20 Sep 2019

Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago housing affordability 'biggest issue'

5:03 pm on 20 September 2019

Those at the frontline of Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago's housing crisis say the problem is now too big to be solved locally.

The former Lakeview camping ground site in Queenstown

Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

They said legislation is hamstringing authorities and reliable solutions are disappearing.

Central Otago's Mayor Tim Cadogan said he could remember when the district was an affordable place for a family to move and start a new life.

He did it himself.

But times changed and housing affordability was now the biggest issue confronting the district.

"Without hesitation, hands down it's the biggest issue facing the district.

"It's keeping a lot of people on the breadline. It's keeping a lot of people away. I can cite middle-management jobs where people were actually chosen for the job, came here and went 'I'm not going to be 45 and saddle myself with an even bigger mortgage to move here. Thanks very much, but no thanks. And that's not one or two stories like that. There are many stories."

A draft report by the Southern DHB, released today, echoed Mr Cadogan's concerns.

The report, titled Central Otago Housing: The Human Story, was the result of interviews with 25 key informants from non-government organisations, the Ministry of Social Development, Oranga Tamariki, Central Otago District Council, Southern District Health Board, police, schools, early childcare centres, and local industry, as well as a survey of 200 residents.

Property managers did not respond to requests to participate.

The draft report laid bare the difficulties faced by many of Central Otago's residents.

A lack of available homes to buy or rent was driving up prices and now at the extreme end people were now homeless and sleeping rough.

"Availability drives affordability, along with other consequences such as homelessness; living in poor quality, unsuitable or crowded homes; being forced into poverty and material hardship; and being displaced from workplaces, schools and communities," the report said.

"A common consequence of the lack of availability is people being forced to accept very poor quality homes. These homes were mostly described as being extremely cold but mould, cracked basins, broken windows and no power also featured as quality issues.

"The continued existence of poor quality homes is facilitated in three ways. First, a power imbalance between landlords and tenants means that tenants are afraid to complain for fear of getting kicked out or their rent increased.

"Second, extreme demand is a disincentive for landlords to improve their properties-they know they will easily find a tenant.

"Third, a subset of home owners are trapped in poor quality homes that they cannot repair or maintain due to their mortgage obligations. Coupled with high rent or mortgages restricting heating budgets and quality of life in other ways, poor quality homes are a dreadful experience for those affected."

It detailed how the housing shortage had resulted in families living in tents, caravans and cabins at camp grounds.

"These families are most often labour migrants, but include many others who have ended up solo parenting at campgrounds after a relationship breakup leads to the loss of the family home with nowhere else to go," the report said.

"Others still are forced into campgrounds after their landlord sold their rental home.

"Campground life is hard. It's crowded and cold. Parents are stressed and children struggle to get to school on time, especially on cold mornings when they have to get out of their tent and walk to the shower block. Teachers spoke of social, emotional and learning difficulties among children who were unsuitably housed."

The report said a lack of affordable housing had reduced many residents' quality of life, affecting their families, finances, and health.

"Overcrowding is becoming increasingly common as people share a house with other groups or rent houses too small for them to reduce costs. Many are driven into poverty by their housing costs. Interviewees described the emergence of a working and middle-class poor.

"Material deprivation is increasing. Due to the housing shortage and fear of eviction, people are doing without to prioritise rent. Many cannot afford to heat their homes. Increasing numbers of children are hungry at school and inadequately dressed. One boy was said to be going without food so that his little brother could eat.

"People are going without necessary health care because they cannot afford it."

Mr Cadogan said even when the district had attempted to do something about it they faced red tape.

He took the example of The Pines - a council reserve on the outskirts of Alexandra which it hoped would provide new development and, more importantly, new homes to cater for the district's residents.

But attempts to earmark it for the community had been stopped by red tape.

"It's as frustrating as all get up," he said.

"We sent that [The Pines] back to the Crown in February 2017 with a note attached saying 'We really need this for growth'. We need this land to be freed up to go to the market so that we can have some expansion. That's still sitting somewhere on a desk in Wellington. That is very slow."

Even more frustrating was the fact the land would not necessarily be developed for the good of the community.

"Once that land does go to the market, even though the community through its council has said we need this for growth, it could still - if Ngāi Tahu don't pay market value for it - end up going to the market and somebody could buy it and sit on it and do nothing. Or drip feed 10 sections a year for inflated prices and keep the values up."

Land Information said preparing the land for sale had been a complex process traversing three pieces of legislation and the time taken to resolve the transaction was usual considering the complexity.

Land Information had started discussions with Ngāi Tahu, who had the first right of refusal under their treaty settlement, and hoped to complete the process by the end of March.

Environment Minister David Parker said the government planned to comprehensively overhaul the Resource Management Act.

While it was not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules were partly to blame with good outcomes curbed by onerous restrictions, he said.

But it was not the only issue facing those in the area.

Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust executive officer Julie Scott said many of their affordable housing projects had been possible due to Special Housing Areas - introduced by the previous National government.

"I think our council needs to be commended for what they did here. They had the foresight to say well hang on a minute let's amend this lead policy so the SHA applicants have to make a contribution to the community housing trust.

"That went from 5 percent up to 10 percent. So that's really significant in terms of contribution of housing coming across to the trust."

That legislation had now lapsed and no further land would be developed as Special Housing Areas.

It meant developers had lost the impetus to provide sections for affordable homes, Mrs Scott said.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the Government Build Programme was working to address the supply of affordable housing across New Zealand by building the right homes, in the right place, and at the right price.

"We are changing not only what, how, and where we build houses, but also how we help people afford homes.

"The Government Build Programme will deliver homes across the spectrum of need and will be informed by the underlying need and demand in specific place. Affordable housing in Queenstown will be no exception."

Mrs Scott said the housing crisis had grown too big for the local community to handle itself.

"Historically there hasn't been a lot of state housing in the district - what we now call public or social housing - but I think that needs to increase."

Housing New Zealand said it currently owned and managed nine properties in Queenstown and four in Wanaka.

In addition it had 10 in Cromwell, seven in Alexandra and one each in Roxburgh and Clyde.

A spokesperson said demand for state housing remained very low in the area and there were no plans to build or buy further properties.