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PhD student Sophie-May Kerr, who is conducting research on families who live in apartments, stands outside an apartment building.

It might be a squeeze on space, but for many families apartments are the housing of the future.

More apartments are being built in Australia than ever before, but that doesn’t mean housing is becoming more affordable. In 2015, a tent was advertised for rent on a Melbourne balcony for $90 a week. Australia is also experiencing the rise of the boomerang child, who moves out of home only to find it’s too expensive, before moving back in with their parents again.

So, it’s no wonder many people have conceded the great Australian dream of owning a detached suburban home is exactly that – a dream. Instead many people, particularly in capital cities, find themselves living in units and apartments, which may be the housing of the future.

As high-rises and apartment blocks move Australia’s most populated cities in an upward direction, UOW PhD student in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities Sophie-May Kerr has begun research on the implications of this trend. Her biggest question – how do families with children fit into this landscape?

UOW PhD student, Sophie-May Kerr, hopes her research will contribute towards making apartments more family-friendly. Photo: Paul Jones.

PhD researcher Sophie-May Kerr is looking at how more families are choosing to live in units, rather than pursue the dream of owning a house. Photo: Paul Jones.

Home sweet apartment

When we think of people who live in apartments, immediately young couples, students or friends who are flatmates come to mind. But in the latest ABS data, from the 2016 census, families with children comprised a quarter of the total apartment population.

“Cities such as Sydney are facing major challenges in relation to population growth and housing affordability,” Sophie-May says. “To meet these demands, increasing density has become a common policy response and so we have seen a growth in apartment developments. While families with children were not the expected demographic for many apartments, the number of families living in apartments has more than doubled in the past 10 years.”

Through her research and through talking to families, Sophie-May found there are pros and cons to apartment living. In cities, it can mean living closer to amenities, coastlines, parks and schools. It could save you on the commute to work; in turn helping to reduce your carbon footprint. But for some families the lack of space and storage, and outdated legislation has caused issues.

Rising issues

Now in the third year of her PhD, Sophie-May is working to help people better understand families’ experiences and determine what needs to change in order for high-density living to be seen as an attractive long-term residential option for a diverse population.

“The cultural norm in Australia has been this idea of the great Australian dream,” she says. “After you have children the expectation is to move into a house that has a backyard and more space. Children are perceived to not belong in apartments, and this creates a number of challenges for families who are trying to make this living arrangement work.”

An apartment block in Wollongong. Photo: Paul Jones.

More development applications for high-density living are being approved in NSW than ever before. Photo: Paul Jones.

As governments continue to prioritise high-density living in our capital cities, Sophie-May says this perception is something that needs to change. Sydney mum Melanie Ridout, who took part in the research, lived in apartments with her children before moving into a detached house. She even started a blog Apartment Mum to find out how other families were ­making the most of apartment life.

“I have lived in two apartments with children,” she says. “The first was a two-bedder we rented with one child, then we bought a three-bedder in Cronulla before we had our second child.

“We love Cronulla and knew it would be an amazing place to have little kids. We only owned one car, so we could walk everywhere to parks and beaches. Like lots of other families, we couldn’t afford a house there, so a unit was the obvious option. It is very normal in Cronulla, so many families live in apartments. In fact, in our block of eight, six were occupied by families.”

While Melanie’s primary reason for not purchasing a home was affordability, Sophie-May found many other families chose to live in apartments.

“The families I’m speaking to aren’t all constrained to living in apartments with no other choice; often it’s a case where they really enjoy the location they are living in and so they choose to prioritise location over dwelling size,” Sophie-May says. “They would live in a house if they could have a three-bedroom house in that exact area, right near public transport, parks and other family-friendly amenities and lifestyle choices. But detached houses in these areas are not affordable or non-existent, so they choose apartments.”

A lot of developers still see apartments as housing for singles and couples without children, where there is actually this whole other demographic who lives in them.

Sophie-May Kerr

Noise: the city’s biggest polluter

Inside her apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Janin Mayer opened her mail to find a letter from her strata company. It outlined a complaint of excessive noise and, unless that noise stopped, she could face legal action and a $550 fine. Janin wasn’t using power tools in the middle of the night, nor had she hosted any loud social gatherings. The source of the noise was her 19-month-old son. She posted the letter to Facebook in March 2016 stirring debate and soon after her story was covered by several media outlets.

Sophie-May says Janin’s story is not uncommon, with many parents looking for new ways to mitigate the noise that comes with having young children, in an effort to not disturb their neighbours.

“Living within such close proximity to others can lead to neighbourly tensions around acoustics and privacy,” says Sophie-May. Her research highlights these tensions and seeks to reveal the emotional complexities faced by parents in high density settings.

Noise is the fastest growing area of complaint and disputes in urban Australia. Sophie-May says parents adopt a number of strategies to reduce sound, including behavioural strategies such as limiting certain activities to socialable hours and material strategies such as putting down carpet. But she emphasises that there is only so much that individual apartment owners can change and that the wider problem of poor acoustic design needs to be addressed.

PhD student Sophie-May Kerr, who is conducting research on families who live in apartments, stands outside an apartment building.

Considering families when designing apartments is one way we can better cater for the demographic says Sophie-May. Photo: Paul Jones.

The people to space ratio

As people become increasingly aware of their impact on this planet, concepts such as minimalism and tiny houses have taken afoot in society. Entire blogs and documentaries are devoted to helping people adopt these lifestyles, which aim to live within your means, whether that be related to the amount of space in your home or the number of possessions you own.

“Spaces in smaller dwellings become multi-purpose in order to meet the needs of different family members at different times,” Sophie-May says. “Families interviewed for this research also made use of communal spaces outside the apartment and accessed shared resources in instances where space limitations restricted individual ownership.”

This can include bedrooms becoming playrooms, a shared outdoor area with neighbours, or simply making use of nearby parks and amenities rather than having your own backyard. As a mother-of-two, Melanie says this was the case while she was living in an apartment.

“I would say the whole house was a flexible space,” she says. “I am self-employed and my office was next to my bed and my husband, while doing his Doctorate, was in the same boat. The kids would play in every room. Sometimes we even played in the garage. It sounds fun. But in retrospect it was stressful and overstimulating. We needed a courtyard at least and could have stayed longer if we had that – or a communal backyard.”

What needs to change

Perhaps the first change needs to be a cultural shift. Sophie-May says developers and legislators need to give greater consideration to families when planning apartment blocks.

“A lot of developers still see apartments as housing for singles and couples without children, where there is actually this whole other demographic who lives in them, whose experiences need to be taken into account,” she says. “There needs to be a change in perception around who lives in apartments and apartment building design standards need to account for a diverse population.”

Improvements in liveability could come about through structural changes that help mitigate noise or through innovative ways of creating space and storage in small areas to create family-friendly apartments. Sophie-May says that while some families are making it work, policy needs to move with the trend if apartments are going to have a meaningful role in easing the squeeze on housing availability and affordability for future generations.

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