Dormitory city: Melbourne’s brittle highrise apartment boom

Melbourne’s apartment glut is driven by investors attracting ‘transient’ renters, rather than people embracing the city lifestyle. flickr/mugley

The Melbourne apartment surge is just beginning. In the next few years, an unprecedented number of apartments will hit the city’s already crowded skyline.

But our new research shows this does not mean more Victorians are embracing inner-city living; rather it is the result of the marketing of thousands of tiny, poor quality apartments to investors, which threatens to undermine the carefully fashioned story of Melbourne’s liveability.

Apartment capital of Australia?

While Sydney has traditionally been the epicentre of apartment development, there has been an unprecedented surge in high-rise apartment completions in Melbourne since the late 2000s, located primarily in the inner city and CBD fringes.

Between 2010-2012, the inner-city skyline was transformed with the completion of 22,605 apartments. However, the city is set to see a further 39,000 additional completed apartments that have already commenced or have been released for off-the-plan sale.

The apartment boom is driving Melbourne’s extraordinary share of Australia’s dwelling approvals. In 2012-13 they constituted 24.3% of the Australian total. Yet Melbourne’s share of Australia’s population in mid-2012 was 18.5%.

Does this mean that households in Melbourne are embracing inner-city apartment living? Our analysis indicates that it does not. Rather, it is an investor rather than an occupier driven boom.

Apartment residents remain overwhelmingly young singles or couples who are renters. They continue to be transients who, as in the past, will move into family-friendly housing when they decide to raise a family. Most of the new households in Melbourne will be looking for such housing. There is no large potential source of apartment occupiers (including empty nesters) who will be attracted to apartment living.

An additional 39,000 apartments are due for the Melbourne market in the next few years. AAP

Melbourne is not like Sydney, where restrictions on outer suburban expansion have compelled 11% of households (including some families with children) to occupy apartments. There are huge tracts of outer suburban zoned for the development. Detached houses can be bought for far less than two bedroom apartments in the inner city. By 2011 only 4% of households in Melbourne lived in apartments of four storeys or more.

In the case of the City of Melbourne, while there has been an increase in the number of those who live and work in the CBD, by 2011 they comprised just 27,912 of the 344,790 persons who worked in the city. Overseas students have also been an important source of apartment occupiers. In addition, to our surprise, there has been an increase in the number of those who live in the City of Melbourne and work outside it. They increased by 5,246 between 2006 and 2011 to 19,108.

There will have to be massive increases in the numbers in each of these categories if they are to approximate the expected surge in apartments on the market.

A risk to liveability?

Local apartment developers, who dominate the inner suburb apartment market are backing off on new proposals. However, overseas developers are undeterred. They have the resources to outbid locals for sites in the inner city and are likely to approach 100% of completed apartments in this area by 2016. They are responsible for the recent surge in proposals for CBD apartment towers.

Melbourne is a more attractive to developers than Sydney because there are more potential sites for high-rise apartment projects which can be developed at prices affordable to most investors (less than $500,000). These pricing priorities are also responsible for the increasing share of apartment projects comprising tiny apartments (mostly sub 50 square metres in net living area).

Inner Melbourne is also attractive because of its amenities, enhanced by massive state government and City of Melbourne investment in infrastructure (including CityLink and Southern Cross Station) public spaces (Federation Square), parks (Birrarung Marr) and laneways.

This investment was intended to enhance Melbourne’s prospects of becoming a centre of knowledge-intensive industries by enhancing the city’s liveability. It was hoped that this would attract the “creative class” believed to drive this transformation. For its part, the City of Melbourne has long wanted to transform the CBD and surrounds into an inviting mix for residence, work and entertainment.

Melbourne’s planners have carefully fashioned a story around attracting the creative class, but cheap, poorly constructed apartments threaten this. AAP

Squandering the “Melbourne story”

This investment has helped in the fashioning of a ‘Melbourne Story’, which has been particularly attractive to Asian developers and investors.

However, the apartment boom is squandering this investment. It is delivering tiny, poor quality apartments that will repel rather than attract this market. City of Melbourne planners have recently issued a withering critique of the outcome, with the chief advocate of the local authority’s original vision, Rob Adams, declaring the current ‘flood’ of apartments has gone too far.

Despite warnings of an apartment glut the State Government and the City of Melbourne are pressing on with plans to facilitate further urban renewal. They include Fishermans Bend and the City North and Arden-Macauley precincts to the north of Melbourne’s CBD. The City of Melbourne’s planning blueprint assumes that the number of dwellings will increase from 67,533 in 2012 to 110,533 in 2031.

The state government wants the apartment boom to continue because it is one of the few bright lights of the current Melbourne economy. It can ignore the City of Melbourne planners’ concerns because it holds the planning authority for apartment towers in excess of 25,000 square metres floor space. It is approving almost all proposals put to it.

The outlook is that the investment in the city’s amenities will be squandered. The city is heading towards becoming a dormitory rather than a centre for knowledge-intensive industries. The balance between apartments and offices in the CBD is swinging rapidly towards the former with the prospect that apartments will crowd out sites for offices in prime CBD locations.

In the three years 2013 to 2015 there will be three times the amount of floor space completed for apartments in the CBD and Docklands than for new office space.

The planning elites shaping Melbourne’s future are ignoring the disconnect between the investor-driven apartment boom and real housing preferences. Their plans for the inner city’s expansion and for its economy are based on a property boom that our analysis indicates will implode.