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Climb every mortgage

A home of your own that you can actually afford to pay for and live in? Don't hold your breath, but help is on the way.

When severe winter weather hit Queenstown this year, snowstorms closed off two major roads and the airport. Hundreds of people were unable to get in for the annual winter festival.

Apply that scenario to a major emergency and it wouldn't be partygoers who were shut out. It would be the very people most needed to cope with the disaster. Because, in places like Queenstown, rising house prices are forcing nurses, police and service workers and the like to live out of town and commute.

"It's a case of survival and success," says housing policy analyst Scott Figenshow. "If you don't have your healthcare workers, your fire services, your police living in the community, you're stuffed."

In any case, says Figenshow, whose job at Queenstown Lakes District Council is to address this issue, Queenstown may struggle to attract even teachers and hospitality staff if nothing is done to provide more affordable housing.

The Queenstown region has the country's least affordable houses: for a median-priced home costing about $575,000 (and rising), the weekly mortgage payment swallows 115 percent of the average pay packet for someone aged 30-34. And skilled service workers, essential for the tourist dollar, are in short supply.

Taking the initiative, the council - the first in the country to factor the concept of affordable housing into its district plan - is working with a charitable trust and the government to help buyers who meet certain criteria to get into their first home on a shared-ownership basis.

But the country in general, say the experts, has been slow to recognise that it's no longer just those on the poverty line who need help with housing.

Auckland is almost neck-and-neck with Queenstown when it comes to housing unaffordability and increasing demand - yet only a few projects are under way, funded largely by Housing New Zealand. Meanwhile, the national home ownership rate continues to fall.

The government has identified affordable housing as a priority, with pilot schemes planned, and will introduce the Housing Affordability Bill in November.

"It's been a long time coming," says Auckland architect Stas Louca, who specialises in the area. "New Zealand is at least 10 years behind the likes of Australia and the UK in affordable housing."

When Louca moved here from England two years ago, he was shocked at the state of inaction - but he now understands the reluctance to act. Mention "affordable housing scheme" to a Kiwi, he says, and you can almost see a flicker of fear in their eyes.

The reason? "You've been through leaky buildings, you've had shoebox syndrome where people live in 29sq m hotel rooms. There's been a number of things which have made people nervous, and in some respects rightly so."

The first hurdle, says Louca, is figuring out what affordable housing means: it varies according to local context. With the Queenstown project, for instance, if you're paying more than 30 percent of your income on rent or mortgage repayments you're deemed to be living in unaffordable quarters.

What affordable does not mean, says Louca, is cheap - or state-house ghettos. Projects need a variety of housing designs, putting renters, private owners and those in community housing side by side.

"It's degrading to suggest someone in community housing must be in a house of a lower standard than private dwellings. With rigorous planning, designers should be able to deliver good quality at an affordable price."

Auckland University senior planning lecturer Tricia Austin agrees: affordable housing is about more than four walls and a roof.

"It's about what sort of cities we want to have and where we want it to go in the future. If you've got a job on the North Shore but you can only afford to live in Franklin and spend most of the day commuting, you're contributing to environmental problems, you can't spend as much time with your family, you're not being active. It's about big-picture stuff, everything from immigration to climate change."

The idea that home ownership leads to stabler, safer communities is already deeply embedded in our culture. But Louca says one cultural shift may be required of urban dwellers: forget the quarter-acre dream.

"When I came here, I couldn't believe people had 600sq m of land but a cold, damp, uninsulated house. Increasing the number of units on the land is one way of driving costs down: it may not be a mansion, but it will be warm."

Louca knows what he's talking about: he received critical praise for a project he designed in London: 180 apartments, complete with courtyard, retail and solar power, were built on one square acre.

With good design, he says, the same could be done in Auckland.

"You only have to walk around central-city Auckland to see how much land is underutilised. I could show you buildings on prime sites that are only two storeys high - there should be 10. Look at New York with its beautiful skyscrapers. Auckland has so much opportunity."

Already being planned is a project involving the City Mission and Stevens Lawson Architects: a high-rise project with a mixture of apartments for state housing tenants, single parents and private owners.

Many in the industry hope the Housing Affordability Bill will pave the way for a third, not-for-profit sector that sits between public and private and ploughs the returns back into the property development. It's a scheme that has been successful in the UK and the US, says Louca.

"It's based on the idea," he explains, "that if your income is not enough where you can put together a full deposit, you jump into bed with a trust or non-profit housing association and they make up the difference. You can then purchase part-equity through monthly payments, with the idea that in 10 or 20 years you've acquired enough equity to purchase the remaining balance."

A further step, says Austin, would be to remove the largest driver of cost - land - from the equation. By giving the buyer a long-term leasehold interest while a community trust dedicated to affordable housing owns the land, the property remains affordable to successive buyers. Its rate of appreciation could be fixed to the CPI.

Some may not see that as a great investment, says Figenshow, but it gives people access to the kind of housing they otherwise wouldn't have.

"They still own that house. They're not going to lose it because a landlord wants to come back over Christmas. There's nothing preventing people from investing those savings in other things, like KiwiSaver. It's time we all had a discussion about housing not as the sole investment vehicle for families but about housing for its simple use value."

For Louca, Austin and Figenshow, the government needs to set firm and specific policy.

In the UK, says Louca, the government requires all developers wishing to build a development of a certain size to designate 40 percent of the units "affordable housing".

The local council may decide which of those units are to be rented or owner-occupied, and can provide incentives to developers such as agreeing to allow more units per hectare. It may also impose criteria for eligible buyers.

The developers learn to live with it, says Louca, and in Britain the amount of affordable, good-quality housing has increased significantly.

"To me, there is no option. We have a chance to learn from other countries' mistakes and get it right here. A city is a living organism: we, as urban designers, politicians and architects have to put these things in place to create a lively city that works."

*Affordable housing is one of the key discussion topics at Architecture Week Auckland 07, October 15-19.