The difficulty of providing affordable housing in New Zealand

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In his final column for Building Today, architect Don Bunting muses upon the apparent difficulty of providing affordable housing in New Zealand.

What is wrong with our industry and our government? Here we have a clear mandate to produce a solution for providing enough affordable housing for our existing and increasing population needs.

We are very good at building houses, at least when we make sure that building rules are followed. That’s another challenge but one that is more than achievable. The rules are there. Follow them.

Problem? We can’t seem to provide a simple definition of what an affordable house is, where they need to be built, how much they should cost and, most importantly, who and what they are for? Try two words: small and transitional.

What went wrong?

Kiwibuild was a slogan, an aspiration that was then destroyed by adding a target to it. Adding a target without a solution in political terms is doomed to failure.

If you have no idea how something can be achieved, then failure is inevitable. 100,000 houses in 10 years at clearly stated price points; with a weak and woolly definition of who the target audience was.

The first owners proved to be a reasonably established young couple who received some unnecessary criticism for not meeting the public’s definition of worthy recipients.

Unlike when Micky Savage was photographed triumphantly carrying furniture into the first State house in Miramar, Wellington, in 1937.

Who for and where?

Take the second key word; transitional. Homes for those not yet on, or who continue to struggle to join the housing ladder and need a start. New home owners yes. Renters yes.

Both target markets are keys to success because the second represents a growing trend towards those renting by choice or by necessity. Both are represented in the transitional group, prepared to start small and, in time, move up.

A first home today is less likely to be permanent; and probably shouldn’t be if we accept the “transitional” definition as valid.

Where should these transitional homes be built? Simple — near transport, near existing or new services, and near employment options. More about the supply of land later.

What should these houses be like? What should be their key attributes? One word — small.

They are transitional dwellings, starter homes for couples, singles and small families. Clear definitions are key to the success of a housing policy’s success.

We lived quite happily in a two bed, 75sq m home for a time. Compact? Yes it was, but it had separate living spaces, storage, insulation, ventilation and heating.

Set aside “high tech” for the moment, and consider passive and active solar design over the dreaded heat pump.

Land

For a national housing policy to work, government must be and must remain actively involved, directly and through its operating agencies — Housing New Zealand and Maori authorities for a start. They must also work closely with local and regional authorities.

As an example, Auckland Council has been actively engaged in establishing the likely and preferred shift of Greater Auckland’s population for some years.

A great deal of this work has already been done, and just needs coordination. And legislation.

Changes to the Resource Management Act are already on the cards. This must consider the specific needs of a national housing policy, and allow the necessary land to be made available for rapid development.

Develop

The Government no longer has a Ministry of Works. Private enterprise must therefore become involved at the beginning.

Clearly, different approaches will be needed depending on land ownership, both initial — say, Maori land — and final. The key is that land is available, serviced and ready to proceed immediately, without proviso, and backed by legislation.

Specify

This is the easy part because the key requirements are simple once you accept that what is sought are transitional and small. Along the following lines:

Compliant, stand-alone for future flexibility and natural light/ventilation.
Single-storey with a simple living, dining, kitchen, utility, bathroom and two-double bedroom layout. Footprint 70 to 80sq m.
North exposure. Covered external space but no garaging.
Reference for groupings of homes with shared parking and pedestrian/cycling access only to homes.

Build

The industry must step up. Who and how the homes are to be constructed or delivered should be left to the market to decide. No top-down instructions from bureaucracy, excepting for clear requirements under the Building Act and Code. Perhaps beyond the Code.

And make use of the work done and the operational structure set-up under the Construction Sector Accord. Ensure the Accord is appropriately resourced, and operates with a clear and precise government and private mandate to act and act quickly on proposals received from the market — be they prefabricated, kitset, 3D printed, or constructed on site.

The method will suit the companies concerned, and the scale of contracts they are offered and availability of materials and products at the time.

Last words

The answers to providing shelter are many and varied. The key to the current dilemma of insufficient affordable housing requires a clear unequivocal solution.

In my view this should be small and transitional homes. What is yours?

As this will be my last column, I will indulge myself with two random thoughts:

What is the real relationship between climate change and our growing earth’s population?
Electric vehicles can’t save the planet, but you can.