Gimme shelter: Why can't Kiwis rent their homes securely and comfortably?

by Virginia Larson / 16 July, 2018
Editorial.

Home ownership is now out of reach for many people after lawmakers and regulators over the past 15 - 20 years failed to control the supply, demand and quality of housing. Photo / Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - housing

New Zealand is a nation of aspiring homeowners - but for many, it'll be an unrealised dream. Could we follow the European example of making long-term renting a safe and comfortable option?

Everyone needs a job, a house and a date on Saturday night. It’s an old saying, but one that still holds true. We all need love, shelter and gainful employment.

Right now, there’s certainly work for New Zealanders with skills and ambition. It’s a shame we remain mired among the low-wage Western economies, but at least we’re not Greece or Spain, where unemployment rates hover in the high teens.


Governments can’t do much to help us find love and companionship. But they can exert considerable control over the supply, demand and quality of housing. On that score, lawmakers and regulators of the past 15-20 years get a fail: not only were they responsible for the leaky buildings crisis, they also fiddled while property prices soared high above the rate of inflation. News that the average value of an Auckland home hit $1 million recently should have us questioning our collective sanity.

Plummeting homeownership rates and rising unaffordability aren’t spread evenly across the country, but they’re no longer a solely Auckland-Queenstown problem. And even if the contagion was confined to our biggest city, you have to ask how Auckland – a fairly ramshackle bunch of suburbs between two nice harbours in a country sometimes left off world maps altogether – ended up in the same desperately unaffordable basket as global super-cities Hong Kong, San Francisco and London.

The short answer is because we made “investing” in residential property a very nice little earner for anyone who could rustle up a deposit. And rustle they did, encouraged by the banks. We also hoisted a “For Sale” sign to the world. There’s a lot of money out there, not always squeaky clean, looking for safe havens. “Come on in,” we said, “buy our land and houses. And look, no capital gains!”

I hope the government sticks to its ban on foreigners buying houses. Even if the number of homes sold to non-citizens is not as high as the 11-21% ASB economists reported in June, it was always more than the 3% touted by National. Furthermore, many overseas buyers are willing to pay well over the asking price, which immediately hikes property values in those neighbourhoods and sets absurdly high bars for first-home Kiwi buyers.

National’s immigration policies will eventually be seen as cynical and costly. Yes, we have skills gaps in certain industries and need immigrants to fill them, but the net non-citizen inflow of 300,000 people in the last five years of National’s term delivered no real improvement in productivity, and the export sector actually shrank as a share of GDP. Meanwhile, Auckland, Tauranga and Queenstown’s housing and infrastructure groan under the pressure of their rapidly growing populations.

But have we also got too big for our walk-in wardrobe boots? Our households are getting smaller, but we’re building bigger homes. Stats NZ says in the mid-70s the average Kiwi house was 110sqm; by the end of 2016, it was 182sqm. I put this to Auckland University School of Architecture senior lecturer Bill McKay, who spoke at a “Smart Thinking” presentation on housing in June alongside two proponents of the “tiny house” movement.

“This may sound strange coming from an architect,” he says, “but the best thing for Auckland housing would be a high-speed train – one that gets you from the CBD to Huntly in half an hour.” It does sound strange coming from an architect, but McKay is on a roll, as it were. Fast, efficient, affordable public transport allows people who want the bigger – or cheaper – house to make the commuting trade-off, he says. Driverless cars will also improve traffic flows. And cars add surprising costs to a home build: councils’ off-street parking and reversing requirements currently mean a couple of cars can eat up 30-40% of precious square metres on a residential plot.

McKay also sheets high house prices back to the cost of land – and building supplies: “We’ve allowed land and housing to become a commodity. It’s New Zealanders’ way of making money, and fairly low-risk at that. Then we pay through the nose for building materials.”

So what about the rising popularity of the “tiny house” – couldn’t one in the backyard accommodate the baby-boomer downsizers, or the young adults in the family? McKay says it’s an attractive option, but challenging. You have to prevent people dumping an uninsulated tin shed in the garden and renting it out, he says. Council consenting processes for tiny houses vary wildly and you can get contradictory responses from the same council.

“There are some quality, Kiwi-built cabins you could lower in with a crane,” he says. “They’ll help, while we remain a country of aspiring homeowners. But really, we need the Superfund, iwi... to build rent-to-buy and long-term rental houses. Many Europeans rent for life, securely and comfortably. Why can’t we?”

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of North & South.
Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail.

Latest

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs
96463 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The orig…

by Vomle Springford

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?

Read more
Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller
96479 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provoca…

by Cathie Bell

Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

Read more
Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary about his life
96472 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary …

by James Robins

Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.

Read more
The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in Stonefields
96507 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in …

by Alex Blackwood

Burgers, milkshakes and fries are not rare things to find in Auckland, so The Chosen Bun's owners were smart to be very picky about their ingredients.

Read more
The brutality experienced by the suffragettes
11636 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Listener NZ 2015

The brutality experienced by the suffragettes

by Sally Blundell

As we mark 125 years since NZ women got the right to vote, we must remember it didn't come easily.

Read more
The case for closing prisons
96403 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

The case for closing prisons

by Paul Little

If we want a prison system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.

Read more
Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics
96422 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist …

by Clare de Lore

Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Read more
Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking flight
96439 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Music

Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking fligh…

by James Belfield

Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour.

Read more