Housing / Opinion

Brunswick needs more housing, but it keeps getting in its own way

Brunswick residents need to rethink their opposition to new development if the housing crisis is to be solved, argues Jonathan O’Brien
Friday, April 7, 2023

Brunswick residents need to rethink their opposition to new development if the housing crisis is to be solved, argues Jonathan O’Brien
Friday, April 7, 2023

IF you or anyone you know is seeking housing at the moment, then you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you. That people young and old and single and partnered, people in crisis, or who are just looking to rent or buy for the first time — all of these people currently face a difficult world.

Right now, houses and apartments alike in Brunswick are selling for 10 to 30 per cent above their asking price, and rent increases are far-outpacing inflation. The people of Brunswick know this, of course. After all, this is one of Melbourne’s most progressive communities, one that is all-too-aware of the housing crisis and its devastating effects on families, individuals, and the environment.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see this suburb fail time and time again to actually do anything about the crisis. Despite constant calls from the community and council alike to act on housing affordability, attempts to actually increase the number of houses and apartments in the area are constantly rebuffed.

Just last month, Merri-bek Council, at their March Planning and Related Matters meeting, rejected new housing for between 25 and 40 people, including units specifically earmarked as community and affordable housing. These results were in part due to activism from the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) contingent of Brunswick, who claim a desire to fight the ongoing housing crisis — so long as that fight happens nowhere near where they actually live.

This is not an aberration, and it is not exclusive to Brunswick. All across Australia and the world, landowners use their power to reject new housing projects. It’s in their economic interest: if housing becomes more affordable, then their own property also becomes more affordable.

An aerial view of Brunswick looking towards the CBD. Source: Airview Online

There are reasons, of course, to empathise with this contingent of the community. Change is hard, and having your life disrupted by a neighbour’s decision to sell up to a developer can feel unfair. After all, you didn’t agree to sell their land — but it still affects you. And they want to build how many storeys? Five, six?

But this is the reality of living in the inner city. This is the reality of construction, change, and improvement. I say improvement because more housing in Brunswick means more Brunswickians (Brunswickites? Brunsians?), and I want to be completely clear: more people here is a good thing. A world where people get to live where they want to live, close to the local businesses and public transport and community spaces they want to access — this is an objectively better world.

And yet Brunswick is constantly turning these new community members away, in the name of sunlight and shadows and the spurious heritage listing of any façade that might once have been touched by a first-generation white migrant. On the topic of housing and the unhoused, Brunswick becomes shockingly conservative.

“The important thing to remember, when asked to make these trade-offs, is that Brunswick’s neighbourhood character comes first and foremost from its people, not from its white colonial architecture.”

Again, I empathise with some of the reasons why. It is an unfortunate reality that the cost of new, dense housing falls disproportionally upon direct neighbours. To build something new and tall and full of fresh community members is to build something which casts a shadow, which can be seen from afar, and which, yes, actually has to be built — meaning a few months’ construction noise.

But these are relatively small costs. In the scheme of things, these costs are nothing. Consider the world in which we currently live, where people are forced to commute for hours each day, where big families cannot become secure in Brunswick without a seven-figure mortgage, and where so many people who see their core values reflected in this incredible suburb are excluded from living here because there is simply not enough housing for them.

The world we currently live in is the worse world — a world where Brunswick is gatekept by wealthy landowners who constantly lobby against and reject new housing, both market-rate and affordable. Time and time again, this happens. For things to get better, something is going to have to change.

Here is the truth: tackling the housing crisis, like the climate crisis, will require some sacrifice. There are no perfect moves—only trade-offs. And the important thing to remember, when asked to make these trade-offs, is that Brunswick’s neighbourhood character comes first and foremost from its people, not from its white colonial architecture. So here’s where we have to start: the best way to build the Brunswick community is to actually build Brunswick.

Jonathan O’Brien is an award-winning writer and an organiser for the housing activism group Melbourne New Progressives, whose premiere event Housing: Our Human Right in Crisis will be held on April 20.

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Council knocks back seven-storey building because it would cover house next door in shade.

Council knocks back seven-storey building because it would cover house next door in shade.