Of course you can do more with a bigger apartment, but that's no comfort if you can't afford it (source: MCC Housing Strategy 2014-18)

A few years ago Fairfax Media reported Australians build the largest new houses in the world (see Welcome to Victoria, home to supersized houses).

But we seem to like extremes; this week Fairfax reported that even when we build more modest dwellings they’re so small they’d be “illegal” in some other places (see Melbourne’s tiny flats would be illegal in other cities).

This week The Age told its readers that a “scathing report” from Melbourne City Council (draft Housing Strategy 2014-18) shows:

Sydney, London and Adelaide all have rules that ban new one-bedroom apartments smaller than 50 square metres. But in Melbourne, 40 per cent of the city’s newest apartments are smaller than this. (1)

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Although I think “illegal” is overdoing it, there’s a good case for stiffer regulation of how apartment buildings relate to their surroundings (see Living in the CBD: does it have to be miserable?).

But as I’ve argued before (see Are small apartments too tiny?), I think the case for closely regulating the internal area of apartments is much less compelling

The key issue is that a minimum size may reduce affordability by imposing a higher entry price. That could reduce the locational choices of those with the fewest financial resources.

Residents of small apartments aren’t forced to live in them; they willingly trade-off ‘place’ for ‘space’.

The old suburban model where space is prioritised over location is changing fast; many people are showing by their housing choices that they put a very high premium on accessibility to lifestyle opportunities, most especially in and around the city centre.

Indeed, it’s fair to say many city centre apartment dwellers are seeking ‘immersion’ in a specific location; in the context of the metropolitan area  the city centre is unique.

That preference comes at a cost (i.e. high density and limited space) because the centre is an exceptionally small place and there are competing commercial and institutional land uses.

Those who want to live in the centre are mostly one or two person households without dependents, so they don’t need a lot of space. They’re mostly young so they want to go out and enjoy the wealth of destinations close by. Space is far less important to them than getting easy access to what’s outside the door.

An important point is that most residents are renters (85% of apartments are owned by investors according to the report), so if they don’t like living in a particular apartment they can shift to another.

If they find out living in a small space isn’t for them, they can move to a larger style of dwelling elsewhere. For most it’s a temporary sojourn, like living in a share house or a university college.

I’ve no doubt almost all of those who choose to live in sub 50 sq m apartments would like to live in a larger one if they could afford it; but it’s also true that their optimal size/rent trade-off favours a smaller apartment.

In any event, the claims reported in The Age are conveniently selective. They overlook the huge number of existing apartments in cities around the world that are much less than 50 sq m.

The minimum area for new builds in New York is 37 sq m. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg actively promoted construction of micro-apartments of just 25-28 sq m as a way of giving more people access to the city.

This press report says the minimum size for a studio apartment in London is 19 sq m and the average size of a one bedroom flat is 44 sq m. It documents a number of very small apartments.

According to this article, there’re no minimum space standards for dwellings in Britain outside London. It says “developers faced with sky-high land prices are cramming a lounge, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom into just 46 square metres”.

This report published by the Greater London Authority, Housing space standards, recommends a minimum of 37 sq m for one person dwelling units and 44 sq m for two person units.

That also illustrates a key problem; minimum floor areas are a very blunt instrument because they don’t control how many people live in a unit. The level of occupancy has a much bigger impact on a unit’s liveability than its absolute size.

Design is at least as important to the liveability of a small apartment as floor area. Very small spaces can be designed with great efficiency, as architect Gary Chang’s famous 32 sq m apartment in Hong Kong amply demonstrates.

There’s scope to improve how apartments and apartment buildings relate to their surroundings through better regulation, but the sorts of detailed design decisions required to improve internal functioning while maintaining affordability are much less receptive to regulation (see exhibit); that needs to be approached in other ways e.g. information.

Melbourne City Council’s draft Housing Strategy 2014-18 puts a lot of focus on affordability, but seems blind to the potential implications of imposing a mandatory minimum size. City centre investors and residents are grown-ups; let them make their own decisions about what they want to invest in and what they want to live in.

The draft strategy suggests minimum sizes would benefit both investors and residents. I don’t think Council’s key purpose is to support investors in this way; and I don’t think residents would be better off if minimum sizes mean they can’t live in their preferred location.

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  1. 40% is an impressive numbers, but some of the sub 50 sq m apartments are studios. The appropriate comparison is with the proportion of one bedroom apartments that’re below 50 sq m.

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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