About 6 months ago I relocated from Melbourne to my hometown Launceston, Tasmania. As an urban designer working for a small-medium consultancy in Melbourne, the opportunity to move home was afforded to me due to Covid-19 and the ability to work remotely. And I jumped at the chance to be back on the Apple Isle.
But I wasn’t alone. Launceston and other regional areas in north-west Tasmania are seeing unprecedent population growth due not only to interstate demand, but also the declining affordability in the Hobart housing market (Ainsworth, 2021).
And inevitably, this is driving property prices up, with CoreLogic data’s most recent figures showing dwelling values in regional Tasmania have increased by 11.9 per cent in the past year, the strongest regional housing market-performance in Australia (Ainsworth, 2021).
In the past year, Launceston’s median house price increased by 11.4 per cent to $420,000, compared to Hobart which increased by 8.5 per cent (McIntyre, 2021). For those that were already in the property market it’s a win. But for those wanting to enter the property market or renters, it is a different story. Launceston has seen rental increases of between $5 and $30 a week, compared to last year, with a vacancy rate of just 1.3 percent (McIntyre, 2021).
So how do we respond to this challenge? Is sprawl the answer? Or can we start looking at Launceston’s CBD and the opportunity for infill development? Is the market ready for apartments?
To start with, let me give you a description of the Launceston’s urban structure and setting. Lieutenant-Governor Paterson landed on the western bank of the Tamer in early 1805. It was settled because of “its sheltered position, abundant green pasture and the spareness of lofty trees” (Queen Victorian Museum and Art Gallery, 2004).
The below ‘Plan of the Town’ by HWH Smythe, is believed to be the earliest urban land use survey undertaken in Australia, dated 1835 (Queen Victorian Museum and Art Gallery, 2004). And what is truly evident is the compact urban grid that formed the foundation to the city.
The grid is compact and walkable, with typical block sizes of 110-120m by 130-140m. Its core consists of streets edged by heritage buildings, which has helped define a consistent and highly valued built form character (DLA et al, 2013). However, while they provide a visually cohesive character, there are several development constraints associated with the re-use and adaptation of existing heritage buildings which may make them unviable in the Launceston context (David Lock Associates et al, 2013).
Fortunately, there are large blocks in the CBD with minimal heritage limitations that are ripe for medium and high-density mixed-use development. For Launceston City Council, increasing inner city living is a core objective of their Residential Strategy, as they see not only the sustainability benefits (less driving!), but that vibrancy and a night-time economy are intrinsically linked to residents living in the CBD.
So, has any apartment development occurred yet? Short answer – hardly any. In fact, most of the current apartment stock is limited to shop top dwellings. Historically, the main reason apartments haven’t taken off is their high cost of construction relative to their achievable sale value and the comparable price of a conventional dwelling. The cost of developing an apartment generally ranges from $4,000 to $5,000 per square metre (before a developer adds a 15-20% profit margin), often causing prices to exceed $400,000 and people to opt for house and land at a similar price. However, as the affordability and supply of these traditional offerings continue to trend downward, and the population continues to increase (including the inevitable return of international students), consistent with most other cities in Australia, one can expect cities to become denser and apartments to become more popular. Particularly with demand for housing outstripping supply.
“The situation is that the stock level in real estate is down, so anything that comes on the market has that fierce competition which pushes the price up due to the fact there simply isn’t enough stock to meet the demand.” (Abblitt, 2021)
With such high demand and lack of stock, local developers are now looking at inner-city apartments in the Launceston CBD targeted towards the “entry level” market.
S Group designed and developed Saint Lofts apartments, which were marketed between $300,000 and $350,000 (Abblitt, 2021). With the price boom, this is entry level, and they’ve been incredibly popular with all apartments now sold (Abblitt, 2021).
So, is this a sign of things to come? Will property prices continue to rise enough to support the apartment market? I hope so. I’m an advocate for apartment living in cities for so many reasons. It is the best way to enliven a city and spark up the night life. And not only that, it makes cities safer at night through passive surveillance. Apartments bring more people within walking distance of services and amenities, alleviating the need to drive or own two cars. They also take the pressure off the urban fringes. Apartments are a great option for retirees as they require far less maintenance than a detached dwelling, and provide an affordable entry to the market for first home buyers. What’s not to love?
Ainsworth, Kate (4 Jan 2021) ‘House price boom as demand outstrips supply in regional towns’
McIntyre, Damian (28 April 2021) ‘Tasmania’s real estate market soaring, north-west prices up almost 30 per cent’
Inglis, Rob (5 Nov 2019) ‘North of city shaping as high-end residential development mecca’
Abblitt, Ebony (8 April, 2021) ‘Launceston agents are seeing low stock, with developer S Group launching a new offering’
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (2004) ‘Launceston: A Pictorial History’, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
David Lock Associates et al (2013), ‘Launceston Central Area Development Strategy’
The aim of this column is to promote debate. So please write in to Planning News or email me at email@example.com with comments.
Julia Bell is a Senior Associate Urban Designer at kinetica, town planning and urban design consultants, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org