April 18, 2024

“It was like living in a tiny, geometric, sterile shoebox,” says Ben Glasson, a 46-year-old Melbourne academic who moved into a 28-square metre Melbourne city fringe apartment in October 2020.

“It was a very intense experience – you felt completely locked in, in terms of the architecture.”

Glasson says that although his unit block conformed to Victorian building laws that allow micro-apartments, he found the dwelling unliveable because of its size and poor ventilation – and had to break the lease.

“When I eventually moved out they asked if you could recommend anyone else to move in. I said no because I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending anybody for such a place.”

But Cameron Cutts, 49, has found moving into a 35-square metre studio in Brunswick a welcome change.

“I’m a Gen Xer who has lived in shared houses and worked in community and disability services my whole life. I was never going to be able to afford a house on my own. Having my own bathroom and kitchen [has been] a bit of a luxury.”

Cutts says hes been surprised how little space he needs to live comfortably, and has even hosted dinner parties of up to eight people in his studio.

“I think we can live in smaller spaces,” he says, “but it’s really important that there are good amenities available to people living in these spaces. I’m also interested in how we can live with a small carbon footprint.”

Cameron Cutts lives in a small 35-sq-metre apartment in Brunswick. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/Guardian Australia

As governments across Australia urgently seek solutions to the housing crisis, a number of councillors, housing groups and urban planners have raised concerns we might be sacrificing living standards and at risk of creating new urban slums.

In Brunswick in Melbourne’s inner north, a dispute broke out this year within Merri-Bek city council over a development that included 22.5 square metre apartments with no individual balconies, in favour of shared co-living spaces.

Council originally opposed the Cysur development on grounds including the size, amenity and daylight levels of some apartments, as well as parking concerns and heritage impacts. But the developer argued the building was an innovative new model that provided affordable housing, and that the small size of the apartments was offset by high ceilings.

After making changes to the original design, which saw the minimum apartment size increase to 24.5 square metres, the development was approved by the Victorian and Administrative Tribunal.

Councillor James Conlan, who opposed the development, claims developers are increasingly using the affordable housing crisis to pressure councils into waiving existing size and height restrictions, noting that the Merri-Bek council attempted to impose a minimum apartment size of 37 square metres in 2005, but was blocked by the Victorian government.

“While I’m a huge advocate for more social and affordable housing, especially public housing, developers are absolutely using these words to push councils into approving taller buildings with smaller apartments to increase their profits,” he says.

“I don’t think people should have to trade away basic living standards because governments, the banks and property interests have created a housing crisis.”

It is a criticism that the chief creative officer of Molonglo Property, Dan Honey, takes issue with. Molonglo is the developer behind the Cysur development in Brunswick.

“Cysur puts forward an alternative housing choice. There are 16 studios aimed at single occupant households ranging from 24.5 square metres to 46 square metres.

“I think it is offensive to suggest that people living in these spaces are somehow living a lesser existence because their dwelling is too small. What will be too small for some, will be just right for others,” she says.

Honey points to the historic Cairo Building built in Fitzroy in the 1930s, which includes apartments of 24 square metres. “Despite their size, they feel great, and residents choose to live in them for long durations of their lives.”

A Victoria parliamentary inquiry found in August 2022 that the state lags behind New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia in setting minimum apartment sizes, accessibility standards, and access to sunlight, ventilation and green spaces.

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Cutts says he’s been surprised how little space he needs to live in. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/Guardian Australia

In NSW, apartments must be a minimum of 35sqm but that doesn’t apply to boarding houses and “co-living housing” which place a greater emphasis on shared areas. Boarding houses, which by law must be managed by a registered community housing provider, can have rooms as small as 12sqm for one person.

A new Nightingale development at the site of New Hope Church in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west, is set to include 52 build-to-rent units, including some apartments as small as 24 square metres, along with shared spaces for laundry, dining, gardening and socialising.

The CEO of Nightingale, Dan McKenna, says co-housing developments help make amenity-rich inner suburbs accessible to those who would otherwise be locked out of the market. “The Marrickville project is 100% affordable rental apartment – so our strategy is to get as many people into homes in it as possible,” he says.

“We need diversity, we need a broad range of options, to open up what is possible in the marketplace.”

The CEO of the Community Housing Industry Association of Victoria, Sarah Toohey, says restrictions on the minimum size of new and affordable apartments and co-living spaces are long overdue. “Developers don’t need to cram tiny homes on to sites to provide affordable housing,” she says.

“Not-for-profit community housing organisations are leading the way in doing density well, providing homes for diverse groups of renters that meet high design and environmental standards.”

Michael Buxton, an emeritus professor of environment and planning at RMIT university, agrees Victoria should act to place limits on the size of apartments, as well as other forms of group housing.

“The problem for tiny apartments in an urban environment is that they create difficult living environments over time,” Buxton says. “Cabin fever is a term that does mean something – size does matter. These are not satisfactory long-term living environments and governments have an obligation to control this practice.”

Prof Nicole Gurran, an urban planning and policy analyst from the University of Sydney, says there can be a big difference between what’s produced by not-for-profit affordable planning providers and the open market.

“When we depend on the private market to provide affordable housing – that’s where we get the problems and the potential for new urban slums.”

Gurran says the key problem is that Australian state or federal governments currently don’t require affordable housing to be included in all new housing developments, which puts us out of step with many jurisdictions globally.

“That can lead to the accusation that jurisdictions are trading away good housing design – not necessarily the best way to include affordable housing,” she says.

A spokesperson for the Victorian premier’s office pointed to the government’s recent Housing Statement and Future Homes policy which, they say, “will improve not only the quality of apartment designs, but also drive the delivery of high-quality, medium scale apartment developments.”

For Cutts, diversity of apartments and inhabitants, together with good communal amenities are key.

“I agree that if you put a bunch of people living in very small spaces all together with poor amenities, then there is a real problem. This development must be done in the context of diversity of people and good infrastructure.”

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