Sydney will become a ‘city with no grandchildren’ if sweeping changes are not made to address the housing affordability crisis. But as councils resist rezoning proposals, where to next? Catherine Lewis reports.

Breaking up is hard to do, especially with a partner as stunning as Sydney. But stratospheric property prices and living costs are forcing thousands to call it quits each year. Despite boasting the highest average wages in Australia, the harbour city has lost twice as many people in their 30s and 40s in recent years as it gained, says the Productivity Commission. With 70,000 headed to postcodes new between 2016 and 2021, Sydney is in danger of becoming a ‘city with no grandchildren,’ says the commission.

In gilded Mosman, growth of almost six per cent over the last year has seen prices spiral to a median of $5.28 million, says Core Logic, with the suburb notching up the highest total value of sales at $1.46 billion.

Median house prices of $1.6 million are way out of whack with wage increases, with home values 14 times average full-time incomes, as prospective purchasers – buoyed by rate reduction predictions – flood back in, and second home buyers flex mass equity gains to snap up weekenders.

It’s taxing times for tenants too, as rental vacancy rates flounder at 0.7 per cent, while unit prices rise faster than houses, with average gains of 0.97 per cent earlier this year, compared to 0.43 for houses, says PropTrack, spurring tenants to leap onto the ladder, or risk homelessness. “There are more than 55,000 on the social housing waitlist and affordability and availability are at their lowest levels in decades,” warns State Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Rose Jackson, with lagging levels of housing starts in NSW unlikely to mitigate demand.

The state is last-in-line for construction completions on the east coast despite having the largest population, largest expected population increase and highest rents and median house prices. This doesn’t sit well with National Cabinet plans to construct 1.2 million ‘well-located’ homes over the next five years – necessitating 77,000 housing starts a year from NSW – a monumental ask considering last year’s tally of 47,000, the lowest for more than a decade. So what to do?

Making better use of our land is the key, a spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure, tells North Shore Living (NL). “There is less diverse housing in Sydney today than there was 100 years ago. We recognise this is vital, which is why the NSW Government is proposing two key policies to support the delivery of more diverse homes such as terraces, town houses and apartment blocks.”

‘Once in a generation’ rezoning reforms aim to boost density around travel hubs such as Crows Nest, North Willoughby and Naremburn. They will also increase sub-division and height restrictions, with blocks within 400-metres of town centres having the potential to soar to 21 metres. “The proposed transport oriented development (TOD) low and mid-rise and state environmental planning policies policy reforms…will help deliver 138,000 homes over the next 15 years,” adds the department.

From left: Opposition Leader Mark Speakman, Willougby MP Tim James and Shadow Minister for Planning Scott Farlow in the Naremburn heritage conservation area

North Shore communities that are pushing back on proposals may be accused of NIMBY-ism or of shortchanging future generations. But it’s clear that one-size-fits-all density reforms are dangerously misaligned with the unique local environment and limited infrastructure. Throw in changes to low-density (R2) zones to demolish detached housing and permit dual occupancies on tiny blocks, and concern spirals. Contrary to claims by NSW Liberal Leader Mark Speakman that the proposed reforms would overrule the abilities of local councils to determine applications, the department says they will ‘retain all the rights they presently have to approve, modify or reject a development’. In addition, the TOD precinct around the Crows Nest metro station will be the subject of community consultation, it confirms.

Mosman has little room to grow, but Spit Junction is one possible area for expansion

While there is ‘no question’ that we need more housing, Willoughby MP Tim James tells NL that ‘development and density must be done right’.

“This reform is a lazy approach to planning, with a disregard to local communities. Proposals must be delivered alongside a plan for better infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and open space to support residents,” says Mr James, who has launched a petition to urge the government to ‘protect natural and built heritage’ and invest in ‘all necessary new and additional infrastructure’.

Rachel Blazey, President of Northbridge Progress Association, agrees, saying that meaningful engagement with communities is essential to identify potential impacts, such as increased pressures on local sports facilities.

Residents in ‘growth areas’ such as St Leonards, North Sydney and Chatwood fear that vast towers of planned ‘build to rent’ units errected exclusively for renters will shadow their suburbs. In St Leonards – home to average weekly rents of $800 – a 276-unit, 29-storey project is on the cards, while Chatswood could see one of its tallest skyscrapers – plus the loss of a heritage fire-station – if plans for a 31-storey, 220-unit build-to-rent development on the Pacific Highway go ahead. Willoughby Mayor Tanya Taylor tells NL that councils have little control over such developments, saying: “We wanted the opportunity to talk through some possible proposals (with Housing Minister Paul Scully), which are not in an ideal build areas, but those powers get taken away from us when it’s build to rent.”

The above map shows how Willoughby’s housing would be affected should density reforms proceed

North Sydney Mayor Zoe Baker says that her area is ‘one of the densest’ in NSW with ‘less open space than the City of Sydney and all other local government areas in northern Sydney’.

“The area is already under huge pressure and strain,” Mayor Baker tells NL, citing the limited capacity of the existing sewerage system in St Leonards as one example. “Our existing utilities and infrastructure, from sewerage to hospital beds, are inadequate for community needs and our planned future population. These would be further strained under the proposals, which…run counter to good planning principles and will undermine community confidence and trust.”

The department has completed a state-wide community consultation and says it is still speaking with councils about the changes. It is expected to finalise reforms through legislative change by the middle of year.

“If brought in, these proposals will undermine community confidence and trust.” Mayor Zoe Baker North Sydney Council

It’s clear that aligning the vast need for homes with the protection of communities is a delicate balance. Ensuring existing capacity – or sufficient funding – for essential infrastructure upgrades and omitting heritage conservation areas from reforms could help with this alignment. But the Productivity Commission argues that, with entire suburbs – including Cremorne Point – being declared heritage conservation areas by councils, protection must be balanced with ‘renewal, diversity and vibrancy,’ and should be reviewed to see whether areas could be used ‘more appropriately’ for housing.

Ensuring the drawbridge is not pulled up on future generations hoping to call the North Shore home calls for complex, creative development, not tracts of skyscrapers vastly at odds with the local environment. As Tim James says: “Growth needs to be sustainable, the supporting infrastructure needs to be in place, and it needs to be done in partnership with people and community.” More housing yes, but not at any cost.