To solve its housing crisis, Sydney could learn from London

Some houses in the Paddington district of Sydney. Image: Getty.

So “fixing housing affordability” in Sydney is one of three top priorities for the new premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian. It’s good that the state’s new leader recognises this as an intensifying problem that can’t be ignored.

Berejiklian will appreciate the electoral importance of this issue. It’s an especially sensitive topic in western Sydney, which no longer provides Sydney with the large reserve of less-expensive property that it once did. Unless they can draw on family wealth, even middle-income first-home-buyers are now locked out of huge swathes of Sydney – including areas far from the inner city.

But given she came to the top job from the Treasury portfolio, Berejiklian would also be expected to have a clear understanding that the lack of well-located affordable housing is an economic productivity concern as well as a social problem.

One aspect of this, as shown by our recent research, is that central Sydney’s booming hospitality sector is facing growing pressure to find and retain suitable employees. This is because of workers’ limited ability to find affordable housing within a reasonable distance. To work in the inner city they must weigh up other compromises – such as living in shared housing, or paying a very high proportion of income in rent.

Relying on backpacker labour supply isn’t an ideal business strategy. And, as inner Sydney housing affordability deteriorates further, there’s every possibility other CBD industries will see their lower-income labour market thinning out.

The broader issue is the growing stress caused by the continuing focus of employment creation in inner-city areas. This applies especially to the so-called “global arc” stretching from the airport in the south to Macquarie Park in the north.

In the last few years annual job growth here has been running at more than 2 per cent, but only 0.5 per cent in western Sydney. At the same time, housing market pressures mean more and more people needed to fill these new jobs are having to live in outer western Sydney. The resulting traffic congestion is damaging Sydney’s economy.

Nationally, the cost of congestion in 2015 was A$16.5bn – up by 30 per cent on 2010. Anyone who commutes by car in Sydney will know it is a major part of this problem. Ultimately, some companies may choose to relocate to places where these problems are less severe.

Housing supply is only part of the solution

On the other hand, it must be hoped that Berejiklian will leave behind at Treasury the flawed analysis that fixing Sydney’s housing problems is simply a matter of increasing housing supply.

No-one disputes that, with continued population growth, maximising new house-building must be part of the policy mix. But the idea that this can provide any kind of silver bullet for housing unaffordability is shot dead by the experience of the past few years. Record construction rates have co-existed with unprecedented and ongoing property price hikes.

As premier, Berejiklian should therefore lend support to her ministerial colleague, Rob Stokes, who called it right by arguing recently that Sydney’s housing problems partly result from a market pumped up by excessive tax concessions for landlord investors.

These powers are held at the federal level, not with the states. So Berejiklian can do little more than lobby for such reform.

Adopt the best policies from others

And yet the premier does have important powers of her own that can make a difference.

Recognising that even a moderation of property prices isn’t going to provide relief for tens of thousands of hard-pressed renters, the NSW government must take a leaf out of the book of cities like London and New York by using its planning muscle to ensure the inclusion of affordable rental housing in all major new housing developments.

Under the former premier, Mike Baird, a promising initiative in this arena was the recent proposal by the Greater Sydney Commission to introduce a scheme of this kind. Private housing developments on sites “upzoned” under the planning system should include 5-10 per cent affordable rental housing.


If she is serious about this issue, Berejiklian should back the commission’s move. She can prove her commitment to finding solutions by setting a much higher affordable rental housing target for development on government-owned land. This would ensure that a significant affordable component is locked in for flagship projects such as the Central to Eveleigh and Bays Precinct urban renewal schemes. This is a one-off opportunity that must not be squandered.

The new premier should also recommit to the innovative Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF) created under her predecessor, following his 2015 commitment to a “billion-dollar fund” for affordable housing.

An announcement on the promised second phase of the SAHF has been long-awaited. Perhaps Berejiklian can pledge to underwrite this by dipping into the huge stamp-duty bonanza the government has reaped in recent years.

Above all, NSW needs an overarching housing strategy that encompasses much more than just the social end of the spectrum. Recognising the urgency of the problem, Berejiklian should pledge that her officials will get to work on this right away.The Conversation

Hal Pawson is an associate director at the City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”