British Columbia·Q&A

Australian housing expert says Vancouver, Sydney, facing similar issues

Two of the most unaffordable cities in the world have many similar issues, an Australian expert says, and both are looking for answers.

More than a supply and demand issue, Sydney planner says

At left, the skyline of Sydney, and at right, Vancouver's. An Australian housing expert says both cities are grappling with similar issues. (Jim Bowen/Flickr; AP Photo/Tourism British Columbia, Albert Normandin)

As a city planner and housing policy expert in both London and Sydney, Sarah Hill has seen some of the least affordable major cities in the world firsthand.

Hill is the CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission — a new, independent organization responsible for the planning of that city — and she is among the international experts in Vancouver for the Re-address housing conference, which aims to tackle issues of affordability.

Hill says Sydney and Vancouver share many similarities when it comes to housing: they're both global cities, attractive places to live and invest in and they attract people from all over the world.

She outlined the actions Sydney has taken in an interview with On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

We hear often from the provincial government and others that this is a supply problem and if cities just cut red tape, more rental housing would be built. Is that the case in Sydney?

It's not that straightforward. We've had incredible growth in supply in recent years and we haven't even touched demand.

Research shows that with big housing booms, demand for housing actually grows. It's a complex situation. It's not something that can be fixed with basic school economics. With a boom in demand, more people want to enter the market for fear of missing out.

So what measures are you using in Sydney?

We're really looking at a range of measures. Supply is one of them. [But] we actually have to provide a range across the whole continuum, and that includes subsidized housing for rent which is a new initiative we're driving at.

We've had a bit more of an ad hoc approach to things such as inclusionary zoning, and I think some sort of continuity and consistency across approaches is really important. But we're also learning from younger generations that they want to live differently. Buying a house and having a mortgage for 30 or 40 years is not that exciting.

How is Sydney handling the issue of foreign buyers?

We have increased across the state a modest increase in a tax for international buyers, but it certainly is an important part of our economy, so there's a big debate happening in that space.

Are there neighbourhoods that simply can't be touched by density? What seems to occupy the majority of space in Vancouver is single-family homes. Can you build larger developments, more housing, more dense housing?

I think, unfortunately, density has become a bit of a dirty word in many suburbs. We like to rephrase it as "density done well." It can be done really well, but it's terrifying for some people to see there's change. Something that's a large part of a family's investment is their home or property. So anything that changes or influences that can be a real concern.

There are many neighbourhoods in Sydney that are concerned about it. But it doesn't mean that if you're the last person to buy into an area you're the last one who should be able to live there.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

Sarah Hill is the CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission, a new, independent organization responsible for the planning of that city. (CBC)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Australian housing expert says Vancouver, Sydney, facing similar issues