The government’s housing message dilemma

John Key was across the media yesterday, trying to tamp down suggestions the Budget would do anything at all to address the housing “issue” which everyone else in New Zealand has accepted is a crisis. The lines are familiar: there’s no quick fix (so no point doing anything at all), Kiwis are more interested in other things (… which my government has also failed to do anything about.)

Unfortunately, 76% of people and even 61% of National voters don’t think enough is being done to address the fact there are families with newborn children living in cars in Godzone. And the usual lines are ringing more and more hollow.

Watching Key on Breakfast yesterday, it felt like he was honestly surprised at the backlash on housing. At the way his brush-offs and shrugs weren’t met with a jolly laugh and a diversion into What Max Has Been Up To With That New Hair.

But that’s fair enough. Looking at the polls and broad media narrative for the past eight years, we – the embodied Common Sense of Middle New Zealand – have accepted an awful lot of stuff from this government.

We accepted that beneficiaries should be drug tested, and forced into work before their babies are even school aged. We accepted that social housing could be better run by the private sector, and that imposing basic standards on private rentals would hurt landlords too much.

We accepted that it was too difficult to get rid of zero hour contracts – until it wasn’t – and that health and safety shouldn’t apply to “low risk” endeavours like farming – unless worms were involved – and that giving new parents a full 26 weeks paid time with their babies was way too expensive.

We accepted that a surplus was the most important thing a government could deliver, and that there was nothing wrong with the price of housing, especially in Auckland.

For eight (long) years there’s been little mainstream pushback against the ideas that ordinary people deserve near-zero support from their community, and the market must not be meddled with.

But this week John Key has looked up and everyone’s staring at him saying “WTF, mate? People are living in cars? We’re putting them up in motels so their kids can sleep in a bed for once and we’re charging them for the privilege? What the hell is going on and why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

And I don’t think he really knows what to do.

I’m not going over the top to declare The Honeymoon Is Over or try to sell a 1.6% drop in Key’s preferred-PM rating as A Catastrophic Landslide Of Support. I’m definitely biased, and seriously frustrated after eight years of a government which oscillates between do-nothing when people are struggling to feed their families and men-of-action when Saudi billionaires throw temper tantrums.

But the same old lines aren’t working. The discontent is getting mainstream. And John Key may no longer have all the answers.

The Epsom Paradox

After watching several of my Twitter buddies disbelievingly live-tweet the ridiculous proceedings around the Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan the other night, I had some thoughts. The good folks of Twitter liked them, so I decided to expand on them in a post. Here it is!

The angry-making thing about the Epsom Paradox is it’s not hypocrisy. It’s pure cynicism. It’s the logical end behaviour of an ideology which believes the rich and powerful are inherently more deserving, more equal, more important than those people who live in “welfare suburbs”. The belief is not, “deregulation is good”; it’s “deregulation is good when it’s good for me.”

So when I want to build a set of leaky apartment buildings, sell them to unsuspecting people and then pull out of the shell company that holds all the liability, deregulation should let me do that. The market, after all, will somehow find a way to correct for massive issues which only become apparent years after I’ve made my profits and retired to a tropical island.

But when my next-door neighbour wants to put up a couple of townhouses on the back of their section, blocking MY view and meaning other people might be able to see into MY yard, well, that’s a travesty! An infringement on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness! Don’t you know some of those people might be not rich?

I don’t want any of this to be taken as arguments inherently for or against development or intensification. Those aren’t my areas of expertise, and I can only speak from personal anecdata. I live on the back half of a subdivided section; I think the builders did a tremendous job of balancing the space and outdoor areas and maintaining good privacy between the two houses. I’ve also seen rows of townhouses crammed onto every inch of flat space on a section, where comfort and any thought of an outdoor lifestyle was clearly sacrificed for maximising the cash to be made.

I’m a big government kind of girl. I don’t think government, central nor local, always gets things right, but I hold two things to be true: we need to be smarter about how we use land and design housing; and the best way to ensure we do that properly is to be strategic about it. You don’t get much strategy telling the property developers of the world “go for your life, and in 20 years when there aren’t any kauri left on private property in the Waitakere Ranges the market will shed a single perfect tear.”

And the Epsom Paradox shows that there isn’t a strategy at the heart of private property profiteers. They just want to make money off the people who have no power to say no, and protect their own idyllic patches. It’s selfish and short-sighted, and if you ever want one sentence that sums up everything wrong with our current government and many of our local body politicians, look no further.

The ultimate proof of their short-sightedness is this: because the boomerbabies made a great hue and cry over Auckland Council’s rezoning proposals, the Council has withdrawn their submission. So at the next round of hearings on the Unitary Plan, the Council has no argument to put forward – but other organisations like Housing NZ do, and their suggestions are a lot worse for the leafy suburb-dwellers.

Too bad for them.

Nick Smith just plans to move the headstones

Labour has rather unhelpfully pointed out that the land Nick Smith is promising to open up for development in Auckland includes power substations, public reserves and even a cemetery …

On Budget day, the Government announced building on public land would get underway, saying it “owns approximately 500 hectares of land in Auckland with the potential for residential development”.

But Labour claims the Government is hiding what land is actually being opened up.

“Can he confirm that no parcel of land in his 500 hectares contains the following on it – power substations, pylons, a cemetery, a fire station or school playing fields?” says Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford.

“There are thousands of sites,” says Dr Smith.

He refuses to release any of the sites included in his 500-hectare stocktake of public land until they have been confirmed.

He also refused to comment on whether he was now forming policy on the basis of watching Poltergeist a few too many times.

Save our kauri!

I spent some of my teen years living in Titirangi. There’s an odd contradiction at play in that part of Auckland: a stark ideological divide between the hippies and greenies who head to the market every last-Sunday for some amethyst jewellery and cumin-speckled gouda, and the extreme individualistic righties who love the high property values and claim to love the lifestyle, but never got their heads around the fact that their lifestyle rests on their community and environment.

We used to tell jokes about calling the local rangers if you heard a chainsaw in the wee hours of the morning – not the police, because the police don’t investigate tree murders. There were dark urban legends about subdividing scumbags who’d find subtle ways to poison the trees when they were denied consent to chop down hundred-year-old natives in order to expand their master bedroom or investment portfolio.

You saw their fingerprints everywhere. The house next to ours was a monolithic slab at the end of a short, hazardous driveway. Its only aesthetic, as far as anyone could tell, was “fit as much house as possible on the flattest part of the section.” It was an utter eyesore, with no outdoor area, not even a scrap of lawn. It’s stood forever in my mind as the perfect illustration of that rightwing faction of Titirangi: why even bother living out west in the bush if you can’t actually live in the bush, if you’re stuck inside with the aircon on 100% of the time you’re at home? If you don’t even have space for a barbecue?

There was even – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – an “independent” “business-friendly” local body ticket, Go Waitakere, who turned out to be a bunch of pro-development anti-environmental protection ACToids and were tossed out on their ears in the next election – because they’re in the minority.

That’s the conflict which has resulted in a mass community protest this morning against the felling of a 500-year-old kauri, and a 300-year-old rimu, to make way for a new house and its deck. There are only 200 kauri of this age left in New Zealand – and this one in particular hasn’t been affected by kauri dieback, which is threatening the whole species.

It’s the classic case of community vs private interests. Even someone with the smallest level of appreciation for our natural environment has to be awed by the idea of a living organism which has seen generations of humans come and go. The more of a filthy commo hippie you are, the more you find yourself thinking, how can any individual human possibly own something like that? Much less have the power to destroy it? How do you not think, “this is a treasure, and it deserves to be protected”?

But that’s the attitude of our present government and many other people. Short-term profit is king, environmental interests are just nice-to-haves. Even serious, practical considerations – like the fact that much of the value of land in Titirangi is based on it being bushy and lush, or the strain placed on local infrastructure by aggressive development – are ignored.

That’s what’s behind all the talk of RMA “red tape” and “bureaucracy gone mad”. It’s the catch-cry of people who believe, right to their core, that their individual benefit is the only thing that matters in the world, and damn the consequences for anyone else. That’s how we ended up with the leaky homes crisis – but unlike leaky homes, you can’t just “fix” the death of a centuries-old stand of trees.

Today, I may live in Wellington, but I’m standing in solidarity with the good folk of Titirangi who understand that some things are more important than making a developer a quick buck. You can follow the campaign at the hashtag #SaveOurKauri.

ETA: The kauri have won a temporary reprieve.

No fix for housing affordability as long as we ignore what’s actually affordable

Housing affordability has been a huge issue in New Zealand for a long time, but some extra fuel has been added to the fire by a recent survey which shows housing in Auckland is less affordable than in New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo.

The survey ranked 378 cities in nine countries and considered the cities affordable if the median house price was a maximum of three times more than the median annual household income.

Auckland’s median house price is $613,000 – 8.2 times the median income of $75,100.

There are a lot of reasons for housing being unaffordable – property speculators driving the prices to ridiculous levels, a National-led government which would love to see wages drop – and a lot of different solutions, depending on whether you listen to the people who make money flipping property (open up more land to development, relax regulations on the building industry) or the people who care about people (a living wage, more stringent taxation on speculation).

Personally I think anyone who looks at Auckland and goes “you know what this city needs to do? Sprawl more!” needs to be banned from ever commenting on Auckland issues because they clearly don’t live/have never lived there (or at least, not in the sprawl they proclaim to love).

Principally I’m concerned by the relaxed attitude Mayor Len Brown seems to have:

He defines “affordable” as under $500,000, which is still more than six times the median household income, but insists more options are being developed.

“A good number of [new apartments] are high $200,000s to low $400,000 purchase prices, and what we’re seeing with those developments is they are selling out,” says Mr Brown.

“The most recent example I’ve got is that the St James apartment development, which is being built in conjunction with the renovating of the great old St James theatre. That’s only just come on for pre-sale, and it’s already pre-sold by half – and they haven’t even started the project.”

I immediately question whether the kinds of people who can pre-buy apartments which haven’t even started construction are the kind of hardworking/struggling/middle-New-Zealand families who find it impossible to get their first home – if only because banks demand a far higher deposit on apartments. Even if you’re talking only $280k for the place, you may need to find over $80k just to get your foot in the door.

And it brings to mind what I was saying just yesterday about taking numbers out of context: what use is it knowing that unbuilt apartments are selling like hotcakes unless we ask who is buying them? What proportion are first-home-buyers? New Zealand-based investors? Overseas-based investors? Corporate interests?

But the other problem is this: Brown defines “affordable” as “under $500k”. This is a common bit of silliness in the house-price debate, with even Labour under David Shearer declaring that “affordable” covered everything from $300,000 on-average-per-house to $550,000 for a single-family home.

The problem is, the Demographia survey defines “affordable housing” as a median price of no more than three times the median household income. Across New Zealand, for the year ending 30 June 2014, that was $72,394 – giving an “affordable” median price of $217,000. For Auckland, as quoted above, it’s $75,100 – a bit higher, but we’re still talking a median of $225,000.

Building a lot of apartments in the “high 200s to low 400s” might drag the current obscenely-high median lower, but it’s still not getting us anywhere near “affordable”.

There may be many reasons for housing unaffordability, and many possible solutions, but we’re never going to make progress on the issue as long as we can’t even be realistic about what “affordability” is – and acknowledging that it’s far less than those of us lucky enough to already own our homes would assume.