Housing affordability has been a hot topic lately, especially in Auckland, so to get the low-down on Auckland’s housing issues from an expert, I spent yesterday with Nick Collins, General Manager of Beacon, an incorporated society committed to transforming New Zealand’s neighbourhoods with efficient, affordable housing.
Along with Beacon architectural intern Libby, Nick and I spent the day touring various Auckland suburbs, looking at some great – and some not so great – examples of affordable, efficient housing and discussing potential solutions to the exploding crisis in housing cost and quality.
Auckland needs between 10,000 and 13,000 new homes a year in the next decade to keep up with demand. That’s daunting enough, and even more so when you consider that at the moment we’re only building around a quarter of that, about 3,000 homes a year.
While the Government is using the crisis as an excuse to put pressure on Auckland Council to extend the urban boundaries and open up rich agricultural land for cheap suburban housing developments, organisations like Beacon advocate for the more efficient and less environmentally damaging option of intensifying development within the existing city limits, with more medium density housing.
Not only is medium density housing potentially more affordable (especially when you factor in all the hidden costs of living on the urban fringe, like increased transport and infrastructure costs), if done right, it can also be more sustainable, and produce more liveable neighbourhoods and communities that give the people who live in them a real enhanced quality of life.
As Nick pointed out at the start of our tour, which began in Ponsonby, we’ve been living in medium density housing in these kinds of neighbourhoods (think of the houses on the hill in Oriental Bay in Wellington for another example) for over a hundred years, in small villas and even terraced housing built very close together. Far from the slums that are feared, these dense neighbourhoods are some of our most desirable! What makes them so great? They are compact, close to the city, easy to get around by walking, cycling or public transport, leafy and green with trees and parks, and well served by local amenities such as schools, shops, and cafes. We created these neighbourhoods from scratch 100 years ago; there’s no reason why we can’t do the same now.
Unfortunately, New Zealand’s first experiments with medium-density housing have been a bit of a disaster, since much of this housing stock, erected in the 1990s and 2000s, has fallen victim to the leaky buildings crisis. We saw countless examples of apartments and terraced flats with severe weather-tightness issues, including many that had been repaired or were in the process of being re-clad.
The leaky homes disaster, which left so many families and home-owners disillusioned and out of pocket, and which we still haven’t seen the full extent of, has put many people off the idea of pursuing new medium-density, affordable housing developments. Say “intensification” and people tend to think either of leaky houses, or of soulless high rise apartment buildings, neither of which appeal to our national psyche, with the dream of the free-standing house on the ¼ acre section still so firmly ingrained for many of us. That’s a real shame, because there are some really exciting concepts and opportunities for medium-density housing development in New Zealand if we can get political buy-in from national and local governments, and work with developers and designers to start thinking creatively about our housing needs.
Eager to prove that it’s possible to create affordable, sustainable housing with a small footprint (both geographically and ecologically), Beacon started building demonstration homes to show how easy it could be. The first of these was the Waitakere NOW home, completed in 2005 for just $220,000. It’s just a basic, three bedroom house, but with the right orientation, solar and rainwater collection, insulation and clever use of the sun’s warmth, it requires no heating of any kind, even in winter. The family who lived in the house after it was first built noticed considerable improvements in their children’s health and said it was the best house they had ever lived in. It’s a great example of the kind of affordable, sustainable home we could all be living in with a better commitment to improving the housing stock in New Zealand.
From Waitakere, we visited a New Zealand Housing Foundation development in West Auckland. The NZHF is a charitable trust which aims to deliver affordable home ownership to low-income households. The trust builds affordable, high performing homes, and helps low-income families to own them through two schemes, affordable equity, where families purchase a shared interest in their home in partnership with the foundation, and affordable rental, where families pay a fair market rent for their home, and after 5 years can receive up to 75 percent of any increase in the value of the property over that time to use as a deposit.
Again, these are simple, well-constructed houses, in a variety of sizes (in recognition of the fact that extended families are increasingly choosing to live together in one house), and they are built to last. This unassuming NZHF developed home, with its solar panels, insulation and orientation, is one of the highest performing houses in New Zealand in terms of energy efficiency, and it’s affordable for the family who lives in it.
Finally we visited the somewhat controversial Government-owned housing development on former New Zealand Defence Force land at Hobsonville Point. When it was initiated under the previous Labour Government, this development was to have been a mix of social, affordable, and private housing, with concurrent community development (including schools, social spaces and a farmers’ market); a real experiment in creating both affordable homes, and a liveable neighbourhood. The development seems to be progressing well, and all the homes meet high energy efficiency standards and come equipped with rainwater collection, but tragically, the current government has axed the social housing component (the local MP, who happens also to be Prime Minister John Key, said it would be “economic vandalism” to have state houses – and their riff raff tenants, presumably – in such a nice development) and axed the affordable Gateway loans scheme after only 17 families had used it to buy their first home. What’s left, the “affordable” houses will cost at least $400,000 and many more than $485,000. Lovely, I’m sure, but hardly affordable. It’s a shame, because in many ways the Hobsonville Point development is very exciting, with its sustainable goals and community building initiatives. Let’s hope a future Government sees sense and reinstates the social and affordable housing components.
Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time yesterday for my tour to continue into South Auckland, where some of the real housing challenges of the next decade will come, especially the challenge of accommodating larger extended families in affordable, safe homes. Fortunately I’ve been invited back soon for part two – I’ll keep you posted.