We’re all sick of hearing about inflation, the housing crisis and the impending death of working from home.
We know things are getting prohibitively expensive, we don’t need the news to tell us. It’s in our face every time we have to wave our phone around a cash point waiting for the right beep. Yet while we struggle, the supermarkets and banks still post million or billion-dollar profits.
We know there’s a housing availability crisis and we’re told there are more people coming than we can accommodate, all while staring in horror at photos of kilometre-long lines to inspect terrible rental properties that are allowed to go for top dollar.
We know people are living in cars and sheds and other custom arrangements because they can’t find affordable housing despite being full-time employed, with homelessness rates exploding so rapidly that people are being turned away by social services.
We’re sick of hearing from alleged experts about how interest rates and inflation are going to ease any minute, yet they never do.
We know renters are being advised to get creative and turn their common living areas into makeshift bedrooms to maximise the earning potential of the property for their poor, suffering landlords. Because they’re the real victims in all of this…
We know that in early 2020 about 21% of Sydney rentals were priced below $400pw, and we know that number is now just over 10% for apartments, and 5% for houses, combined with a critically low rental availability rate of just 1.3%.
Meanwhile, we also know that more people in the corporate world are calling for an end to the work-from-home era, claiming that it’s better for their companies and businesses to have everyone start showing up again despite proving WFH works.
They always seem to forget to mention the rent they have to pay on their virtually redundant office spaces, many of which have been operating at minimal capacity since the pandemic started.
But despite many of us being fully aware of all of this waking nightmare and reminded about it with anecdotal evidence every day, it feels like little is being done to help.
Fortunately, more houses and apartment blocks are on the way.
Unfortunately, they’re coming at a much slower rate than required to have any positive impact.
As it stands, NSW needs to build approximately 63,000 houses in the next financial year to meet demand. According to reports, they’re currently on track for 56,000 - and that’s if the building companies don’t all collapse before then. After years of the industry failing to keep up with demand, the state-wide shortage of housing has grown to nearly 100,000 homes.
Premier Chris Minns last week said that Sydney needs to ‘build up’ via apartment towers and high-density residential to deal with shortages, instead of adding a new block to the western fringes of the city every few weeks. He might be right, but we don't want to be like New York, which is officially sinking under the collective weight of a constantly-growing population of skyscrapers.
Surely we can see a way these problems can combine to solve each other - a way to avoid extensive overdevelopment while still offering affordable housing, and a way to occupy empty office spaces and generate income on these properties while still contributing something meaningful to society.
We wouldn't be the first, either. A number of studies have already been done, with various regions around the globe - from the USA and UK to South Korea - already putting policies in place to seriously examine viability and in some cases start moving on a significant measure attempting to curb the ongoing situation.
Sydney needs tens of thousands more living spaces quickly, and the State and Federal governments are working fervently to try and make it happen.
But why build new structures when the ones we have are seemingly well short of capacity and ripe for repurposing?
If Nicole Duncan is annoyed by selfish young people refusing to commute for two hours a day in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, instead of taking up radio minutes and column inches with complaints that divide and alienate most of us, she and her co-workers should be pivoting.
Imagine how much wealthier CEOs like Nicole and property developers could become if they struck a deal with the government to acquire or lease multiple levels of CBD tower blocks as low-cost housing options? They could re-negotiate lease arrangements with current commercial tenants and offer incentives or rebates for those willing to relinquish a percentage of their office space for housing or move to another floor.
With reports emerging every day of regular Australians being forced to live in their cars, makeshift accommodation or on the streets as the nights get longer and colder, why not give them the opportunity to take up short or medium-term residence in a custom space within a commercial office that now sits unused? If Sydney's homeless rate was at 'crisis point' in 2019, what are we calling it now?
We hear about landlords suggesting residents use sheets and partitions to create a room worth $200 per week within already-existing houses - but imagine how many people they could fit on to just one floor of a Sydney office block - for far less!
Admittedly, I’m not an economics major, nor do I have any practical experience in real estate. I’m not an expert - far from it - but it’s not like the experts are helping us anyway, are they?
The biggest criticism of the idea of converting office space into residential units is a negative impact on quality of life due to less natural light and airflow. While we can certainly agree that the situation would be less than ideal, surely it's better than the reality many Australians are currently facing.
I’m sure this relatively simple notion is actually a complicated and bureaucratic process - but it's hard to believe that said process would take as long as building an insufficient number of houses and entirely new apartment blocks too slowly to keep up.
With the construction industry facing continued pressure and clearly struggling with material costs and other issues, there’s little doubt many building companies would be happy to go to work re-fitting offices into residential spaces with government support.
Development application processes, which have exploded in the wake of disastrous projects throughout Sydney, would also be cut down significantly. Not as much needs to be built from scratch, noise concerns would be minimal, there’s no impact on the exterior aesthetics of the city and building within pre-existing structures would lead to a lot more accommodation being delivered quickly.
Sure, it’s likely that many kitchen and bathroom areas would be shared by small groups of residents - but in the midst of what’s going on in the real world, the majority of people who could benefit most from such an arrangement are unlikely to be fazed.
The only thing really standing in the way of this idea is the uncertainty of rent and a willingness to compromise from corporate Australia - but the government could put regulatory safeguards in place to ensure the spaces remain affordable.
BENEFITS FOR EVERYONE
Whether you’re a struggling family, an individual who can’t get into a rental property for whatever reason, or you’re a cynical corporate bemoaning the absence of staff who don’t need to come in while you still pay rent, there’s something to gain from an arrangement like this.
Those on the verge of homelessness would have a roof over their heads, somewhere safe and secure to live out of the elements, a place to call home, to protect themselves and their loved ones - and surely that's enough to negate the supposed negative impacts the experts point to.
For the corporates and property owners, imagine the amazing PR. Instead of headlines and social media comments bad-mouthing your organisation for being out of touch with the real world, you could be rebranded a philanthropic saviour of modern society because you’re helping the vulnerable when they need it most.
Owners of small businesses within the CBD, who have arguably felt the impacts of WFH far worse than any CEO, would also see customers begin to return.
Employers still harping on about WFH could even offer financial incentives to employees to utilise the accommodation, while the government could also establish discounted rates for people who have recently purchased a house as they wait for it to be built, easing the pressure on builders and the anxieties of homebuyers uncertain that their house may actually be completed.
It may seem idealistic and ill-informed - and that’s probably because it is - but it’s hard to believe that an idea like this couldn’t be brought into reality in some shape or form as these multiple crises refuse to abate.
It certainly beats the very real alternatives that we're seeing become more of a reality each week.