Do you know what your strata-living tribe is? Are you economically engaged, young and jobless or under-employed, battlers, established owners, downsizers or even public housing tenants?
Professor Bill Randolph of UNSW department of the Built Environment was recently interviewed for an extensive feature in the Sydney Morning Herald in which he discussed a survey that reveals the reality of who is living in apartments in Sydney, rather than who is presented on the glossy sales brochures.
We are not all, it seems, middle-aged middle-class couples sipping chardonnay on our harbour view balconies. Far from it.
Even less likely are we grey-haired newbies who’ve retired and downsized, or been in the same apartments for decades.
These tribes do exist, for sure, but not in the numbers promotional material would have us believe.
It’s a deliberately shorter (and we hope, sweeter) podcast this week as we dig into the question of who really lives in apartments and why.
And there was another SMH article that caught our eye in the past week or so; a treatise by architecture writer Elizabeth Farrelly about how awful it is to live in a shitty apartment in a crap building in a crowded area of the city.
Hey, Liz, we could have told you, if you’d only asked. But, seriously, she makes some very valid points, mainly that too many buildings and apartments are designed for sale to people who have no idea what they’re getting into, or to investors whose only thought is the bottom line.
To add economic insult to infrastructure injury, they are often managed by cabals of connected professionals whose main purpose seems to be to find ways of extracting more money from renters and owners rather than charging reasonable fees for making their lives more liveable.
All of which led to a discussion on this week’s podcast about expectation and experience.
Basically, if you have moved from a grossly overcrowded one-bedder in a building with no facilities, are you going to complain about living in a fairly squeezy two-bedder in a block where the lift occasionally breaks down?
25 floors, no lifts
As an extreme example, we cite this block in Chongquing, China, which has 25 floors but no lifts. However, as we explain, it’s not as challenging for penthouse residents as it sounds.
The key to all this is money. If you have enough of it, you can make choices. If you don’t, you have to choose which compromises you are going to make, whether they be between location, size, facilities or liveability.
That’s why it make sense to rent when you first set up home, than help pour money into the developer feeding trough by pursuing this national obsession with owning property regardless of who built it and how well or badly it’s managed.
Finally, we manage to mention the Infinity building in Green Square without mentioning the reason we are mentioning them … it has won The Urban Developer’s Development of the Year – High Density Residential award.
There’s all that and more, including a question for regular podcasters: do you like to hear other voices on the pod or would you rather just hear Sue and JimmyT in shorter podcasts (or a bit of both?). Let us know on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Non-podders can catch up with our ramblings in the transcript below.
Transcript in full
Do you know which apartment tribe you’re a member of?
I think I’m part of the tribe, ‘economically-engaged.’
Okay, you’re not ‘established-owner or downsizer?’
Well, I guess I could be ‘established-owner’, but they’re kind of over 65. I’m not over 65. A long way off, Jimmy.
I am! I’m part of both of those things; both of those tribes. There was a big article in The Sydney Morning Herald recently and we’re going to be talking about that today. I’m Jimmy Thomson.
And I’m Sue Williams.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap. There was a big article in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, by Matt O’Sullivan, in which he talked to Bill Randolph (of the University of New South Wales, Department of the Built Environment), who talked about a survey they’d done into the different tribes in Sydney.
That could probably be just as relevant to Melbourne and Brisbane, as well, couldn’t it? The same kind of groups.
Except that New South Wales (as the article points out), has twice the percentage of people living in apartments than they have in Victoria. We are pretty much leading the way in terms of people moving into apartments. What did you think? These tribes; do you recognize them?
It was really interesting that they said the largest tribe was the economically-engaged (the one I identify with most). They make up about half the city’s apartment households, and they tend to live east of Sydney Olympic Park, in South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs and North Shore; everywhere like that. I seem to be in that group. The second biggest group was much, much smaller. That was just 10% and was at the other end of the scale. The young, the jobless, or the under-employed.
Who tend to live in conditions that could be called overcrowded, like sharing rooms and things like that.
Which is sad, because at 10% that’s quite a big chunk of people.
I don’t know if it’s sad. You look at the demographic; the nationality of a lot of these people, and the North East and South East Asian backgrounds. Now, if you have spent (as I have and as have you, in that part of the world), what we consider overcrowded here, would not be considered overcrowded there.
Yeah, and in the past, what was considered overcrowded, wouldn’t be the same now. My grandfather in Britain lived in one of the first big apartment blocks and they were housing commission. There was him and his wife and then at various times, some of his kids and their families, and we never really considered that overcrowded. It’s a different definition these days.
It’s a different perspective these days. We tend to think in terms of the nuclear family. Mum and dad and 2.4 kids, and the kids (as soon as they can), have a bedroom to themselves. Those kids then grew up and they move into, maybe their own place; maybe into a share house. Again, there they have their own room, at the very least. Whereas for people from Southeast Asia; I remember I was talking to an air hostess on Vietnam Airlines once. I was just chatting away to her and she was saying that she’d moved from Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Ming city), and I asked her why, because they’re both really vibrant cities. She said, overcrowding in the apartment that she was living in, in Hanoi. I said, ‘what’s your definition of overcrowding?’ She said, ‘14 people in two rooms.’
And so, she’d moved to Saigon and she was living in a flat where she was only sharing a room with one other person, who was not her partner. It was just they were sharing. For her, that is a huge leap forward, and she was employed; she was making money. Probably the fact that she was traveling a lot helped, but it’s a different perspective. People are gonna say, I’m sure that this is kind of being patronizing to other races and might even be racist. It’s not; it’s reality, and I’m sure, under different circumstances, all these people; these underemployed young people, would rather have their own rooms, but the economic imperative is if you’re going to live near your work, you’ve got to take what’s available that you can afford.
When I was in Ethiopia, there was a surgeon who was offered her own place to live and she said, no, she wanted to live in a little room. At one end, there was kind of a cooker (there wasn’t very much in this room), with two of her best friends. The three of them just live in this one room together and they’ve been offered alternative accommodation, but they said ‘no, we’ve grown up living together and we prefer that.’ You remember, we talked about a survey a few weeks ago, that discovered that people who were living in houses with their own rooms, and often their own bathrooms as well, were socially disconnected. It really didn’t help the kids growing up. When they were spending a lot of time with their parents and they had to share rooms and things, they were much better at socialization.
I think it might have been the same article, or one that came out around about the same time that said, ‘get the TV out of the kid’s room.’
Yep, force them back into the loungeroom.
If they want to watch TV, they’ve got to come in, they’ve got to compromise; they’ve got to share. What we’re doing now is we’re socializing our children to be totally selfish, and not have to consider other people. You can see the effects. You see the effects all over the world of people who are selfish and self-centered and who are not used to sharing. I think there’s a limit, certainly, for what we’re used to in this country, of how many people you can cram into one small space. But you know, our friend, Lily, who’s Vietnamese? I was talking to her about how we have these problems in apartments, certainly in the inner-city, where you do get 14 people in a two bedroom place, and they’re exploited by the sub -tenants (people who’ve rented the apartment, and then just put in bunk beds). The landlords either don’t know or don’t care, because they always pay the rent on time and they’re exploiting all these young people. I said, “why don’t the young people get together and just say, ‘okay, for the same money, four of us could rent a two-bedroom apartment, and we’d only be sharing with one other person?’” She said, “you try being an Asian person who goes to a landlord and says, ‘there are four of us, and we want to share this apartment.’ There’s so much competition for rental properties, you don’t even get through the door.”
Really? That level of racism still exists?
Well, it’s a kind of casual, almost passive racism. People are going, ‘oh, right. I’ve got this young couple, who want to rent the apartment and I’ve got these four Asian students, or night workers or restaurant workers. Who do I feel more comfortable about renting the apartment to? Who’s going to pay the rent on time?’ Now, they might be deluding themselves, but you can see why it’s so easy for that kind of casual, passive racism to enter into people’s thinking.
But with more Asian buyers of property and more Asian landlords, you’d think maybe they would go the other way?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t make any assumptions about that. That thing of the biggest tribe being the economically-engaged, it proves one of the facts of modern life, which is money gives you choice. It’s all very well to say, as I did, ‘why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’ The realities are you can do these things, if you have the money. If you don’t have the money, then you have to deal with what’s available.
Sure. That takes us onto the third largest tribe. They’re the battlers; the migrant families, and they’re 8% of households in Sydney apartments. They’re on low to moderate incomes, so they probably don’t have very much choice at all. The fourth group, the older public housing tenants…
Who tend to be forgotten when we’re talking about apartments.
Absolutely. Most of those are single occupants, and they’re aged over 65, on low incomes. It shows how diversified the society is, of apartment dwellers.
Yeah, but it shows you one of the potential benefits of mixed-use housing, where you can have privately-owned apartments and social housing mixed together. As soon as I read that phrase, ‘over -65’s single people on low or no income’…The word that pops in my mind is loneliness. They’re isolated. If you don’t have the money to go out and buy a cup of coffee and things like that, or go join a club or whatever, then you’re going to be lonely.
Living with younger people is a great idea. Do you remember that experiment in Holland, where they bunked in an older person with students? The older people offered them cheaper rents, if they could be helpful to them; do their shopping and things like that. It proved a massive success. The young people loved living with the older people, because they learnt so much from them and they really enjoyed their company. The older people thought it was fantastic. It kept them young, and it helped them out and they didn’t have to worry anymore about if they had an accident. There was always someone around. So, I think it’s great. If we can replicate that in some way with our apartment buildings, that’s a great thing.
I used to live in Glasgow and there, they had the Red-Road Flats, which at one point were the highest apartment buildings in Europe. There was four of them, and four blocks (huge blocks), and they were a problem from the day they were built. Somebody came up with this idea of ‘let’s make the bottom three floors old people’s sheltered housing, the next 20 floors for student accommodation and then the top three floors can be kind of luxury penthouses with their own lifts,’ which I thought was a great idea, even back then. It was stopped because of Glasgow’s very left-wing council, and people were going ‘what’s this, luxury penthouse apartment nonsense? We won’t be having any of that.’ The last I heard of them… They were planning that at the culmination of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow a few years ago, somebody was going to press a plunger, and the buildings were going to be demolished like dominoes and then they thought that was kind of a bit tasteless.
A friend of ours, Bill, moved into a big, tall apartment building in Brixton, in southeast London. At that point, it was kind of Housing Commission and then they offered to sell the tenants the apartments, so Bill bought his apartment. There were still some Housing Commission tenants there who weren’t able or didn’t want to buy their own apartments. It became a true mix of tenants; owners and tenants. What was the British equivalent then, of a strata committee decided to upgrade the lifts because there was always a problem with the lifts, and upgrade security, because there were always problems with vandalism; people coming into the building and peeing in the lifts and all that kind of thing. When they increased the security, and people started having pride in the apartments; now, his apartment is probably worth about 100 times what he paid for it all those years ago.
I just want to mention another article that came out just in the past week or so. It was Elizabeth Farrelly, (again in the Sydney Morning Herald), and Elizabeth (fantastic writer and thinker about architecture and buildings and what they do), seems to have taken an apartment in a really crappy building. I don’t know if that’s a deliberate choice.
It sounds like it might be, because she’s got a new book coming out and maybe she’s using that experience in the book.
Which is fair enough. Better that than people driving past and saying, ‘that building looks awful,’ you know, go and actually experience it. In the piece that was in the paper, she talked about how she got stuck on the ground floor once, because the lift stopped working. I know that it’s kind of taking things out of context and you need to focus on ideas in books and newspaper articles, but the two things occurred to me… We live on the 15th floor, and I can think of three occasions in the time that we’ve been here (and that’s 20 years), that the lifts were out. I think once because of a lightning strike. You basically had to go ‘right, I’m going to climb the 15 floors, or I’m going to go and sit in a cafe and wait till it’s fixed.’ It’s not unusual; it’s not unique that that’s happened to her. It’s better if it doesn’t happen. I thought about this apartment block, I think it’s in Qin Chung in China (I’m probably saying that wrong). 25 stories’, and no lifts.
No lifts at all?
It wasn’t built with lifts?
It was built with no lifts. When you read that headline, and then you realize that it’s built on the side of a hill and so there are three entry points. There are three roads, about 10 floors apart, so wherever you came in, you’d have to go up at least five floors, or down at least five floors…People can go up five floors, down five floors, that’s fine. Most young, fit people could handle that; be good for them. It’s not like the person in the penthouse has to climb 25 story’s to get to their apartment. That would never be allowed in a modern city like Sydney, even if it was on the side of a hill. People would just wouldn’t tolerate it. I think we’ve gotten to the point with apartments, where we have let perfect be the enemy of good. They talked to people in this article who lived in that building and they said, ‘yeah, it was a struggle at first, but I’m getting used to it and it’s so much better than where I used to live.’ That’s what we forget. Where did you come from? That said, that tribe (the battlers and migrant families) and the big percentage of the economically engaged… We’ve been driving recently through some of the areas like Wolli Creek, and out that way, out towards IKEA. Mascot is another area and seeing the clustering of apartment blocks. In our privileged area here in the Eastern Suburbs, we don’t see that so much. I wonder what it’s like living there, so close to other people? People are looking in; they can look into your windows, which shouldn’t be happening. Town planning just shouldn’t allow that to happen, but they do, because developers still run the city.
Then you’ve got areas like Green Square, and when we started looking at those areas, and you saw the massive work taking place there, you kind of thought they might become a bit of an urban slum, because the apartment buildings were so close together. Now it’s actually really emerged as a bit of a beacon, I think, in housing planning.
A lot of people love living there and they’ve developed an awful lot of facilities around the buildings, which allow people to engage with the landscape and meet other people in cafes and parks, the swimming pool, the library. A really amazing building (I think that you’re going to mention next) …
Yes, the Infinity building, which is the one notoriously, the building with the hole in it. You know, it’s got this wonderful sort of archway.
Which I think you nicknamed the donut very early on.
Yes and it was quite funny because we were at a function there over Christmas (and it’s quite a stunning building), but standing on this function deck, looking out over this expanse of former industrial land or low-rise storage places or sheds or whatever, with Iwan Sunito, who is the head of Crown. He’s saying, ‘isn’t that a beautiful view?’ I think he meant the distant view to the Blue Mountains, but I’m thinking ‘yeah, you’re a developer; you’re looking at all that empty space.’
You’re looking at potential.
Yeah. So, it’s interesting. People are talking and thinking about apartments in different ways. I don’t think we should assume that everybody in apartments is living in overcrowded conditions, and neither should we assume that everybody who lives in apartments, spends their evening standing on their balcony, sipping Chardonnay.
No, it’s a huge cross-section of the population that live in apartments, I think.
When we come back, we’re going to talk about how people-power chased people out of apartments in Melbourne, but I think to be fair, it’s rich-people-power. That’s after this. What’s going on in Melbourne, Sue?
With the Australian Open, the organizers originally planned to billet a lot of the players in a hotel in the city center, the Westin Hotel in Melbourne. Unfortunately, they hadn’t realized that at the top floor of the Westin, they are privately owned luxury apartments and the people there really objected to becoming a quarantine center, in effect. They campaigned and went to the organizers and said, ‘we don’t want people potentially infected with COVID in our building.’ Eventually, they won. They succeeded and the Australian Open agreed to go to other places. I guess, other hotels but without apartments on top.
This is one of the things about Melbourne (and it’s gonna get me onto one of my hobbyhorses). In Melbourne, people in posh apartments can keep Airbnb and other holiday rentals out of their buildings, simply because they all sign an undertaking that they’re going to not do that, but only rich people can do that. Somebody was presenting this thing at the Westin as people-power. It was not people-power; it was rich, influential people-power. It made me think about when COVID started, all those ads on Airbnb, ‘come and isolate in our apartment block,’ and nothing was done about that. It was just like, ‘oh, dear, what a shame.’ It’s at that point before the proper lockdown, there were people who were coming from overseas, potentially carrying the infection with them, who were being taken into apartment blocks on Airbnb and other platforms, with the people in the apartment blocks having no idea that the people that were they were meeting in the lift, or they were seeing in the gym, or seeing in the swimming pool, were potentially carrying the virus. Which brings me back to our previous thing; these tribes. Being obsessed with numbers, I added up the percentages of those tribes (and I have to say, before we go any further, that article by Matt Sullivan is really worth reading, as is Elizabeth Farrelly’s piece. If you can dig them out of the Sydney Morning Herald; really good). I added up the numbers and they come to about 80%.
Yes, they do.
So, where’s the other 20%? Who’s living in the other 20% of apartments?
There was one more group that we didn’t mention. The fourth group. That’s established owners and downsizers. Mostly those over 65, but they are only 3% of households.
A tiny amount. We get a lot of focus on the downsizers, because of the kind of romantic notion of people living in a big house, the families have moved out and they think, ‘okay, we’re going to cash up. We’re going to move into the city center and we’re going to have a fabulous lifestyle.’ You expect the center of Sydney to be awash with older people walking around (if we weren’t all in lockdown of some sort or another that would be happening to some extent, but not to the extent it’s presented in the media). Where are the other 20%? Well, I went onto Inside Airbnb and looked at their figures and there are 25,000, (roughly 25,000), empty apartments on Airbnb, listed right now. In the past 10 years, there have been 250,000 apartments built in Sydney. There’s 10% of those new apartments.
That’s pretty interesting.
The other 10% are washed up in errors, or whatever. It really makes you realize what a significant figure that is, in terms of the overall availability of apartments in Sydney. Now, there was another set of figures that came out a few days ago, about how holiday rentals had been affected over the holiday period. They rocketed in places like South Brisbane; the Gold Coast. Basically, anywhere up the eastern seaboard, got a huge boost in people visiting. The one area that was down was Sydney. That dropped off dramatically from last year. Partly, I think, because people wanted to get out of the city. The fireworks thing was not going to be the big event that it has been for the past few years. Suddenly, all these empty apartments stayed empty. It’s going to be interesting, because a lot of people who’ve been listing their apartments, have taken them off and put them back into residential rent, which has meant that rents have fallen. Things are shifting all the time.
Let’s hope so. Now, regular listeners may have noticed that this is the second week in a row where we haven’t had a guest speaker and that’s partly because of Christmas and New Year, but partly a conscious decision. We realized we were becoming slave to the guest. You know, every week, we’re desperately trying to find somebody to come on and speak and we’ve been very fortunate up until this stage. I’d say almost all of the people we’ve had speaking on this podcast have been really good value. It also means we’ve burned through almost all of the available talent, so we are only going to have guest speakers when we have somebody we really want to talk to about a specific issue. Unless, the podcast listeners of the Flat Chat Wrap, rise up and with one voice say ‘we want more guests. We want more of other people and less of you.’ If you want to do that, email@example.com is how to get in touch. I’ll say that again, firstname.lastname@example.org Write and tell us whether you want to have more guests or fewer guests.
Or, suggest some guests.
Suggest some guests, and if you feel so inspired, record a question, and you can hear your voice on the podcast, which would be kind of cool. When we come back, it’s our Hey Martha’s for this week.
So, what struck you this week, Jimmy?
I’ve become slightly obsessed with a usage that I’ve been hearing a lot on the radio, and that is when somebody gets asked a question, and the answer always starts with ‘that’s exactly right.’ I noticed it the first time with (I think it was the ABC’s Washington correspondent), and the question was something like, ‘it sounds like President Trump’s in a bit of trouble with Twitter?’ The response was ‘exactly right.’ Then every other response started with ‘exactly right, exactly right.’ I think ‘exactly right’ has become the new ‘absolutely.’
Absolutely, that’s exactly right! Keep your ear open for this, folks. Within about three months, every second response to a question in the media (and I’m talking about electronic media), is going to start with the words ‘exactly right.’ It’s one of these things that gives the speaker a chance to engage with the person that they’re talking to and think.
It really irritates you, Jimmy, and now it’s gonna irritate all of us.
Yes, it’s kind of like the verbal equivalent of an earworm. Actually, my earworm for the past week or two has been the Handel tune, ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.’ My version (in my brain), is played by an Irish folk band called De Dannan, who call it ‘The arrival of Queen of Sheba (in Galway).’ What’s your Hey Martha?
I think the reason that’s become an earworm for you is that you’ve been organizing the music for the launch of my new book.
Oh, do you have a new book out, Sue?
My first ever novel, and it’s an historical fiction. It’s about Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the fifth Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie and Elizabeth MacArthur, one of the pioneers of the wool empire that we became. It just came out today and it’s in shops now. I worked on this book for, I think, five years, and so it’s the culmination of a long period of work and introspection and nervousness. Now I’m kind of quite terrified. I’ve had some great reviews so far, which is nice, but you can never get too blasé.
Hmm. There will always be somebody out there.
Well, let’s hope not.
I should point out to our listeners, that this is Sue’s 26th book, but previously, all of them have been nonfiction.
I did a children’s book that was fiction and I contributed a short story for a collection of fiction, but this is my first kind of adult novel.
When you say, ‘adult novel’, you mean grown up?
Yeah, not porn.
If anybody is interested in this book, or any of Sue’s other books, her website is www.suewilliams.com.au and you can see everything there. All her books are listed, and you can even buy some.
Yeah, but you might not want to.
This is why you’re only a hugely successful writer, rather than a fantastically successful… The self-deprecating thing, at some point, you’ve got to stop. Okay, I think I should stop now. Thanks again, Sue. It’s been great talking to you and to nobody else. Once more, do write to us if you’ve got any suggestions of people you’d like to hear. Do write to us if you’d like to hear more guests, or fewer guests or whatever. Let us know what you think.
Thanks for listening. Bye. Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website, www.flat-chat.com.au and if you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite pod catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe and you’ll get this podcast every week without even trying Thanks again. Talk to you again next week.