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Saying “Yes” to Housing Abundance - by Jonathan O’Brien, lead organiser of YIMBY Melbourne

Jonathan O’Brien, lead organiser of YIMBY Melbourne

Late last year, almost 150,000 Victorian households were either homeless or experiencing rental stress. Meanwhile, Victoria’s social housing stock has grown by a meagre 74 dwellings over four years. Housing experts describe our nationwide shortage of social and affordable housing as a ticking “time bomb”, one that’s costing Australia upwards of $650m a year.

In 2023, there is nothing particularly new about the housing crisis. What is new is the long-overdue attention it’s finally getting from media and politicians alike. This new wave of attention comes as the housing crisis worsens in a very specific way: it’s begun to deeply affect a broader cross-section of Australians, including homeowners, middle-income earners, and young professionals.

But for too many Australians, the housing crisis is nothing new. For people fleeing domestic and family violence, dealing with serious health issues, surviving on low incomes, or otherwise at risk of homelessness, our broken housing system is an urgent daily reality. As a society, we have long failed to provide nearly enough homes for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who need them most.

Right now, there is not enough housing in this country of any kind. To solve this crisis, we urgently need to build more. And some of it will have to be in our backyards.

A drone photo of Melbourne's north

Born in the apocalyptically unaffordable city of San Francisco, the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement has become a global phenomenon. YIMBYs advocate for planning reform – the easing of strict zoning regimes – in favour of a system that enables dense construction in our cities and creates housing abundance. We’ve recently seen this work across the pond in Auckland, New Zealand, where mass residential upzoning led to increased housing supply.

When we hear from the YIMBY movement, it’s often about market-rate housing — the kind you might rent or buy. This is a valid focus. Backed by growing evidence, YIMBYs around the world argue that we must increase the supply of market-rate housing in order to help lower prices and enable people to live where they want to live.

But housing is an ecosystem, and social and affordable housing are essential parts of that ecosystem. When the YIMBY movement pushes for systemic change in favour of housing abundance, we’re advocating for all forms of housing. YIMBYs want to reform the housing system itself – not in favour of developers or builders, but in favour of development and building. As such, we advocate for reforms that enable more social and affordable housing to be built alongside market-rate housing.

When we hear about a group of Melbournians lobbying their council against a local development, we might assume a familiar narrative: hard-done-by locals standing up against a profiteering corporation. But too often, the actual reality is this: well-off locals and councillors standing up against social and affordable housing, sometimes with an explicitly anti-social housing agenda, and sometimes for no clear reason at all.

This is a huge problem: the same planning system levers that serve as a “check” on private developers can also be used by locals to block urgently needed social and affordable housing developments. Our current planning laws leave us completely unable to build the housing people want — let alone the housing so many Victorians so desperately need.

Jonathan O'Brien delivers a 'Yes in Your Back Yard' workshop. Photo courtesy of Jonathan O'Brien

To solve homelessness, we need to provide enough homes for people. To provide enough homes, we have to build more. We have to incentivise local councils to approve more housing developments — social, affordable, and market-rate alike. We have to create a system that cannot be hijacked by a small number of existing residents fearful about preserving their own inflated property prices – a fear, incidentally, that is usually unfounded and often based on prejudice.

To achieve this, we need to radically change the way we think about housing. Because home ownership is a key way for Australian families to build wealth, politicians and governments have a strong incentive to keep these homes scarce. Housing values have increased so enormously over recent decades precisely because there’s not enough of it to go around.

But there must be enough to go around. We cannot have a scarcity mindset around something as fundamental as shelter. We need a housing system that enables everyone – young and old, low-income and otherwise – to live in their own communities. As Melburnians, it’s time for us to say “Yes” to housing abundance – to create a city, and a nation, where everyone has a home.

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