Modern Families: Fact from Fiction

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I sometimes struggle with our willingness to look straight through evidence to see only what we want to see, or what we believe we should be seeing. Some recent interpretations of the Australian census and conclusions about housing form and consumer choice regrettably fall into this category.

Early results from the Australian census may have disappointed some boosters who have actively promoted the view that the typical family household is a thing of the past. The argument has had many forms but usually includes one or more of the following:

  • that single person households are the fastest growing household type; that lifestyle choices mean that more people want to live closer to city centres;
  • that the suburban housing block is an environmental calamity and is no longer even suited to what households want;
  • that high density, multi-level housing with high reliance on public transport is a preferred housing model for the ‘new’ generation of family types.

And so it goes.

Sadly for the promoters of rapid social change, the census reveals that the facts aren’t on their side. Indeed, in terms of housing form and family type, nothing much has really changed. There have been movements at the margin and movements in both directions, but nothing I would interpret as conclusive evidence of fundamental social change.

Housing form

Across Australia, 73.8% of us live in a detached house. In the last census, it was 74.3%. That’s hardly a seismic shift. In 2011, 14.6% of us lived in apartments compared to 14.7% five years earlier. Townhouses account for 9.9% of households versus 9.3%.  Don’t hold the front page, nothing much has changed.

There are regional differences. In Sydney, detached housing is at 58.9% from 60.9% while apartments represent 27.6% of households against 26.4% five years earlier. This higher proportion in apartments comes as little surprise given the highly restrictive planning policies of NSW in that period and prior (which included a virtual prohibition on suburban expansion), combined with the long established tendency of Sydney to accommodate more people in apartments than other capitals. But for all the hype about Bob Carr’s ‘brawl against sprawl’ and subsequent planning regimes, the actual change in housing has been minimal. (Instead, what happened is that the industry stopped supplying much of either).

In Melbourne by contrast, detached housing represents 71.1% of housing from 71.6% five years earlier. Apartments are 16.6% versus 16.4%. Melbourne, and Victoria generally, has had a less deterministic approach to planning whereby detached suburban expansion hasn’t been as vigorously opposed, so the higher dominance of the detached house is no surprise. But it also shows little change over recent times, which doesn’t support the view that a majority of consumers would prefer higher density over lower.

In Brisbane, detached housing is at 77.6% versus 78.7% five years earlier, which is a very small change and also one of the highest proportions of households in detached housing in the country. Once again, the evidence isn’t pointing to massive social change. It isn’t even pointing to modest change.

Family type

Also regrettable for the promoters of widespread social change has been the fact that family types have remained largely unchanged. There are 43% of people living as a couple with children (it was 43.3% five years earlier) and there are 39.5% living as couples without children.  Remember also that ‘couples without children’ includes couples in the pre-family formation stage (young, and starting out in life in the main) and also ‘empty nesters’ (parents whose children have left the family home). A further 16% are single parent families. 

The Census this time also went into some detail about same sex couples. But set aside the media and political hype and the facts show that the proportion of same sex couples across the country is 0.7%. There’s been a lot of media comment and public policy attention recently about that 0.7%.

The inevitable conclusion from this evidence is simply that the overwhelming majority of people in Australia remain families who either have children, who plan to have children, or who have had children who have left home, and that this proportion hasn’t changed to anywhere near the extent promoters of social change might have wished.

This also has implications for housing choice and style. There will be a market for higher density, inner city housing but our policy makers need to keep in mind that the detached home remains the overwhelming preference for families as a place to raise children. That also includes couples planning to raise children (not all of whom live in apartments until the first child comes along – many prefer to plan ahead) and it also includes couples with children who have left home but for whom a third or fourth bedroom is needed for grandparent child minding or children returning to the family home.

However, the evidence hasn’t stopped some sections of the media or social commentators from reaching entirely different conclusions. “Up not out for housing” declared one writer who wrote: “Australia is increasingly favouring higher density living, according to the 2011 census.” Really? Based on the same evidence above? You’d be seriously pushed to draw that conclusion. Add to this that supply side policies have restricted the choice of detached housing in preference to the promotion of higher density, which means that increasingly housing choice has been restricted, and what there is of it, much more expensive. To conclude anything about ‘favouring’ one type of housing or another, without assessing the supply side policy constraints which limit choice, is a bit like saying more people prefer mangoes in summer than in winter. Duh.

The Grattan Institute is another that seems committed to turning the evidence on its side to support pre-determined points of view. In this opinion piece, Grattan Institute cities program fellow Peter Mares concluded that: “that despite paying significantly more to put a roof over their head than they were five years ago, many are not ending up in the kind of housing that best matches their preferences.”  Describing the “popular view that we are wedded to the suburban block” as a mismatch, the conclusion is that ‘we’ (being, I presume, the unelected policy makers)  need to have “a serious, if difficult, conversation about what type of housing we should build and where it should be built.”

Well, that would be difficult if it means imposing a form of housing on a population that might prefer to make its own choices about what type of housing it ‘should’ have and where they ‘should’ be living. 

These aren’t the only examples and as more Census data becomes available, plenty more commentators will seek to extrapolate minor changes at the margin into claims this represents evidence of fundamental social change. It doesn’t and we can only hope our policy makers know the difference between evidence and a sitcom.

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.

Family illustration by BigStockPhoto.com.