The Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows land in Sydney

March 20, 2017

Our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows have landed in Sydney, Australia! The following is the first of a series of posts from the Fellows. Shannon Loew shares hisĀ first impressions after arriving down under a few days ago…

Hello from Sydney, Australia.

We are grateful to the Runstad Center for their support of our research on equity in development as this year’s Affiliate Fellows. Our team of five — Martha Barkman, Rachel Berney, Gundula Proksch, and Rosey Atkinson — will rendezvous here this Thursday to meet with developers, planners, non-profits, research institutes and the like for most of a week before heading to Melbourne to do the same. Nearly everyone we’ve contacted has agreed to meet with us, which shows the reach of the UW Runstad brand but also the shared concern on issues of equity.

I’ve arrived a few days early to explore. Thanks to former Runstad Affiliate Fellow Gabriel Grant (2015) for lending me his Good Bike Friday to get around. It’s been a joy to have the flexibility to turn down any street at will, looking to get lost. There’s something invaluable about being at saddle height and pedal speed for taking in a new place and providing what Grant has referred to in the past as, bike dividends.

Case in point: while exploring a particularly hilly part of the ritzy eastern neighborhood, Watson’s Bay, I paused in front of a cafe with outdoor seating, considering a coffee break. From one of the tables, an older gentleman saw me pondering and called out to the curb and invited me to join him. That certainly doesn’t happen while hiding behind the window of a bus or car. As one could imagine, this conversation just after my arrival, helped shape my perspective of Sydney in a way that all my advance reading and research could not have.

Paul was from a southern, less affluent suburb of Australia. He was retired and lived with his wife in a house they purchased eons ago in this neighborhood. Noting Sydney’s recent explosive growth, he remarked how he could never survive today if he wasn’t retired and owned his own home. He described how costly housing had become and how competitive the labor market was both in blue and white collar jobs, the result of which is stagnant wages with inflated rent or mortgage payments. He noted how his property had appreciated and allowed him to augment what is now a limited fixed-income. And how his healthcare was largely covered by the state.

Paul wasn’t exaggerating. Here’s what we had already read in advance of our trip: Property values in Sydney have escalated nearly 70% since 2012. That has made Sydney the second most expensive city in the world for housing. Wages have grown 2% over the same period and an eager lending environment has pushed average Australian debt to 186% of disposable household income. 40% of home mortgages issued today are interest only. And there’s a near perfect storm of policies that perpetuate this including encouragement of foreign investment; low property taxes which are based solely on land value, not including improvements; and income tax incentives (known as negative gearing) which allow investment property owners to reduce taxable income to zero, driving-up sale prices and reducing tax revenue that could be used for affordable housing and related services.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be meeting with dozens of organizations and companies working to outsmart this trend. We’ll be exploring strategies for housing affordability but also issues of livability and social inclusion — racial, cultural and economic. Our goal is to identify the common pitfalls that lead to inequity and learn about innovative solutions with the hope of providing some new strategies to emulate back home in Seattle where we have our own set of related challenges.

Leaving my conversation with Paul, pedaling back up the hills out of Watson’s Bay, I thought of the common reference to Sydney as the love child of Los Angeles and Vancouver. It’s a clean, sunny bright coastal city with beautiful public open spaces and the social ethos of a loyal commonwealth, but it’s growth and devotion to the private automobile and home-ownership is driving prices up along with unsustainable sprawl. Turning the Bike Friday toward a quiet looking set of streets, I came head on with a bus realizing habit had me riding on the wrong side of the road. We both swerved easily and I waved sheepishly. I then noted just how many buses I had been sharing the road with all day in these small outer neighborhoods and took a bit of optimism uphill.