By Chris Isles, Executive Director Planning at Place Design Group.
Is multi-generational housing a solution, or is it just a new way to wave the white flag in the face of housing affordability battleground?It would seem that a week in the affordable housing realm is getting bigger and bigger.
Recently, I have read an enormous amount of content about the topic and have seen a variety of solutions and ideas floating around.
Everything from tiny housing and multi-generational housing concepts, to design competition ideas designed to create better solutions for the missing middle - there has been much talk. Even industry colleagues have expressed their own great interest in exploring and potentially delivering a pilot ‘naked house’ option since publication of my last article and post.
[Related article: Housing Unaffordability, The McMansion Legacy: Is The Solution Getting Naked And Sharing Toilets?]
But, this was the last straw . . .
Last week, I watched two popular morning show hosts arguing live on TV about the new concept of ‘Rent-vesting’. That being where you rent where you want to live, but buy an investment property where you can afford. With one of the two, lets call him ‘cashie’, telling everyone that he is an investment guru and thinks that this is a great option for people to consider.
Oh the humanity.
With all due respect, the only thing I have seen solved by morning television programs was a financial solution delivered by a ‘Cash Bovine’ character, and its generous contributions made to unsuspecting battlers.
Other than that, I can honestly say I think it’s time for us all to officially wave the white flag and call time for a higher-level discussion about housing affordability if we are now relying upon our morning show TV hosts to debate and solve the problems for us. So, first talk on the agenda?
Let’s stop inventing new names to disguise the underlying problem.
People can’t afford to buy housing where they want to live. But if we come up with a clever name and make it sound appealing, then we can convince ourselves that the underlying problem is actually a positive and enticing lifestyle choice. When it is in fact a major problem that people have to buy property where others want to live and then rent elsewhere.
I had to get this off my chest.
Yet what really piqued my interest this week has been the amount of discussion about multi-generational housing. And for the unacquainted, that is housing that is overtly designed and built with the express intention of housing two (or more) generations of a family. So Mum, Dad, the kids... and the in-laws (always a good combination in my experience!).
Whilst it is arguably ‘status quo’ within several cultural groups within our communities, it hasn’t really been a common phenomenon in Anglo-Saxon suburbia. Yet in the space of a week, conversations about multi-generational housing ran hot everywhere. The Courier Mail covered it, and Channel 10’s The Project also drew attention to the concept, with guest Tim Ross (aka Rosso), talking about his latest book, the Rumpus room (free plug here for Rosso!). As much as I love Rosso, he broadly said that if people who were currently designing or building new houses, they would be crazy if they weren’t thinking about making them suitable for multi-generation living.
To me, multi-generational housing and the sudden almost mainstream acceptance of it, should be treated as a very worrying smoke signal for our cities and communities, not as a glamorous solution.
Multi-generational housing has been around for a while. In reality, for generations. So why has it suddenly become so topical? What has changed? And why is multi-generational housing now becoming a topic of mainstream media?Even a few weeks ago, ABC Radio National dedicated a whole feature show to the topic.
They stated one in five of us is living in a multi-generational house. Statistically, that really surprised me.
Now to go out on a limb, I am going to say that most of us, if we had a choice wouldn’t choose to live with our parents. I mean for me - I couldn’t wait to get out of my family home into our own place, and I am sure that the feeling was perhaps mutual with my parents back in the day.
As a forty-year-old with a family, do you really want to come home to ‘that look’ from your mum which says, ‘where have you been and are you drunk?” After all it was that exact look that had me so eager to leave home as a 20-year-old.
So if we assume most people don’t ‘want’ to live this way’, we have to infer that it is a need, not a want kind of situation.
Whilst housing affordability is probably an easy target to link to this change in our housing structure, it can’t be the only issue.
Throw in circumstances where people are required to care for older or disabled parents. Or the reverse, where grandparents are living in the family house as cheap and convenient means of young parents dodging the expense of third party childcare.
The affordability issue is front and centre and the issue is at both ends of the housing spectrum with the costs of both retirement and aged care high, but also in dire shortage.
Entry level pricing for families at the other end of the life cycle is also the highest it has ever been. So regardless, we have an affordability problem at both ends of the spectrum with the easiest solution presenting as both groups just bunking in together.
So, I have spent the week digging a bit deeper into the topic of multi-generational housing.
And, I have been surprised by the extent and growth of the topic on the good old interwebs.
Perhaps what surprised me most, was finding that when you search, ‘multi-generational housing’ via Google, just how many project home builder’s websites appear in the search results. And that when you dig even deeper, you find that there are many home builders with house configuration plans specifically catering to multi-generational housing design.
Whilst this has clearly not been on my radar, these findings pretty well say that this multi-generational housing concept has actually already gone mainstream.
And that kind of concerns me that this has occurred yet no one is seeing it as much of a problem - Perhaps other than me. Because to me, excluding those who like to live this way for cultural reasons, accepting multi-generational housing as an ‘okay’ solution to housing affordability is pretty much the same thing as having a morning TV presenter invent their own terminology to define our ability to rent where we want to live just to make it sound cool.
Surely this is a worrying sign of defeat and says that our cost of living (housing, childcare etc.) is so high that neither young families nor older people can afford to buy without having the other either contribute to or split the costs with.
As I’ve said earlier, to me multi-generational housing and the sudden almost mainstream acceptance of it, should be treated as a very worrying smoke signal for our cities and communities. So for me, I think a bigger discussion needs to be had, and solutions provided.
I don’t think it is okay for us to simply wave the white flag and accept the inhume prospect that we will never get away from our parents (and vice versa).
And I would ask you, who is with me on this?
As Executive Director for Planning at Place Design Group, Chris Isles leads Urban Planning teams internationally in Australia, China and South East Asia.
A trusted advisor to the Australian government at all levels and private developers alike, Chris’s focus is guided by the global imperative for the planning profession to respond, and keep ahead of the global urbanisation trend to ensure that the future of cities for people is not lost during rapid urbanisation.
Chris was awarded Australian Planner of the Year for 2015 and is a member of the Queensland Urban Design and Places Panel and the World Cities Summit Young Leaders Program.