessed so much inner city renewal and gentrification.

The related issue I think, is the complication that the brick house -- even where they already exist in Western Sydney for instance -- is threatened and the structure undermined by soil salinity (image left) -- just as on the urban fringe in the southern capitals, bush fires lick the family home.So sustainability does also mean protecting and maintaining already existing housing stocks.
The irony is that after native bush is cleared to make way for new housing and supposedly to keep bushfires at bay, the ecological changes can foster soil salinity as a long term consequence of the changes in land use. So despite the presumed solidity and longevity of structures built from of bricks, cement and mortar, in Australia these materials are not as apt as lighter off ground structures.
The question that is the most pressing is that given the politics of home ownership how do you move beyond the present mindset to a more community and collective neighborhoods which will willingly give up even "privately owned" real estate for the sake of a collective ecology? Related to this is the complication that you cannot so easily remake the use of the road network without dealing with the transport challenge .

In my head I'm thinking that the politics we need to consider isn't so much technical at all. But if we are going to ask people to live a different way in smaller spaces we have to offer a trade off.

And this is where the caravan , camping park comes in or the retirement village model. You have to generate neighborhood services that will encourage people to loosen up on their peasant attitude to real estate. And before you can do that you need to make their lives economically much more secure so that their home isn't so layered with security hopes.

The problem of private ownership.

Private ownership is not so easily overcome, but one way, especially with the option of building lite, portable and sustainable structures, is for communities or governments to long term lease land parcels from private family home real estate owners and to build these structures on that land.

That way there's a return for the fact that your plot is suddenly much smaller and en route, the neighborhood gets to experience the crowding while still having the option to pull out of the arrangement at a later date.(eg: after 10, 20, etc years) That way you support the original home owners with a cash commitment which they could rely on while you restructure the local urbanscape without recourse to legislative or authoritarian means .

In many ways you want to draw lessons from the problems, disasters and achievements that were experienced in the past with collectivising agriculture and land reform in various Third World countries. You don't do away with home ownership -- even the Cubans know that -- but you foster a nuanced means in order to introduce collective activity and shared responsibility.

In that sense people trade aspects of what they may value now for a greater promise and convenience as they learn to have confidence in the changes being wrought.

So as you add to the neighborhood more community facilities you expand the local population by using these trade off methods to build more housing on 'privately owned' land. At the same time you restructure the road system and local traffic flow to free up more land for housing and community amenities.

In my head, the game plan is a sort of long term caravan park that invades localities and the longer it consolidates and takes root the more changes are possible and the more permanent -- and socialist -- they become.

I cannot imagine any other way that such massive demographic changes could be engineered with community consent.

But there's a downside that leads to further problems.

The complication of too many houses

In my last post I noted the prospect that in Australia there may indeed be, as far as the market is concerned, an over supply of houses. That there could be 10 million dwellings in Australia rather than the ABS suggestion of 8.3 million. The statistical shortfall being caused by the difference between the number occupied and the number unoccupied. The actual figure perhaps isn't so important but the suggested broad scale of it is.

If these unoccupied houses could be made suddenly available for occupancy then some of the supply genesis of the housing crisis is ameliorated. This could be done by changing the whole financing structure and ensuring that any housing stock is not utilised as investment fodder but used for owner or tenant occupancy. Negative gearing and similar capital gains perks should be done away with and housing should be for need rather than for private profit. In effect, such changes would undermine speculation in real estate. Unoccupied dwellings would need to be 'liberated' by various government initiatives by perhaps fostering a sort of squatters movement to ensure that the buildings are occupied and a set legislated rental is paid to real estate owners as a transitional measure.

However, a major complication immediately kicks in. If by this means 750,000 dwellings or 1 million or whatever large number of dwellings were suddenly made available/dumped on the market -- house prices and rental costs would collapse. In fact a process like this may occur anyway as the recession deepens and owner investors seek to liquidate their assets.

This impact would be even greater if there was also a massive government investment in public housing at the same time.

Of course this is a good thing. Housing would become less an area for financial speculation and become more in tune with fulfilling actual human need. There would be a tendency for housing to become more 'affordable' (assuming people were in jobs and could 'afford' to purchase or rent it). This impact would be greater if there was also a massive investment in public housing stock. Not only could governments fix house price and rentals in that sector and make housing even more affordable by such means, the consequent drift from the private market place to the public sector would drive down house prices and rents across the board.

Nonetheless there is a complication that would also need to be addressed. If house prices fell drastically -- as they are and will anyway in the present financial crisis -- a layer of mortgagees will have no choice but to walk away from their homes they have been paying for because they will be paying much more than their properties were now worth. It would be a self evident course for them to cut their loses, walk away and seek cheaper accommodation.

This is in fact happening on a massive scale in the United States and is even a significant phenomenon here already.

This too -- either by people walking away or by a sharp rise in foreclosures -- would feed the downward price spiral.

Similarly, the gross personal wealth of millions of families would drop as the presumed nest egg congealed in their home was whittled away by the house price fall. Thousands too would now be owning real estate that they paid much more for than they could now get on the open market.

Oh woe is the contradictions of private ownership!

So the 'Housing Crisis' even as it works itself out, is sure to extract a heavy toll on working people unless other aspects of the economy are also restructured.


The story so far:


2 Com:

Ben Courtice | April 21, 2009

I don't think buildings should go higher than about 5 stories - any higher than that and you need a lift, which immediately chews a lot of power.

I'm not convinced on the light demountable dwelling argument entirely. Re-usable building materials is great; bricks can be re-used too though (there are plenty of recycled brick yards). But fired brick has a pretty high carbon footprint. I personally favour well-built structures that will last centuries (as many European buildings have done). Terrace houses are great - they can easily be 3 stories, with balconies and rooftop patios, and the shared walls mean much greater insulation.

Dave Riley | May 25, 2009

My argument was from where we're at now and how we can proceed. I don't think you are correct in regard to your either/or argument:"I personally favour well-built structures that will last centuries (as many European buildings have done). " In medieval towns like York I recently visited many wooden houses, and in Stockholm they have a whole island of houses taken from across Sweden and moved there -- representing housing through the centuries. Most of these structures are made of wood, much of it pine and all but a few are already over 100 years old with many dating back to the 18th, 17th and even the 13th century.

These were indeed "well built structures" lasting centuries but made of wood.

The way Swedish dwellings solved the insulation problem by deploying Spruce and Pine is all in the build. And like Australia -- outside the centre of main towns, the houses are standalone singular dwellings of one or two stories.

Traditionally each house had two windows before double glazing was invented and two entrance doors --as it was recognised that this is where insulation was required the most and was the most effective.

In the Swedish neighborhood, the land is completely open and there are no fences marking the property line and free access is guaranteed across properties -- even camping is allowed on such 'private' land within certain parameters.

I didn't know that, but in my estimation that was part of my projections for the Australian suburb: freehold open space..

Europe's main advantage is accessible stone and the it's clear that people build their homes through the centuries from whats' available nearby. In Scotland, the old form is a free stone dwelling packed from the inside with mud.

On the question of recycled bricks I doubt that the quantity available is such that they can remake Australia nor would I think they could always be assured of a weight bearing certification by their own --s o that woudl limited their general re-use.(I have spent longer than I care to mention cleaning old bricks and I know how suspect their integrity can be.)

Terraces are fine assuming the aspect can be engineered and there is enough features incorporated to ensure light and cooling. In Glasgow the "terrace" form is two houses side by side through suburb after suburb. (Unlike England where a terrace will run the length of a street).

Barcelona is a delightful terraced city and when you view what Gaudi managed to create for a unit block-- in terms of air circulation, function, form and beauty -- you get an idea of what is indeed possible.But the standard Barcelona square street block -- of maybe 5 stories with retail enterprises -- bakers, fruiterers, cafes, etc -- occupying the ground floor, makes for extraordinarily vibrant neighborhoods with a massive capacity for community interaction.

However, at five stories without also adding a life, you sentence the population to walk ups.

Nonetheless, terraces too need to be heated and as far as i can judge the challenge is the same regardless of wood or brick/stone build.

Here in Brisbane the new push is for "Hub" development where a area is zoned up to high density -- unit/terrace developments.This is fine as far as any planning goes but there is no attempt to remake the area to ensure greater access to open public spaces to make up for the density build (esp for children).

In Barcelona, "the Ramblas" while formally streets in our sense are mainly places where people walk, and relax.So another feature of the Australin remake has to be to combat the carbon tyranny of the street -- and the liberation of public space away from cars..

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