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‘Aww, poor thing’ – A victory for the loudest Aucklanders in the room

You wouldn’t know it looking around the meeting, but we were the voice of the roughly half a million Aucklanders under 24, a voice that has been largely sidelined in the debate on the city’s future.

Yesterday the democratic deficit present in Auckland’s local body politics was well and truly evident. In a room of 150 middle-aged, middle-class property owners, my colleague Flora Apulu and I presented to the Auckland Council governing body on behalf of the Youth Advisory Panel.

You wouldn’t think it looking at the demographics of those present, but we were the voice of the roughly half a million Aucklanders under the age of 24. It was a voice that we on the Panel believe has been sidelined in the Unitary Plan debate about how Auckland provides more housing both now and in the future.

Photograph: Jorge Royan

“A resistance to change lies beneath complaints about lack of process”. Photograph: Jorge Royan

We talked about the urgent need to provide more housing choices so that young people can have places to live that are affordable, connected to good transport and with access to employment, study and opportunity.

When Flora, justifiably nervous with the responsibility and the tense atmosphere in the room, pointed out that we were the youngest people present by a lot, and that she felt the “weight of our generation” on her shoulders, she was met with heckles of “poor thing” and “aww” from the crowd. I would like to believe that some of that was genuine sympathy and not sarcasm or condescension. However the vociferous response we got through the rest of our presentation – when mentioning the struggles young people face with housing and conveying the impression that property owners are pulling the ladder up behind them – would suggest otherwise.

The disappointing thing about the controversy surrounding late changes to Council’s submission on the zoning plans was that (some) property owners’ voices were given greater weight than those already shut out from the housing market. There were plenty of submissions that called for broad intensification across the city or even in specific suburbs, which were reflected in the zoning changes. But these were outweighed by the fact that some who found the zone of their own property changed in order to meet the need of the entire city hadn’t been directly consulted on.

The outcome of the meeting left the Council removing the zoning changes from their own submission on the Unitary Plan, and still leaving a deficit of around 200,000 houses over the next 30 years.This is something that can hopefully be addressed now that the Unitary Plan sits with an Independent Hearings Panel, who will hear the evidence from all sides and try to meet the requirements of our city’s burgeoning population.

For me, addressing the housing crisis in Auckland doesn’t need to be something that causes generational conflict. But the treatment of real issues that young people face when it comes to housing, and our attempt to convey that and present a solution while being shouted down, reveals a broader narrative of resistance to change that lies beneath the complaints about lack of process.

This was interestingly brought to attention by a tweet by mayoral candidate Victoria Crone following our presentation to the Council:

Respectfully, it is my view that our treatment by the audience showed that many do not understand youth issues, since they were not willing to listen to what we had to say. As Crone acknowledged later, we weren’t even Generation Zero – their presentation was to come later.

Young people have had less ability to organise and submit around the Unitary Plan – our time is focused on getting by week by week. Indeed, turning up to that meeting required both Flora and I to take time off work. Thinking 10 years ahead about what type of zone might be better so that we can still live in Auckland when we move out of our parents’ houses takes a lot of forethought, time and resources.

But it’s not just our voice that needs to be given more weight. It is the voice of renters who make up half of Auckland’s population, of the working poor, who are being pushed into further and further away suburbs, of elderly who need housing options to stay in their communities when downsizing.

The Unitary Plan affects all Aucklanders, and our concerns need to be taken seriously, but yesterday, it was the loudest voice in the room that won.

Further viewing:

Watch Hayden Donnell’s video analysis of “the worst Auckland Council meeting of all time” here.

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