Sydney, AU: Is There A Happy Medium For Affordable Housing Density?

grey and white trimmed duplexes in tradition housing style
Duplexes in Oregon photo by Sightline Institute: Missing Middle Homes Photo Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Tasteful neighbourhood duplexes in Oregon, USA

So, how long before a first rate city that can attract only second rate talent diminishes to a second rate city?

Sydney Australia hovers close to the top of many laudable urban measurements, including the quality of local talent that is being eroded away by one of Sydney’s less desirable achievements — world class unaffordability.

What’s the solution?

On one hand, room for more housing is needed to build affordable housing. On another, suburban expansion is at serious odds with climate change. The future of city sprawl undoubtedly depends on the development of a horrendously expensive, non-polluting, energy efficient mass transit network.

A more immediate and less expensive fix comes from ‘zone-busting’: re-writing by-laws to allow higher density development in residential neighbourhoods.

The free market housing industry favours an over-the-top-and-then-some approach to zone-busting — the construction of high rise towers, the higher the better and the more luxurious the better. Luxurious high density adds up to the highest profits. Affordability? Oh, all right, for a handsome cash bribe they’ll throw in a few ‘affordable’ units.

The sheer scale and obtrusiveness of these high rises virtually  guarantees that the zoning changes to enable them will be battled to the death by ferocious NIMBYites protecting the quality of life in their neighbourhoods.

Between single family dwellings on one hand, and skyscraping homes on the other, is there a happy medium? A recent convention of Sydney architects has been brainstorming possible solutions.

While NIMBYites1 can probably be guaranteed to protest any change to neighbourhood zoning, medium and low rise multi-unit housing offers a possible solution. It tends to be modest in style and, accordingly, and less obtrusive than some of the ugly replacement single homes and ‘McMansions’ that are becoming features of today’s single family neighbourhoods.

In the U.S., Minneapolis, Minnesota has recently taken a dramatic step forward by zone-busting all single family urban neighbourhoods to allow low rise multi-unit dwellings2.

And the future for Sydney? Looking beyond the hand-wringing title, you can nread more about the Sydney Architecture Festival and their brainstorming about a ‘middling’ approach to residential density in The Daily Telegraph: Brain Drain Of Young Talent Who Cannot Afford To Live In Sydney


  1. NIMBY is an acronym for ‘Not In My Back Yard’, which is a very common response to new development (particularly affordable or higher density housing) in a neighbourhood.
  2. Try: Minneapolis Drives A Stake Into The Heart Of The American Dreamscape