Illegal demolitions of character homes are troubling, but they are potentially also a distraction from deeper systemic issues that contribute to unsustainable gentrification and the legal destruction of local heritage homes.

Many of you will have heard about the illegal demolition of a character home at 8-10 Stafford Street, East Brisbane. It was purchased for $913 000 between December 2015 and January 2016. From my recollection as someone who has doorknocked that area several times, a couple of families were happily living in that property until at least late 2015, so it was clearly still habitable. You can see the details of the demolished property on this real estate advertisement. Council’s senior historian has said the main part of the home was built before 1904. While some of the more recent modifications were arguably pretty ugly, it certainly wasn’t a derelict wreck that was about to fall down.

Basically, it seems someone bought the old house, turfed out the tenants once their lease expired, got a private certifier to authorise partial demolition of the newer veranda extensions and the semi-detached granny flat, then illegally demolished the entire building without council approval. Here’s a news story about it from last year where the chair of City Planning, Councillor Julian Simmonds, said “We will throw the book at anyone who tries to flout laws around character and heritage, this is completely unacceptable.” (I might add that if any of the parties involved in this matter see any inaccuracies in this write-up, or feel there’s more information I should be aware of, they are very welcome to contact me and I’ll make corrections accordingly.)

Council decided to prosecute. The new owner, Nomad Investment Fund Pty Ltd, pleaded guilty, and received a fine of… wait for it… $7000. That’s it. $7k. Not much of a penalty in the grand scheme of things is it?

Recently, the State Government made a lot of noise about how it’s doubling the maximum penalties for violations like this. But whether the maximum fine is $200 000 or $500 000 doesn’t really mean much if judges are only handing out penalties in the realm of $7000 for illegally demolishing an entire five-bedroom property. I’m told that the highest penalties that magistrates have so far handed down for illegal demolitions are in the realm of $12 000, which can actually work out cheaper than going through the proper process to apply for demolition approval (and you might not even be successful).

The old property straddled two lots – 8 and 10 Stafford Street, which can be sold off individually without the need to apply for a subdivision. The owner has now advertised one of the lots for sale for around $750 000. When you factor in stamp duty and other transaction costs, his total outlays to buy and demolish the property were probably less than $1 million, so even if 10 Stafford St only sells for $700 000, he will end up with the vacant block of land at 8 Stafford St (which is also presumably worth upwards of $700k) for a total cost of somewhere between $250 000 and $300 00, which is a pretty good deal.

As this is a magistrates court matter, the judge doesn’t have to publish their reasons online. I’ve been requesting more information from council, and so far I’ve managed to get hold of the prosecution report, which you can view here.

The prosecution report makes interesting reading. The defendant entered an early guilty plea, and said he was heavily indebted for a number of reasons, which probably influenced the judge to be a bit more lenient.

The private certifiers who ticked off on the demolition of the veranda and granny flat said that the defendant initially sought approval to demolish both dwellings and clear the block. They said that once it became apparent that the main home was pre-1946 and therefore protected, the defendant told them he wanted to restore the pre-1946 dwelling and only demolish the granny flat and the newer additions to the balcony.

Basically the defendant is arguing that they only intended to remove the veranda extensions and the granny flat, but that once work started, they decided the rest of the property was structurally unsound and that the safest thing to do was to immediately knock down the whole thing. (They also cleared a big tree in the backyard while they were at it) According to neighbours, part of the demolition was carried out with an excavator, which is a pretty blunt instrument to be using if you’re only removing extensions and trying not to damage the original character home.

So maybe the defendant was naïve and careless, or maybe he was stupidly reckless, or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and was deliberately playing the system. I’m trying not to cast judgment, but if it really was the case (as the judge seemed to accept) that there was no malicious intent, you have to wonder how someone could stuff up this badly.

That’s basically as much as I know at this stage. But what strikes me is that this story doesn’t quite fit the simpler, more convenient narrative that this was a big developer whose goal was to demolish the old home, put up a bunch of units and make a huge profit. Nomad Investment Fund isn’t a massive company. It has just one director who self-represented in court. The company was probably set up to dodge tax rather than to run development projects. If your primary goal was profit, you would retain ownership of both lots and develop a three-story block of units (which the zoning allows) rather than selling one off.

Perhaps there’s more to this story than might appear to be the case at first glance.

 

At least this will result in a more sustainable level of density, right?

Some planners might make the argument that while the loss of the old home is sad, the end result will probably be that two new townhouses are built on 8 and 10 Stafford Street, which is a more sustainable level of density for a suburb like East Brisbane than a big old house. That might be the case, but it’s important to note that the former property also included two self-contained dwellings – the main house and the granny flat – plus extra space under the house and ample off-street parking.

As suburbs like East Brisbane gentrify, what we’re increasingly seeing is that new townhouses often end up being occupied by only two or three people. Oftentimes, a big old sharehouse can have a higher density of occupants than two newer townhouses on the same sized lot. This obviously connects to a whole range of broader issues including the McMansion phenomenon and how much residential floor space per person we believe is reasonable for individuals and households to enjoy a high quality of life. Another common outcome of this kind of development is that inefficient ratios of bathrooms to bedrooms or kitchens to bedrooms can result in significant increases in the cost of housing when analysed on a per-bedroom basis. Hopefully I’ll be able to unpack this issue further in a future article.

 

Owners need support to preserve character and heritage

We also need to recognise that maintaining traditional/character homes without making ‘out-of-character’ changes can often be a significant financial burden and imposition upon owners. Hundred-year-old homes made primarily from wood do not last forever. We need strong protections and clear regulations to preserve the character of older streets and suburbs, but we also need enough flexibility to ensure that owners can afford to maintain and improve their properties without jumping through excessive regulatory hoops and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations in order to remain compliant. Otherwise, we inadvertently create a situation where owners have financial incentives to leave old properties to rot and fall apart, or to demolish them illegally.

 

What about all the legal demolitions?

This whole saga risks distracting from a more common problem, which is that big developers frequently receive approval to legally demolish affordable homes and character homes that ought to be protected. For a range of reasons, our current system incentivises unsustainable development projects, and makes affordable, medium-density developments that respect the character of our neighbourhoods less financially viable.

We should not have a system where private building certifiers can sign off on demolitions and building projects without council and community oversight.  We should not have a system that allows self-assessable or code assessable demolition – every proposed demolition should include a public notification period and opportunity for community submissions.

We also need to push back against recent changes by the State Government which will allow councils to outsource the role of development assessment to private development certifiers. This risks creating a situation where developers can simply hire friendly and supportive development certifiers to tick off apartment development approvals without sufficient council or community involvement.

Brisbane City Council is currently proposing to demolish dozens of old, character homes along Lytton Road in East Brisbane as part of a dud road-widening project. The loss of these homes will largely go unremarked and unlamented by the mainstream media. Throughout the city, we’re seeing historically significant, structurally sound, habitable homes knocked down or relocated to make way for new developments (some of them good, some of them bad, all of which have a significant and irreversible impact on the character of the city). We’re seeing skylines and clifftops irrevocably transformed by massive highrises. Characterful streets and heritage-listed properties are being overshadowed by towers whose design and construction is motivated primarily by profit.

The city is changing rapidly. In some cases for the better, but often in ways that don’t meet the needs or expectations of ordinary residents. And most of these changes are technically legal. Developers and big investors have rewritten the rulebooks again and again to suit their own purposes. It’s gotten to the point now where only a few big developers actually have the knowledge and resources to comply with planning codes and regulations, which gives rise to a new kind of monopolisation of the property market. Our city is being reshaped to serve the interests of profit, and in the process, much of its historic character is simply collateral damage.

So, long story short, while the unauthorised demolition of 8-10 Stafford St, East Brisbane is extremely concerning, and we should perhaps be asking why magistrates have been so lenient, and why they consistently hand down such low fines for illegal demolitions, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the greater and more significant threats to character and heritage are legal and authorised under our current planning and development approvals framework. We must fight to change the rules themselves. The whole damn system is broken.