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Who’s the fairest city of them all?

Catherine Carter

“Liveable” is word often used to describe Canberra.

And when the nation’s capital tops the table on a range of liveability indices – most notably the OECD’s assessment of 362 regions in 34 countries – it’s easy to think our city is liveable for everyone.

But a city can’t be liveable if it’s not affordable or equitable.

Drawing on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) has found that households in the ACT spend $63 per week more than the national average on housing. While it’s true that average incomes in the ACT are also higher than the national average, this does not mean that the rent-to-income ratio is evenly shared.

Instead, ACTCOSS has found that “low income households in the ACT, on average, spend more than double the proportion of their weekly household income on housing costs than households in the highest quintile.”

A group of organisations from Canberra’s community and private sectors recently released the Safe + Well Green Paper, which finds that people on low incomes have been disproportionately affected by rents growing faster than incomes. The report points to research by the Grattan Institute, which found average rents increased by up to 92 per cent between 2002 and 2012, while average earnings increased by 57 per cent and house prices by 69 per cent over this same period.

Not being able to afford housing costs has significant consequences on both individuals and our community. Challenges meeting weekly housing and rental costs mean that people sacrifice other essentials like food and health expenses and are at greater risk of homelessness. At an economic level, high housing costs limit discretionary spending.

The authors of Safe + Well point out that people struggling to pay the rent spend a lot of time “missing out”.

“Missing out on opportunities for social and economic participation. Missing out on opportunities to participate in education, employment and training. Missing out on school excursions. Missing out on dental care which can lead to chronic health problems down the track. Missing out on opportunities to develop and thrive,” the report says.

Canberra has one of the highest office market vacancy rates in the country, and empty offices can be found around our city and town centres – the very places we need to be increasing residential density.

Affordable housing is more than just a house that is cheap to buy or rent – it also needs to be accessible to public transport, and efficient to run. Transforming ageing offices to affordable residential accommodation can tick a lot of boxes.

We do face some hurdles, though. Some buildings are of such poor quality that the only option is to start from scratch.

Residential buildings require more light and more car parking than office buildings, and this can make adaptive reuse a costly exercise. It can also be expensive to upgrade older buildings to meet current safety and disability codes, or to remove asbestos and other harmful materials. And taxes and charges – such as the Lease Variation Charge – also prevent building owners from making the numbers stack up.

However, with a bit of creative thinking, and the right policies in place, we may claim the title as most liveable city for everyone – not just those with high incomes.

Image of ‘the National Carillion…‘ via Shutterstock


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author