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(In)filling Perth’s property gap

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With the state capital’s population set to exceed four million by 2035, Greater Perth faces increased pressure to offer more sustainable and varied accommodation options for its people.

View of Perth CBD at dusk from Kings Park

Infill development has been identified by the State Government and state planning experts as a way to address the city’s expanding population and reign in the economic and social costs of urban sprawl by providing a diverse supply of new and affordable housing options and amenities.

“Infill development is defined as housing development that occurs within existing urban areas, in contrast to greenfield sites which are previously undeveloped and tend to be located at the edges of the region,” says Curtin Associate Professor Steven Rowley, coeditor of Perth’s Infill Housing Future and Chair of the WA Housing Industry Forecasting Group (HIFG).

Infill development can improve a neighbourhood through delivering better quality public amenities and infrastructure, while also delivering a diverse range of accommodation options for different demographics.

“Infill development is distinctly different from the traditional three or four-bedroom, two-bathroom, detached houses and can include high-density and medium-density apartment blocks, three-storey walk-up apartments, townhouses, villas, granny flats and student housing,” Rowley saysa.

“It can provide options for all household types, from young adults looking to move out of home to older Australians looking to downsize.”

The growing demand for housing diversity reflects a wider cultural change in what we want from the places we live in. The Housing We’d Choose, a 2013 study conducted by a Curtin team led by Rowley, highlighted how location is becoming more important than house type and showed the trade-offs people were prepared to make in order to access high-quality locations, including housing design, size and land area.

But Perth struggles to meet this new demand – the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage has set a target to deliver 47 per cent of all new dwellings in existing urban areas, however the actual rate is hovering around 30 per cent and mostly consists of high-density apartment development.

“There remains a gap in the medium density space, which many call the missing middle,” Rowley says.

Households on low incomes are particularly affected by a lack of housing diversity. The latest HIFG report indicates that even with WA experiencing an economic downturn, the subsequent falling rents and house prices have not filtered through to households on lower incomes.

The report shows that a Perth household on a very low income (around $43,000) would be able to afford a dwelling priced at $216,300 if they were to spend only 30 per cent of their income on repayments. This is based on the assumption that the household is first able to save a 10 per cent deposit.

A driving factor behind housing affordability is the imbalance between income and house prices, which is influenced in part by a lack of housing options.

“Housing stock is still dominated by large detached homes. Most of what we see at the moment in the infill space is a single house on a large lot of land that is subdivided into two and two new, large houses built, so you’re only getting an increase of one dwelling.

“With such piecemeal infill development there are no changes to amenity and the replacement dwellings are often more expensive than the original.”

“This type of development doesn’t increase diversity or the range of opportunities that people can afford,” Rowley says.

When delivered at scale, urban infill can provide a range of housing options across the price spectrum, but it often faces fierce opposition by communities, who fear urban infill will deplete green spaces and stamp out a suburb’s character.

“There is always a problem when you’re developing in places where people already live. There is always opposition from the public because people don’t like change. People are afraid development will increase traffic and affect the value of their property,” Rowley says.

He explains that local government and planning developers need to effectively engage with the public during initial stages of infill proposals to better communicate their vision and approach.

“It is important that local government and the development industry work together to allay the fears of residents about parking, congestion and property prices.”

Change is always difficult, but it’s clear that if we desire equal access to a place we can call ‘home’, we need to re-evaluate the spaces we occupy. Urban infill can be a way to achieve our housing dreams and, when done well, can improve the quality and value of areas, and have a positive and lasting impact on community.

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