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AucklandAugust 14, 2016

The housing crisis is like a Rubik’s Cube: here’s how we can crack it

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Auckland’s housing issues won’t be solved by short term fixes to deep rooted problems. The government and Council needs to stop the blame game and start working together, says property expert Leonie Freeman.

Faced with a crisis, we tend to focus on finding the silver bullet to deal to it. Usually without success, silver bullets being as rare, but seemingly as often sighted, as the yeti.

The Auckland housing crisis seems to be following just this pattern. There’s a lot of focus on looking for “silver bullet’ solutions or, alternatively, trying to blame someone, anyone, whether an individual, a political party or an organisation.

A lot of strident positions are being struck – this is a crisis after all – and the debate is understandably a fevered one. “It’s the demand side. No, it’s about supply. Immigration’s at the root of the crisis. No, it’s the investors. It’s the banks. It’s the planning limits placed on city growth…”

But complex problems aren’t usually susceptible to simple solutions. And Auckland’s housing issues are neither new nor simple. They’re not related to one policy, one party or one Council. They are not even unique to Auckland – many fast growing cities around the world are facing a similar set of problems.

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What makes the Auckland housing crisis so complex and so hard to solve? Start by considering that:

  • Development of housing is a long term venture. It’s not easily reversible and, generally, has an economic life of at least 50 years. Small developments can take a couple of years, while large-scale housing developments may take at least 10 years from start to finish.
  • Long term decisions and long term commitments are required. Which means we have to ensure that all the parties, from policy makers to developers, construction companies and planners, are aligned in a common direction.
  • Development is like a Rubik’s Cube – you need to manipulate everything into line to tease out a solution.

One of the big challenges facing Auckland is that when you overlay the long term nature of development onto the short term nature of local and central government, it’s difficult to achieve the consistency, commitment and direction required for everyone to “scale up” (ie, build bigger developments to house more people) and commit to the levels required.

There is plenty of talk about getting the public and private sectors working well together so we can gain some traction. But talk is cheap. And though point scoring is a well understood aspect of the political process, it doesn’t get houses built.

We need a plan, one that is transparent and fully and openly communicated, so that we can all get a realistic grip on the complexity of the challenge we face.

We need to know how we are going to follow that plan. In other words, we must stipulate clear outcomes and we must have performance indicators so we know that we’re on track.

We need to identify our priorities (since we can’t solve all our problems simultaneously). And we need to know what the ramifications of introducing a new policy are, so that “the plan” isn’t followed through in isolation, where it could create perverse outcomes.

Given that this is a crisis with a lot of moving parts, we’re not going to solve it if we’re driven by concern about how a particular proposal will look on the front page of the paper. That’s too often how we make decisions in the public sector. But when it comes to the housing crisis, we require real leadership and a long term focus.

Let’s start by pushing for a coordinated plan involving the two tiers of government – central government and the Auckland Council.

The Government plays a key role in housing, first as the major policy and regulation setter, and second as the largest owner of dwellings and land in Auckland. If enough houses are to be built to meet the need, the Government will be the major player.

The Auckland Council is likewise a major influencer: in policy, consenting and via its own land holdings. It is the other key facilitator of residential development. And as evidenced by the Unitary Plan, it’s lifting its game in terms of how it tackles this vital role.

Housing Minister Steven Joyce told the Herald last month that tackling housing “involves the Reserve Bank, it involves councils and it involves the Government”. He also proclaimed the existence of a “comprehensive plan” to address the crisis. If we’re to make the big leap forward that’s required, the Government needs to share its plan with the rest of us. What’s the policy, what are the regulatory requirements, what are the planned outcomes in terms of delivery of houses?

Then the Auckland Council must overlay the details of its own planning – policy, consenting numbers and delivery of houses.

Until we can share this information, get it coordinated and initiate meaningful input from the wide range of developers and other players who will actually build the houses, we’re unlikely to obtain a real commitment to undertake the scale of building mandated by this crisis.

And, once we have a plan, we can measure progress, see what’s working and what’s not, and continually look for improvement.

It may not look much like a silver bullet. But it’s the attack weapon we should be deploying to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in. So, can we just get moving?

Keep going!