A home to call one’s own

With an attempt at some hooplah, Housing Minister Chris Bishop yesterday launched a programme which he described as "addressing the national disgrace that is our broken housing market".

Leaving aside the politics — which included several minutes blaming Labour for the situation — Mr Bishop has a point. The lack of affordable housing, both permanent and rental, has contributed to the government spending more than $4 billion annually on accommodation support — an amount which has doubled since 2017.

Statistics show that house prices have risen 230% since 2003, while the median household income has risen 114% . That gap, which is only expected to worsen, means that many entering the workforce now do not anticipate using their wages to fund the deposit for their first house, as their parents did before them. All of this has contributed to the rate of home ownership having dropped to 65% and there being rapidly rising demand for rental and social housing.

The previous government was just as aware of these statistics as the new one is, and despite Mr Bishop’s rhetoric, it did try to do something about it.

Among its varied initiatives was issuing the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, which required councils to develop a Future Development Strategy (FDS) to supersede their former spatial plans.

Our southern councils are in the throes of consulting on their FDSs now — the Dunedin City Council just finished a series of public meetings, the Queenstown Lakes District Council last year ran a "call for sites" process to identify available land for development and other councils are still seeking or studying submissions.

Yesterday, Mr Bishop focused on housing growth, and said that the government would require councils to zone enough land for 30 years of housing growth. An accompanying Cabinet paper was light on detail as to how exactly this requirement is to be implemented and enforced, but the FDS work already done seems a good foundation.

Dunedin has already said that the city is forecast to have extra housing capacity in the short, medium and long term; Southland has a regional development strategy to have an extra 10,000 people living in the province by 2025, let alone the 30-year-plan set out by Mr Bishop, so future housing need is already on its agenda.

Chris Bishop says National was being "upfront" with voters about the possibility of working with...
Chris Bishop. Photo: RNZ
And Queenstown and Wānaka, the places in our region where the housing crisis is biting hardest, have lots of plans for growth but are battling with the issue of affordability.

Also in the package Mr Bishop announced yesterday was a proposal to give councils the flexibility to opt out of existing medium-density residential standards. This is no surprise — such a change is in the coalition agreement with Act New Zealand. Density rule changes were also contemplated by the previous government.

A happy medium is needed: no-one wants to live crammed on top of their neighbour, but for New Zealanders raised on quarter-acre sections it is difficult to get enthused about rows of housing.

Mr Bishop said his goal was "to flood urban housing markets" for big councils with land for development. That is hyperbole, and it remains to be seen if such an inundation will actually make land cheaper and encourage developers to build.

Letting councils have more discretion over where they have greater housing density makes sense, but balancing that with new developments will be easier for some councils than others: locally, for example, Invercargill has flat land at the town edge, while Queenstown and Dunedin will needs to engineer around mountains, hills and flood plains.

The elephant in the room of this discussion is infrastructure. All the people living in these new houses in 30 years’ time will need roads and public transport to get to them, and security of supply of water and electricity once they close the door.

The FDS framework included a requirement to consider future infrastructure needs, and Mr Bishop foreshadowed changes to the urban development statement to make building it easier. He said that Cabinet was "pondering right now" how best to give effect to its policies for 30 years of growth.

While we agree that it is important that the government gets its policies right, it is equally as important New Zealanders stop living in hotels and cars and have warm, safe, affordable houses to buy and proper services.

National claims the government it leads is one which gets things done. This is something that needs doing desperately, and the sooner the better.