I recently heard a story from these two guys who claimed to be squatting in some of Melbourne’s fanciest mansions. It was a wild story, although it seemed unlikely as they claimed to be squatting in Toorak, which is Melbourne’s single most expensive suburb. But according to a recent report, Melbourne currently has around 82,000 unoccupied homes. And while you might be imagining shitholes in outer suburbs, a lot of these places are in affluent areas like Prahran. Sydney is seeing a similar trend, with the 2011 census finding that some of Sydney’s most expensive areas were seeing property vacancy rates hovering at around 15 percent.
The reason, of course, is money. Homes don’t need people in them to accrue value, which is why investors buy them up only to sit on them for years—and in some cases, decades.
With a quick Google I found an article about a mansion in Toorak that had been demolished in 2015, only to be left as a grassy lot. Then I found another story about a 19-room former home of the Hoyts Cinemas founder, purchased in 1991, and left to grow weeds.
Needless to say, I needed to take a look. So I headed down to Toorak, where residents jog in a mix of activewear and Prada, and the lawns are immaculate. The exception to all this neatness and order is this place, where a 1913 Queen Anne mansion once stood. Earthmovers tore the building down in 2015 after the state planning minister rejected a mercy bid to block its demolition.
Around the back its former garage door was hanging open so I just stepped in, and instantly my feelings changed.
It wasn’t like I was taken away by some some innate beauty, or the sheer size of the ruins, but rather its lifelessness. You walk through and there’s nothing. No sounds of birds, or people talking. Just an unsettling absence ringed by tennis courts and pools. I found it all genuinely uncomfortable, so I left.
Just down the road was the former Hoyts residence. This 7,246 square metre palace was to be subdivided in 1992, but the application was denied. Another demolition attempt was made in 2001 but rejected by the council, so it's also stood empty ever since.
The house seems halfway through some long-forgotten renovation, with windows boarded up, and all covered in cultish-looking graffiti. Any sense of the style and luxury the house once had is now gone. It’s simply a ruin of a time passed.
While walking around I got thinking about the 100,000 people across Australia who are currently homeless, while giant places like this crumble. And then there’s the fact that investment properties like these are helping exacerbate Australia’s housing unaffordability. Walking around an abandoned mansion in Toorak, at a time when home ownership is an impossible dream, really makes you feel you’re being screwed.
And yet the issue of rich people locking up houses as investments just seems to be getting worse. According to the 2016 census, there were 1,089,165 houses in Australia recorded as unoccupied, a figure that’s risen by over 150,000 since 2011.
It’s difficult to say what the future of Australia’s abandoned mansions will be. Currently Victoria is the only state that has a form of vacancy tax, but even that isn’t bulletproof. The tax targets only inner, and middle-city properties, and as its critics point out, lacks the ability to address all the issue’s various complexities.
So for the time being it looks like these abandoned properties will going to continue doing what they’re doing—and that’s a whole lot of nothing.
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