13 August 2019

Australians aged over 55 are having difficulty finding downsizer-friendly villas and townhouses and are instead being forced to choose between smaller apartments and large homes.

That’s one of the findings of a major report into the housing aspirations of older Australians, by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI). 

The report finds that the majority of older Australians want to live in a detached house, but that this preference falls as people get older. 

It finds that some 69 per cent of people aged 55-64 want to live in a detached house, compared to 61 per cent for people aged 75 plus.

Conversely, demand for attached dwellings, such as semi-detached cottages, terraces or townhouses, increases with age. These are nominated as the ideal housing outcome by nine per cent of people aged 55-64, increasing to 14 per cent for people aged 75 plus.

The problem, according to the study, is that we’re not providing these smaller dwellings in the right locations. 

“Current patterns of housing supply are not meeting the diverse needs of older Australians with too many apartments and large separate dwellings and not enough mid-sized product,” the report finds. 

“Developers for both the private and social housing sectors need to recognise the demand for two and three-bedroom attached dwellings located in high level amenity locations; locations where shopping, recreation and allied health services are located within walking distance or a short drive from home.

“These dwellings need to be designed with older Australians in mind, which includes being easily adaptable when required. 

“Strategic planning needs to deliver outcomes that reflect the demand for smaller houses within established suburbs and move away from a mind-set that apartments are the only solution to delivering smaller dwellings. 

“Regional locations also need a greater diversity of dwelling product. Small regional towns were a popular aspiration of older Australians, but there needs to be a range of products available in these locations to meet demand.”

Excerpt of survey results from AHURI research report on housing aspirations

The finding about unmet demand is no surprise, given previous research undertaken by Downsizing.com.au and LJ Hooker. This research found that one of the biggest barriers to downsizing, was a lack of available and suitable properties.

Limited success delivering these smaller dwellings across Australia

Despite the above research, there’s only limited progress in government efforts to deliver smaller dwellings - and if anything things are getting worse.

For instance, Brisbane City Council has announced proposed changes to its citywide planning instrument, which would prohibit townhouses from low-density residential areas.

Up until now, townhouses were able to be built on sites greater than 3,000 square metres in the low-density residential zone, if these sites were close to public transport and a business centre.

The council says the changes were made because “townhouses and apartments are seen by the community as inappropriate in areas that predominantly feature detached dwellings (single homes).” The changes are on exhibition until 26 August 2019.

The change has brought a furious response from Brisbane-based town planner Chris Isles, who told realestate.com.au that the “grey haired keyboard army” had forced the council changes, after fighting against higher density residential development in low density suburbs.

But he warned, it was a decision that “will come back to bite them”, because it would mean they would have less access to the types of dwellings they needed later in life.

Mr Isles has developed what he calls the DORIS Index, which rates the suburbs across Brisbane in which it is the easiest or hardest to downsize, based on new approvals for non-single house projects and the number of people aged 55-64. DORIS is short for ‘Downsizer Opportunity to Remain in Suburb’.

The review shows that it is difficult to downsize in Brisbane’s eastern, western and northern suburbs.

Screen shot from Chris Isles' DORIS Index report

NSW has also had some difficulty in advancing the cause of smaller dwellings. The NSW Government in 2018 released a Statewide planning code designed to support fast-tracked approvals for attached dwellings and small apartment buildings (known as manor houses). It termed these building types as being the ‘missing middle’.

However, the code has been contentious because of its potential impacts on local character and 49 councils - including many in the high-growth areas of Sydney - have been granted a request to be temporarily excluded from its operation. 

The government has also ordered an independent review to “assess progress on the Code to date, identify impediments to the Code’s delivery in deferred areas, and make recommendations on the appropriate pathway forward to finalise the Code’s implementation.”

The story is a little different in Perth, in that there is a good supply of smaller dwellings such as duplexes or triplexes, but they are not necessarily being built in the right location.  

According to analysis by Urbis, the proportion of medium density dwellings in Perth has seen a significant increase over the last five years. In 2013, medium density units accounted for 16 per cent of first-time dwelling sales and this had increased to 23 per cent by 2018.

Chris Melsom, Director at Urbis, said the research however found that medium density approvals were often in regions which lack good access to public transport, infrastructure, amenity and employment. They are also often associated with a loss of trees and open space over large areas.

“Key to successful medium density is fostering its development at sites that fit a broad spectrum of needs, offering lifestyle amenity, social and community links, jobs and transport. If you look at medium density in the eastern states there is a strong presence of large-scale quality townhouse-style developments with fantastic lifestyle amenity.”

The Western Australian Government is separately taking part, with the private sector, in a pilot project which is developing micro-housing, including for downsizers (see photo above headline)

Townhouses at Lewisham in Sydney's inner west


By Mark Skelsey, News Editor of Downsizing.com.au - please email Mark at news@downsizing.com.au