"Elysium" and the sci-fi vision of gated housing communities: Cameron McEvoy

"Elysium" and the sci-fi vision of gated housing communities: Cameron McEvoy

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"Affordable Homes Starting at $250 Million", this is the tag line for the upcoming blockbuster science fiction action film Elysium starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

What on earth does that have to do with property, you might ask?

I saw this tagline on posters, billboards, and banner ads online recently and thought to myself, what an interesting premise for a film.

The film is a futuristic and stylised approach to the global problem of housing affordability, and also the problem of finding space for housing in the areas where people want to live.

These concepts led me to thinking about affordability in an Australian context, and the challenge of meeting demand versus supply, in the locations where Australians are wanting to live.  

The basic premise of Elysium is this: over time, human populations on Earth spiral out of control. With people packed like sardines on Earth, living in increased volumes of poverty and despair, those with enough money are able to buy a spacious property, become an elite class within society and can afford to purchase a spacious apartment - in space.

The film then segues into big budget action sequences with an undertone of  class warfare.

Elysium is the second film from South African director Neill Blomkamp, whose previous blockbuster District 9 also balanced weighty social issues with action and adventure.

I have not yet seen the film, however the premise does raise some issues about not only housing affordability, but also availability.

The marketing gimic of using billboard space to run ads that appear to be for prestige property, really does command attention. Additionally, an innovative viral marketing campaign has seen posters being glued on to street furniture and bus stations that advertise properties for sale within the fictional space station setting of the film.

When looking at projections of population growth globally from now until 2030 from reputable data organisations such as the United Nations (specifically their 2010 ‘Data Projection 2030’ report, and their ‘FAO Global Report 2012’) and the World Health Organisation’s 2013 ‘Population Projection 2030’ report, they each more or less agree that the expotential global population growth occurring since the 1950s will continue at an even faster rate than before.

This means that based on the current global population today of around 7.1 billion, many reputable data sources agree that over the next 17 years human populations will likely be between 8.2 and 8.4 billion people.

This is actually a conservative forecast. The U.N.’s ‘higher likelihood’ figure predicts that number to be more around the 8.9 billion mark.

So what does this mean for supply and demand of housing?

Well, we know that most people prefer to live in locations close to proper infrastructure and crucially, to readily available employment hubs.

In other words, there is an increasing trend and desire in not only developed but in developing countries for people to live in cities. This then creates problems with population density and supply and demand issues with housing available within these cities.

 


Having recently returned from Singapore and also having travelled over the last decade to some of the world’s most densely populated cities in locations where geographic future expansion is limited (cities like Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Casablanca and Istanbul), I can foresee the challenges that lay ahead for city planning in such locations based on rapid population expansion.

Housing affordability in major cities is increasingly becoming a problem, particularly in large-population countries where cultural and economic shifts are creating a rising middle class and demand for larger and more premium housing is ever increasing.

I recently blogged about a Credit Suisse report that cites the least afforable cities in the world (by assessing housing pricing to wage ratios).

What is interesting is that of the top ten, three of the least affordable cities for property (Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong), are all cities with limited geographical growth capability.

Seemingly bucking this trend is Australia.

From an outsider perspective, I’ve had friends and visitors often comment about the degree of underpopulation in Australia in relation to our geographic size.

There is no denying that to the untrained eye, Australia appears as a very underpopulated country. But when taking into consideration some other important metrics, such as trade, industrial development, limited resources and the need to import many goods and services from offshore, Australia’s low population represents different problems.

Although our major employment centers are still very much focused around larger metropolitan cities, as Australia’s economy begins to shift towards the growing and developing resources sector, it is likely we will see a shift in housing demand.

Not a huge one in the beginning, but rather a gradual shift to housing demand increasing in regional centres outside of capital cities, that are tied to the developing resources sectors.

 


Regardless, Australia has faced – and continues to face – housing demand shortages.

Even if demographic trends steer towards regional centres becoming bigger, housing in many of these centers still struggles to keep up with demand.

Adding to this is the expense of developing and building new properties in the areas where people are wanting to live.

Housing affordability in Australia also is poor due to the high taxes, stamp duties, and costs-of-living (electricty, gas, water, services) associated with buying a home, and then maintaining it once it has been purchased.

When compared with say, South Africa (the country/culture that inspired the rich/poor divide storyline of Elysium), whilst Australia does have property markets that span basic, middle class and prestige/premium, quality housing can still be within a modest salary or paycheck’s reach.

We do have a prestige property market, but by-and-large the occupants of such residents pay a premium more for the lifestyle, views, and property features; as opposed to paying for any ‘privelege’ to be further away from a lower class of people.

In Australia, it is very uncommon (though not unheard of) to come across any of the gated-community style (complete with armed guards, barb-wire 14 feet wall enclosures, and every nook and cranny monitored by CCTV) of luxury residences and then find these micro-neighbourhoods within an otherwise lower socio-economic neighbourhood or suburb, such as you might find in pockets of Cape Town and Johannesberg in South Africa.

The rich people in Australia occupying prestige large houses in blue-chip neighbourhoods, do not wish to rub their luxury in the face of the working and modest classes.

Rather, the challenge for Australia is to address overall housing affordability and accessibility, regardless of any market or macro-economic environment.

Where other countries have this challenge in compact and overcrowded cities, where the only real viable solutions are to either build upwards or have city planning policy encourage employment centers located outside of the city, Australia’s challenge could not be any more different.

Ours is to ensure housing availability and affordable in higher-demand regional centers is met, whilst also ensuring that growing cities are furnished with the needed infrastructure that will eventually ease the cost of living for inhabitants of those cities.

Cameron McEvoy is a NSW-based property investor and maintains a blog, Property Correspondent.

 


Cameron McEvoy

Cameron McEvoy

Cameron McEvoy is a NSW-based property investor and maintains a blog, Property Correspondent.

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