Heeding housing advice

A new year has brought renewed concern around the vexed and complex issue of housing affordability.

The 11th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey (which covers nine geographies: New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong) was released this week and shows housing affordability is still a major concern in New Zealand and continues to deteriorate in our two biggest cities.

The affordability figure is calculated from the median price of houses divided by the median household income, to give a ''median multiple'' of 1 to 8.

''Affordable'' housing is 3 and under, ''moderately unaffordable'' is 3.1 to 4, ''seriously unaffordable'' 4.1 to 5, and ''severely unaffordable'' 5.1 and over.

Of the 378 world metropolitan markets now covered by the survey, Auckland (the only city in the major market category - populations of more than a million) is one of the least affordable.

It is rated 364th for housing affordability with a median multiple figure of 8.2, up from 8 in the previous survey.

The city now has a median house price of $613,000 compared with a median household income of $75,100.

Auckland has rated ''severely unaffordable'' in all 11 surveys.

New Zealand's overall figure is 5.2, down marginally from 5.5 in the previous survey. While some improvements have been seen in the other seven NZ jurisdictions in the survey, they all continue to be deemed ''seriously'' or ''severely'' unaffordable, according to their median multiple figures: Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty (6.8, up from 6.6), Christchurch (6.1 up from 5.8), Wellington (5.2 down from 5.5), Napier-Hastings (5.1 from 5.4), Hamilton-Waikato (stable on 4.8) and Palmerston North-Manawatu (stable on 4.5). It is pleasing to see Dunedin's figure has dropped to 4.6 down from 5.2 last year (with a median house price of $249,000 compared with a median household income of $54,400), although this is still in the ''seriously unaffordable'' category.

However, it is worth remembering the city's high student population, with lower household incomes, will have an effect on those ratings.

Still, the city cannot afford to be complacent. We like to think a housing crisis in our two biggest cities could make Dunedin an attractive option for families, but with urban drift a worldwide factor, and centralisation an increasing concern, that has not proven the case to any great extent.

The advice contained in the survey is relevant for all local authorities. While the survey gave the country a bouquet (stating ''encouraging developments have been implemented at higher levels of government in New Zealand'') it slates governments worldwide for inadequately monitoring housing affordability, and is highly critical of bureaucratic impediments to progress, such as severe land use restrictions or ''urban containment'' policies associated with higher land prices which have led to higher house prices.

It urges planners to focus on the fundamentals of ''improving the standard of living and reducing poverty'' ahead of urban design, the physical layout of cities and minor environmental considerations.

Those recommendations are likely to be welcomed by the Government, as Environment Minister Nick Smith this week outlines the details for further reform of the Resource Management Act - seen by its critics as a major impediment to economic development and the building of affordable housing.

However, there is rightly also concern from many quarters about loosening the environmental protections of the Act.

An almighty showdown is looming as the Government strives to balance two of the areas most dear to New Zealanders: home ownership and our clean, green status.

It seems inevitable there will be some trade-offs, but there is little doubt the major housing crises in our two biggest cities will dictate some big policy changes in order to restore our supposedly egalitarian society to one in which the average family can afford to buy a home - and then to live a reasonably comfortable existence when they have done so.

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