Challenge Spotlight: The New Zealand Housing Crisis
A world class city at home.
Jarrod Colbert, 25 year old town planner for Harrison Grierson in Auckland.
"Wow. It's a very hard question to describe yourself isn't it? I've got a rural background, I grew up in a small rural town in the far north. I probably get taken as a bit of a joker around the office, but also hard working - I hope. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything"
The Auckland housing crisis has been subject to small talk and headlines for longer than most Auckland locals are comfortable with. House prices are going up, and more residents are finding it difficult to justify the cost of living in New Zealand's largest city. Between congested transportation, lengthy daily commutes, and tense competition for rentals, Auckland living has become 'too much' for the averagely paid working family.
For Jarrod Colbert, one of Harrison Grierson's city planners in Auckland, this is a reality and all part and parcel of living in an international city.
After coming to Auckland from a farming town in the rural north, Jarrod’s been living here for almost six years now. His decision to go into planning started with an interest in Geography and a high school planning project about an oyster farm, before being nurtured by four years of study at the University of Auckland’s planning school.
"I chose it because quite often things will sprout up and you have no involvement in how it happened, and all of a sudden they've started works, and you have no idea why. I like knowing - though it's definitely not what I thought it was going to be. There's a lot more process, and a lot more hoops to jump through."
Planning has been different than what he’d originally thought it might be. To sum it up, he knows now that “if people just do what they want with their land, there would be chaos”. There's a special need for all of the hoops and processes that go into town planning, checks and balances that are often gone unnoticed, or unappreciated by the general public. It stops mistakes being made that can be irreversible.
But what happens when process delays progress? In the current housing shortage, children are sleeping in sheds. There's an easy conclusion for Saturday-morning-newspaper-carpet-dwellers everywhere to jump to. If there's not enough affordable houses, then government needs to do something.
Public pressure often pushes for this first. Government needs to change. Government to build homes. Government to curb immigration. We point our fingers up the chain, in the hope that something changes. Families shouldn't be living in cars. On that we can all agree.
The thing is - and this is Jarrod's point when I ask him; when you move too quickly, things get messy. Subdivisions grow organically, natural resources are used carelessly, transport stops making sense. In time, if you develop without the consideration of town planners, you risk a whole lot of unintended consequences for a city, like a full economy slow down.
"I think it's for the better that we go carefully sometimes. You have to protect the outcome you're providing."
This happens. It did, the last time, back in 2008. When you oversupply a market with new homes and then the demand for housing slows up, suddenly there’s a time lag between when new home buyers will be taking up existing capacity, and when they'll be demanding new developments are built. And because the construction industry is so multi-faceted, shifts like this affect everyone from Mum and Dad businesses to corporations working in all areas of legal, to pipe-laying, to concrete, to project management and to the rest in between. An oversupply can cause some really tough years for the wider New Zealand economy.
So no, as much as it seems that way, more housing built quickly isn’t necessarily the answer. The ideal solution would be a more of an even growth curve, where demand and supply effectively match as they grow.
But that still doesn't help the current crisis. If there’s dire need, public pressure, and a profit to be made from building more houses in Auckland, it does beg the question: why can’t we speed the process up?
Jarrod sighs before smiling a little when I ask him this. It's not that he doesn't wonder too; just that he knows better. The reality is, you can get it wrong. It's worth waiting out for good outcomes when delivering on housing supply, for the sake of creating good communities and a good environment for families to live in. In previous eras a planner might have looked to maximise the yield; looking to bulldoze to achieve a high profit for the developer. That’s when you get mass subdivisions with no real culture and no sense of environmental consideration, and the days where that’s acceptable for consumers are gone.
"It's a complex issue with a lot of facets. There's a lack of capacity to rollout housing. We can consent thousands of houses each year – but can they actually be built?'
The ethos surrounding good planning now is much more about achieving a good outcome. Planner's have to back their brand; where their consent goes, their brand names goes too. The delays are a necessary evil.
That can be frustrating if you’re a new home buyer without a home. Or a land developer without consent, a tenant with out a lease. We scream; surely we're better than this? Surely there's something we can do. But where is the room to solve this current housing crisis, if speeding up the development of land is not the answer?
If you ask Jarrod, it's a twofold solution. And it starts with our perception of the Kiwi dream.
‘A home on a large section isn't the only way for us to live, especially if we want to be an international city. Those big cities have all faced these sorts of housing crises before, and you know what they do? They build apartments, terraced homes, and alternative styles of housing’.
Affordable housing. That’s the crux of it. The problem in New Zealand is that these alternatives still don’t fit the rhetoric of the classic Kiwi dream. Young couples don’t dream of bringing their first-born home to an apartment of their own. We want homes.
That's changing though, whether or not the Kiwi dream is changing with it. There's little choice left in Auckland (the median price for a home is soaring past about $800,000 in 2016), so more and more, we're seeing buyers willing to accept something different, like an apartment, or a terraced home. There’s a shortage of good affordable housing in New Zealand for sure – and we can point fingers - if that helps. But when we're doing this, it's worth a look at other international cities, say London, San Francisco, Sydney, or Stockholm. They're all facing the same struggle. So it can be asked: is this really a housing crisis? And is this really a planning crisis? Or is this just what it's like to grow up?
The growing pains that often come with becoming world class are wrapped in with increased immigration, increased living costs, and increased competition for jobs. It also brings about the possibility of lifelong renting and a cityscape made of apartment blocks. The next step is to manage Auckland's urban sprawl. The more compact our cities are, the better it is for our environment and for our energy use.
“Auckland's a big city, but it's low density, and we have room to scale.”
Essentially, the less land we can use, the better - we have to build upwards.
The problem with this approach is the cost. Building like this is called densification, also known as brown site development. Brown fields – where stuff already exists is more expensive. There’s often demolition, existing pipes, neighbours, multiple properties, and limitations on what you can do with that land that aren't such a problem in green field development, which is essentially dealing with a fresh paddock on the far edge of town. Green fields tend to evolve into pretty subdivisions and larger sections, which we love, but also a broader cityscape in general (which means increased traffic, congestion and commute times, and decreased accessibility to the great Kiwi wild).
“It takes a considered balance between rolling out new housing and encouraging densification to get it right, but if it doesn't make economic sense to reinvent already developed spaces, then who is going to do it?”
When we do look to government for help, it can do its part by encouraging Auckland’s centres to rethink how they function. Then it’s up to the planners and media to introduce this kind of thinking to the table and to play a part in revising the expectations for young Kiwis on the career rise in Auckland - and eventually, across New Zealand. Wellington also faces many of these problems.
It's important to remember that this market is cyclical. Sometimes we forget that in our urgency. There are ebbs and flows from shortages to oversupply, and it can be hard to get the market balance right, but it's important that we do. Having 17 people to a three bedroom home with one bathroom is a dire social issue that needs to be addressed rapidly, but it can't be at the expense of effective town planning and process. We can't just build houses. There’s more to it than that.
"One thing to recognise as Auckland becomes a world class city – home ownership isn’t realistic in the city for everyone anymore. Everyone rents, and you rent your whole life too. Our expectations have to adjust – it just isn’t realistic to think everyone going to be able to buy in Auckland anymore."
It's twofold. Adjust the kiwi narrative, build different kinds of homes. Go upwards; be careful with expansion. Suddenly the housing crisis looks a whole lot different. And maybe it's at that point, when Kiwis are comfy in beds that make sense (read that they can afford), Auckland's going to become a world class city after all. We just have to change our expectations.
Harrison Grierson is based around New Zealand surveying, planning and 'engineering tomorrow'. You can find out more about them at harrisongrierson.com
1. Understand the playing field – Planning works because there are checks and balances in place that protect the outcomes for stakeholders. Although these processes can contribute to a slower build time, even when there’s need, it’s important to understand the value of these processes.
2. Plan ahead – Land development can lead to a whole host of unexpected consequences, especially when decisions are made for the short term. To keep a balance between supply and demand, it’s important to consider the outcomes for the environment, economy and people for the long term.
3. Adjust expectations – it’s up to us all to change social stigmas around apartment ownership and lifelong renting if we want Auckland to succeed as a world class city with affordable accommodation for all.
4. Supply alternatives – to see this shift through, we have to encourage land developers to build alternatives. The government can help by incentivising brown field redevelopment, and encouraging caution when it comes to green field development around the city edge.
5. Build upwards – to build these alternatives in the existing cityscape and to meet demand, we have to balance densification with new developments. Essentially, it’s time for Auckland to go upwards.
6. Establish a world class city – to compete with the cities we hold up as examples, we’ll have to change our values as a nation. But when we do, we’re going to be in the same leagues as cities world over.