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Planning for Housing Affordability: NYC v Sydney

Planning for Housing Affordability: NYC v Sydney

Recently for my Strategic Spatial Planning course I was given the task of creating a PowerPoint slide to summarise one strategic planning policy from a city located outside of Australia. I chose to work on the OneNYC 2050: Building a Strong and Fair City plan and created the Canva infographic pictured below (I may have gone a tad overboard considering the simplicity of the task). Nonetheless, it was a great exercise to compare some international planning strategies which address issues of affordable housing to our own Greater Sydney Region Plan: A Metropolis of Three Cities plan. Here's what I learnt.

Simply based on the titles for the 'housing' section of each plan you can gauge how differently New York and Sydney approach the issue of housing affordability. Whilst New York is creating "Thriving Neighbourhoods", Sydney is just "Housing the City". OneNYC 2050 presents a very creative, tailored, robust and diverse strategy to tackle the housing affordability problem in New York. For me its greatest strength is its humanistic approach and clarity on who it is planning for. It is clear that the voices of New York citizens have been taken account into this plan, quite literally there is a whole section quoting peoples major concerns. But beyond that, the plan identifies the specific issues that New Yorkers have in accessing affordable housing (which mainly relates to high rent prices and rent stress), the scale at which this problem is occurring, and the particularly vulnerable groups it is effecting (including low income earners, seniors, the homeless and people of colour).

The Greater Sydney Region Plan on the other hand takes a comparatively clinical approach to describing the "housing crisis" across Sydney. Right off the bat dealing with housing is about dealing with an "economic" and a "social" asset that is used to deal with broad macroeconomic issues of population growth and productivity (Greater Sydney Region Plan, 2018). To its credit, the plan defines that housing affordability is a concern for both home owners and renters, and that it disproportionately effects people with low incomes and young people. However the overall vibe that I get from the Greater Sydney Region Plan is that affordable housing is a problem for cities and governments, not the people living in it. Affordable housing seems to be justified by concerns like reducing the quantity of people needing social housing or ensuring workers are close to centres and jobs for efficiency.

The context provided in both these plans lays down the foundations for the kinds of strategies they develop. The overarching strategies of the OneNYC 2050 Plan can be summarised as follows (1) keep renters who currently have access to affordable housing their homes (2) develop or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2036 and (3) give more affordable housing support to  vulnerable populations. Running ancillary to these main strategies is a commitment to explore more innovative ways of increasing housing supply through shared housing, modular construction and tiny houses to suit the diverse needs of the population.

A part of the strategy that I want to touch on is the notion of "preserving" existing housing stock. Preservation values affordable housing as an asset which we should be protecting. It also recognises the existing neighbourhoods and communities in New York City and seeks to protect them from potential displacement which usually results from redevelopment and rising house prices. This is a very simple idea which can be implemented at virtually no cost economically or socially and is underpinned by this overarching idea of "inclusive growth" which remains a theme of the Plan. It could be argued that there is a potential lost opportunity cost to create bigger developments that house more people, but in practice the proportion dedicated to affordable housing in the benefit to low income groups are understated.

(*rough) Graphic Representation of OneNYC 2050 Housing Policy

It is hard to imagine the Sydney planning system adopting such a proactive approach where there has been a trend towards selling off social housing and mass private-led redevelopment. In contrast the Greater Region Plan spends a lot of time describing government policies that are already in place to address affordable housing like State Environmental Planning Policies and the First Home Buyers Grant. But suggests little to deal with the situation. Essentially planning policy can distilled into the creation of an affordable housing target of 5-10% (which is actually a first for Sydney), and the two following sentences:

STRATEGY 11.1 "Prepare Affordable Rental Housing Target Schemes, following development of implementation arrangements."
STRATEGY 11.2 "State agencies, when disposing or developing surplus land for residential or mixed-use projects include, where viable, a range of initiatives to address housing diversity and/or affordable rental housing."

This is frankly crazy given how monumental of a challenge housing affordability is in Sydney, and especially considering how much more progress it has to make compared to other cities like New York. Before the OneNYC 2050 Plan was even adopted, New York already had strategies in place which Sydney doesn't have or only has newly adopted such as housing targets and mandatory inclusionary zoning. The Plan heavily relies on the private-led developer market to lead housing affordability developments which can only go so well when they are driven by maximising profit.

But the real disappointment comes from the measures by which the Greater Sydney Region Plan plans to evaluate whether affordable housing has been delivered successfully. Delivery of affordable housing will be successful where an "uplift in land value [is] created" and there is "necessary allowance for development companies to achieve a normal profit margin" to name a few (Greater Sydney Commission, 2018). These measures were allegedly formulated in consultation with stakeholders, but it seems pretty clear who they were trying to appease. Hint hint, not potential home owners or renters in Sydney. This completely undermines the inherent purpose of affordable housing to benefit low-income earners. Of course the private sector plays an important role in Sydney's housing system which needs to be supported. But it's interests should not override the interests of the least advantaged members of society to their detriment.

Now I note that housing affordability is an issue which cannot be tackled through planning strategy alone.  This is a wicked problem requiring many solutions, especially redistributive government policies. New York City does seem to have that advantage over Sydney as some of the Mayors powers are intertwined within planning policy. Even though the Greater Sydney Commission does not have these powers, I make the key point that Sydney's regional plan has a long way to go and could do a lot better with the planning mechanisms it does have. And, before Sydney can even contemplate an approach like New York, it needs to do a bit of soul searching and figure out it's priorities and how to better balance interests between the stakeholders involved.