24 Jun 2019

New Zealand's cold old housing stock

From Nine To Noon, 11:47 am on 24 June 2019

It’s mid-winter and time for our annual reminder about the miserable quality of much of New Zealand’s housing stock, says Bill McKay.

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Photo: Bill McKay

McKay, senior lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland, says half the people who go to live in Auckland from outside of New Zealand comment on how cold damp and miserable Kiwi housing stock is.

New Zealand doesn’t have a housing crisis so much as an accommodation crisis, he says. It is a crisis that KiwiBuild in its current manifestation wont solve, he says.

“That's the problem with KiwiBuild at the moment, it’s focused on so called affordable homes for young couples way out in paddocks on the edge of town.”

Which is not where people want to live, he says, and it encourages yet more sprawl.

“There’s a broad range of accommodation needs out there from students all the way through to retirees, people renting. One third of our population rents now that's not going to change anytime soon, we have to get used to it. “

And those rental properties are pretty grim. People in rentals often don’t complain about cold, damp homes because they’re so grateful to have any kind of roof over their heads, McKay says.

He says landlords will, nevertheless, write to him and say he’s wrong.

“Some of them will be writing and saying they grew up in an un-insulated state house and it was perfectly fine, and someone else will write to me blaming the tenants for not airing their houses and for drying their washing inside.

“We forget that most of the houses that were designed in the first half of the 20th century, they relied on having someone at home, a housewife, and she would literally keep the home fires burning to keep the house warm, air the house out, put the washing out, bring it in before rained, all those things we can't do now.”

We lock up and leave our houses now, McKay says.

“We don't get adequate air changes. and we don't keep them warm, we rely on the sudden forms of quick heating, that are more expensive and tend to cause us problems in terms of condensation.”

KiwiBuild, which is having a so-called re-set, needs to re-think how it can help solve the dire rental situation in New Zealand, he says.  

Currently KiwiBuild is building homes that are not very affordable, and not very dense that are in the wrong locations, he says.

“It has been focused on conventional one-storey suburban houses and it’s been using the private building sector, there are these people who you see advertising house construction on TV, they're doing a lot of it at the moment.

“They’re not particularly affordable and the main problem is they’re miles from where people actually want to work and play.”

A policy shift away from low-rise sprawl could solve a number of problems, McKay says.

“We could kill a few birds with one stone here, we could move to building medium density housing on brownfield sites and in cities close to where people live and play, where the commute is not huge, and it's a much more efficient way to build - medium density.

“And I think we should be building more rental and rent-to-buy developments on these sites so that someone who rents, they can get a decent apartment, and then they can get some equity in there get themselves on the property ladder. And it’s the government, the superfunds and that iwis that are well-placed to do this sort of thing.”

The KiwiBuild reset is a chance for a more finessed look at New Zealand’s housing, McKay says.

“This focus on getting the market, effectively subsidising the market, to build housing is just going to perpetuate the sprawl and we will end up with people living an hour and a half's commute from where they want to live.”

McKay is hopeful new KiwiBuild boss Helen O'Sullivan has the right background.

“Helen O'Sullivan comes from the developer Ockham, she brings more of this kind of thinking, because Ockham have specialised in doing what they call the missing middle in Auckland, building medium density three-storey and four-storey homes.”