Geraldine Brooks: Balmain NIMBY says slams rezoning moves

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An award-winning Australian writer has slammed NSW’s moves to build apartments in wealthy suburbs, claiming it “won’t turn back the clock” or improve housing affordability.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Geraldine Brooks — who now lives in the ultra-exclusive American enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island home to the Obamas — weighed into the NIMBY versus YIMBY debate earlier this month in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Brooks and her partner bought their home, which had “two small bedrooms and a fibro bathroom out the back”, in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Balmain in the mid-1980s because it was “affordable”.

“The inner west wasn’t a desirable place to live in those days,” she wrote.

“It was simply what you could afford if you were a migrant, a worker or a battler with young kids. But suddenly, we’re snobs and NIMBYs because our once-affordable cottages are now as out of reach as places in Rose Bay and Vaucluse were when we were young. It’s as if we somehow caused this, but all many of us did was simply stay put.”

Today, the median house price in Balmain is nearly $2.8 million.

“It’s just one of the myths in the debate about the housing crisis — affluent boomers are hogging the goodies,” Brooks wrote.

“If I look at our street in Balmain, most of the occupants are now elderly people of modest means who have developed, over the decades, a network of connection and support for one another, a rare and valuable thing in a big city. They’re hardly greedy villains.”

Brooks suggested it was an “even bigger myth” that tearing down existing terraces and “modest cottages” for high-rise apartments would make the area more affordable.

“Two-bedroom flats in these areas routinely go for well over $1 million, and often over $2 million if they have a water view,” she said.

“Increasing the supply will just feather the nest of the lucky developers. There’s not a scintilla of evidence that more nice flats in close-in suburbs, many with views, will push prices down. The only thing that might do that is building slums in these areas, and no astute developer is going to do that when there is a such a high premium to be made on a better-quality build.”

Some experts have taken issue with that claim.

“The available estimates suggest that a 10 per cent increase in the housing stock lowers costs by between 15 and 30 per cent at a national or sub-national level,” NSW Productivity Commissioner Peter Achterstraat said in a report last year that called for Sydney’s richest suburbs to become “taller” and “denser”.

“The few available Australian estimates suggest that a 10 per cent increase in national supply cuts the cost of housing by 25 per cent.”

Centre for Independent (CIS) studies chief economist Peter Tulip said Brooks’ claim that new apartments would be expensive missed the point.

“The effect on affordability is not the price of the new housing — it is the indirect effect of extra supply on existing houses,” he said on X.

“Brooks complains, ‘It’s as if we somehow caused this, but all many of us did was simply stay put.’ This is not true. Her NIMBY neighbours did cause the housing crisis — by saying no to new housing. They pulled up the ladder behind them, denying opportunities to future generations For housing to be affordable we need to stop NIMBYs like Brooks and her neighbours from opposing new supply.”

Aaron Patrick, senior correspondent with The Australian Financial Review, wrote this week that NIMBYism was turning Balmain into a “retirement home for Midnight Oil fans” where the number of residents aged 25 to 34 had halved in 20 years, a “demographic decline that has left the suburb unable to sustain a full-service Woolworths”.

“Existing residents don’t want to leave,” he said.

“Would-be locals can’t afford to buy in, denying them access to coastline, parks, two high-end bookshops (where they can buy Brooks’ books) and easy city access … Perhaps Brooks might consider that if Balmain is to reverse this decline, it needs fewer part-time residents similar to herself.”

According to the NSW government, in the early 1980s, the average house in Sydney cost $78,900, or about five times a full-time average wage. Today, a typical Sydney house is 17 times more expensive and is 14 times the average income.

Under a series of sweeping planning reforms announced by Premier Chris Minns last month, NSW will rezone areas within walking distance to train stations and transport hubs to allow for more high-rise developments. At the same time, councils controlling low-density residential areas will be forced to allow terraces, flats, duplexes and other medium-density housing to be built.

So-called “tier one” transport hubs identified for accelerated rezoning by November 2024 are Bankstown, Bays West, Bella Vista, Crows Nest, Homebush, Hornsby, Kellyville and Macquarie Park.

The government estimates the changes will see the construction of up to 47,800 apartments within 1200 metres of these stations over the next 15 years.

A further 31 “tier two” locations will be rezoned to allow for new homes to be created within 400 metres of train stations and town centres.

The stations are Adamstown, Ashfield, Banksia, Berala, Booragul, Canterbury, Corrimal, Croydon, Dapto, Dulwich Hill, Gordon, Gosford, Hamilton, Killara, Kogarah, Kotara, Lidcombe, Lindfield, Marrickville, Morisset, Newcastle Interchange, North Strathfield Metro, North Wollongong, Rockdale, Roseville, St Marys Metro, Teralba, Tuggerah, Turrella, Wiley Park and Wyong.

“The simple truth is we don’t have enough well-located homes for the people who make up our city — and that has to change if we want our kids to be able to afford a home in Sydney and not leave for other states,” Mr Minns said.

“But to do this, we need to reset our planning system so we can bring forward and scale up housing delivery. I want NSW to be a state that is affordable for the next generation of kids with great transport options to make work and life easier.”