5 Dec 2021

An anti-intensification housing media blitz

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 5 December 2021

Opponents of the bipartisan bill aimed at enabling housing blitzed the media over the past few weeks. Many of the reports failed to include relevant context and balancing opinion.

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Photo: Bill McKay

Urban planner Graeme McIndoe delivered a dire warning about the government's new bill enabling medium density housing in most areas of our major cities.

"Blinds will be drawn, they'll be miserable places to live," he said. "It is a disaster on the scale of the leaky home crisis."

McIndoe was part of a media blitz by the bill’s opponents, who have filled our airwaves and column inches with a rich array of protestations over the last two weeks.

On Morning Report, Phil Pennington raised concerns that building new houses will mean having to deal with the demolition waste from the old ones they’re replacing.

The following day, another concern was raised. What if new houses steal the sun from existing householders?

Four days later, another Morning Report story raised the spectre of the government giving developers “open slather” over suburbia.

While these reports were worried the bill would increase shade from buildings, over at Newstalk ZB, host Andrew Dickins raised concerns it would reduce shade from trees.

"Have you thought about the trees?" he said, introducing an interview with Tree Council's secretary Mels Barton. "The Tree Council's spoken to MPs at a select committee today saying this whole plan's actually an outrage for the trees."

The Herald’s Super City correspondent Bernard Orsman was also dogged in reporting objections to the bill, writing so many negative stories that recurring motifs began to emerge.

He referred to the bill as National and Labour's "radical new housing policy" or "radical plans for greater intensification" in stories on October 26, November 10, and November 17.

This all begs the question: why would the government be going through with this radical plan to let people build a type of housing that dominates most of the world's major cities?

Digging through some unrelated recent news reports may provide a clue.

"Among the 37 nations that make up the OECD, New Zealand has the most unaffordable housing market," reported Al Jazeera in July.

As it turns out, housing supply has been identified as a factor in that issue.

"Lack of supply was a key driver of booming house prices," reported 1News in February. "Regions with the highest number of houses built have had the slowest growth in prices."

Other reports would also suggest that rather than being the unsuspecting victims of potential sunlight theft, existing homeowners have profited to the tune of billions of dollars in untaxed capital gains in the last year alone, thanks partly to that constricted housing supply.

This crisis didn’t merit more than a few cursory lines - if that - in the stories on stuff like sunlight and demolition waste. 

But more troubling than these stories' lack of context was their lack of balance.

Despite ostensibly being straight news reports, few of them included any perspective from people arguing in favour of the bill.

RNZ’s daily news podcast The Detail hosted two guests who opposed the bill - Auckland University urban ecology specialist Dr Margaret Stanley and the NZ Herald’s Simon Wilson - and none who supported it.

On RNZ’s Afternoons, host Jesse Mulligan and Simon Wilson admitted they were struggling to find anyone who was in favour of the bill’s provisions.

That may say more about the people they listen to than the actual support for the legislation.

The Coalition For More Homes, which has backed the bill’s intent and general thrust, is comprised of 13 organisations including the Auckland Architecture Association, Unite Union, Generation Zero, Habitat For Humanity, Women In Urbanism, The New Zealand Initiative, developers Ockham, planners MRCagney, urbanists Greater Auckland, and others.

Despite representing a broad alliance from across the political spectrum, its perspective was only covered by a select group of reporters, including Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva. 

A few other pro-housing views snuck into the media. Stuff ran a column from architect Jade Kake, calling for amendments to the bill which would make it, if anything, more permissive, and a pro-housing opinion piece from Dileepa Fonseka.

To be fair to RNZ’s Afternoons as well, it did eventually track down someone to speak up in defence of medium density housing, booking urban designer Matty Prasad on Monday’s show.

But these voices were few and far between.

Coalition For More Homes spokesperson Scott Caldwell said that in that vacuum of debate, some questionable or just wrong claims were put forward unchallenged.

He was disappointed by the regular complaint that the new rules contained in the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill would cause sprawl.

In cities like Auckland and Wellington, the harshest current restrictions on housing are around central suburbs, where building would alleviate sprawl, he said.

"They are stopping development in the central suburbs like Ponsonby, Parnell and Mt Eden where you've essentially frozen in amber these historical villas, and they're pushing the development out to the fringes of the city. What this bill will do is reverse that situation."

He also took issue with McIndoe's idea that this would reduce people's quality of living. The current housing supply shortage means people are often living in poor quality buildings, overcrowded flats, motels, or cars, and the Building Act mandates that any new house will be warm and dry, he said.

"The idea that this will be another leaky homes crisis is quite ridiculous. The Building Act is not changing," he said. 

"The reality is no-one is going to move into these new buildings unless it's providing a better quality of life than what's already provided."

While Caldwell had sympathy for concerns about trees - he said the media had often failed to recognise the environmental harm caused by failing to build densely.

"Building intensely and knocking down maybe one or two trees saves you from building sprawl which will knock down hundreds. Infill housing will be far better for the tree life of our city than building sprawl."