Intensive housing has arrived in Te Atatū Peninsula, a West Auckland suburb many say can’t handle the growth.
It’s 9am on a steamy February morning, yet the racket is already unbearable. An orchestra of trucks, diggers and bulldozers rumbles down the street, smashing up footpaths and ruining berms. With parking spaces taken up by trucks piled high with cabling and construction equipment, surrounding roads are closed off, too hazardous for pedestrians to pass. Making matters worse is a police helicopter buzzing overhead. Across the road, nervous parents hold their kids tight as they drop them at daycare.
What’s going on? “Upgrading the transformer,” says the conductor of this cacophony, a burly man wearing boots, blue overalls, a bright orange vest and a hard hat. His job for today is “traffic management and electricity (upgrades) for Vector.” As he talks, he shifts cones around on Te Atatū Road, one of the main thoroughfares for the West Auckland suburb’s 14,000 residents. His cones have forced commuter traffic to a crawl, and that’s just to get off the Peninsula. For many, motorway jams still need to be navigated before they arrive safely at work.
The man in the hard hat points at a nearby corner site where two 1950s family homes used to reside. For decades, the suburb’s biggest grapefruit tree dangled over a fence, dropping more free fruit than residents could eat. Today, the site sits barren, with rubble and debris scattered across the site. Yet the man shakes his head when asked what’s happening there. “I don’t know anything about the place,” he says. He’s a contractor, just one link in a very long chain.
According to Homes.co.nz, the two Te Atatū Road sites were purchased by property development financers Pearlfisher Capital for a total of $3,965,000 early last year, a price well above CV. A recent Auckland Council resource consent application shows 20 new terraced townhouses will be built on the 1752 square metre site, providing homes and car parks for up to 60 people, a project due to take up much of the year. Despite talking extensively to The Spinoff, the site’s developer asked not to be named or quoted as part of this story, fearing backlash from residents.
This site is not a one-off development. Across the Peninsula, which is 10 minutes from the city’s centre via the North West Motorway, locals are used to construction noise soundtracking daily life, and heavy vehicles causing disruptions. Almost every road, street and cul-de-sac has sections being cleared to make way for row upon row of two- and three-storey townhouses. Intensification has arrived in a big way, with Te Atatū becoming a popular target for multiple developers looking for flat, square sites to build on. Lately, that demand has seemed overwhelming.
Since the start of 2021, council figures show 278 building consent applications were made. Some streets are targeted more than others. You can barely walk down Neil Ave, Taikata Road, Yeovil Ave or Kervil Ave without being diverted around at least half a dozen major developments. “The snowball from March last year to now (is unbelievable),” one resident, who asked not to be named, told me. “Every single week you’re finding out about another section, ‘Oh, they’ve taken away these two houses, and putting in 24.'”
There’s no denying Auckland, and the rest of Aotearoa, is desperate for more housing. They don’t call it a “housing crisis” for nothing: New Zealand has among the fastest rising house prices in the world, ranking it among the least affordable places to buy a house. A recent One Roof-Kantar poll found 80% of New Zealanders think house prices are too high in their area, and 42% want prices back to pre-Covid levels. The knock-on effects for rental prices in cities like Wellington — where backyard sheds have 55 people queueing to pay $220 for them — are obvious. Everyone agrees we need more, and quickly.
Yet many wonder if a suburb like Te Atatū, with its lacklustre infrastructure, poor public transport, and shonky stormwater systems, can handle the massive amounts of growth underway. “There’s only one road in and one road out,” another resident, who also asked not to be named, told me. “Why not Mt Albert, or Mt Roskill?” That Nimby attitude has made things tense amongst the gentrified community. Residents keep a constant watch for “For Sale” signs going up in their street, hoping neighbours don’t sell to developers. Some band together, selling multiple sites for record prices. Three homeowners in Yeovil Ave set a record in 2020, selling their combined 2427 square metre site for $5.93 million.
While it’s far from the only developer with multiple construction sites in Te Atatū, Williams Corp is pointed to by many as the major player. Its sites are the most visible, with huge signs telling homebuyers to “Text ‘Williams’ to 875” and promising investors a “10% return”. The Spinoff attempted to contact managing director Matthew Horncastle to ask why the suburb was so popular for development, but received no response. In a rare interview with NZ Herald, he said his company focused on buying “land in existing suburbs near vital amenities and transport links”. Clearly, there’s good money to be made. The same article describes him as a “28-year-old Rolls Royce Wraith-driving, private jet-flying, $4m 87-foot launch owning, inner-city Christchurch housing developer”.
Te Atatū’s development frenzy has led to bizarre situations. The Spinoff has heard of fully renovated homes being bulldozed, or families crying in their dream homes at news that developers have bought neighbouring sites. One rumour, about a homeowner who purchased a neighbouring house to make sure developers didn’t nab it, couldn’t be confirmed. Much of this is documented on the community Facebook page, where photos are shared of development mishaps, like polystyrene packaging and run off from building sites blocking drains. One resident recently shared a photo of contractors cutting a huge hole in a front hedge to fit a new electricity transformer. It got 210 comments.
Those who pipe up to point out the benefits a rising population could bring, like a better supermarket and more cafes and restaurants, often get their heads bitten off. This already seems to be happening. In Neil Ave, one of the most popular areas for developers, a brand new cafe called Neil recently opened, serving good coffee, pastries, and sourdough toast, possibly to help cater to all those residents moving into their new townhouses. Rumours are an evening wine bar could soon follow.
Some find the construction untenable, not wanting to live amidst the uncertainty. “I’ve left everything. I’ve left my entire business. I don’t have a job anymore. I’ve gone from a bloody good income to nothing,” says Michelle*, who left Te Atatū in January. After 12 happy years, she, her husband and their three children were dismayed to find a neighbouring site on Rewarewa Road being cleared to make room for seven new dwellings. With three more construction sites on their side of the street, and another across the road, they decided it was too much. “The noise is next level, all day, six days a week,” Michelle says. “It was driving us absolutely mental having to live next to it.”
Noise wasn’t the only problem. One morning she found a contractor installing ground pipes at 6.45am, 45 minutes before the 7.30am allowable start time. When she questioned him, an argument began. “He heard me phoning the council. He went out to his car, turned up his stereo, left his doors open,” she says. It became a pattern they got used to. “After the diggers, then it’s the foundations, then it’s the framing going in, it’s nail guns and skill saws right on your doorstep,” she says. “Your glasses are rattling in your cupboard for days on end.”
She lives in Christchurch now, and says the only noise that bothers their family is a flock of geese occasionally flying overhead.
Clinton* can’t hold on either. He moved to Te Atatū in 2007 for the lifestyle. He loves the community and doesn’t want to leave, but last year found his property surrounded by three building sites. The noise and dust means he and his family spend little time outside. He’s spent $2500 on security cameras. His back fence has been ruined, sprays have been used along the fence-line and killed a lot of his plants, and a favourite avocado tree was nearly destroyed. His bins keep getting knocked over by construction vehicles using his driveway to do U-turns. Those vehicles are the same reason he won’t let his daughter walk to school on her own.
He’s already had a real estate agent over, and a valuation done. “Te Atatū was that place you could have that idyllic kind of Kiwi life,” Clinton says. “We’re leaving now. We’re about to put our house on the market.”
Tears were shed. Emotions boiled over. Others stared down MP Phil Twyford, heckled him and asked him to make it stop. Public outcry over Te Atatū Peninsula’s changes boiled over in late 2020. The kerbside gathering of 70-odd people was organised in an attempt for the suburb’s minister to calm residents angered by the suburb’s rapid makeover, but it didn’t work. Things quickly got heated. Several people stormed off. Everyone had their say, but no one left happy.
One local pointed out that parking issues on the narrow street they were standing on would be exacerbated by nearby developments, and would prevent firefighters from attending a fire. Twyford suggested an off-site residential carpark might work. It led to laughter. Lately, that meeting has become a running joke on the community’s Facebook page. “As a resident living with a development across the road, I’ve had a guts full (sic)” commented one who was there. “There is no roading, schools, water, waste or even parking to sustain this level of development.”
Waitakere Councillor Shane Henderson was also at that meeting. He believes the suburb’s going through growing pains, and feels for those suffering directly from developments. But he points out it’s just one of many reincarnations for the Peninsula. “It’s had a lot of different feels over the years,” he says. “In the 90s it was lower socio-economic, working-class community. It’s changed to a more middle-class community. We’re changing again, we’re changing rapidly. It might be one of the city’s most dynamic communities in that way.” It’s true: “The next Pt Chev” is a phrase I heard more than once while researching this story.
Complaints land on Henderson’s desk on a regular basis. It’s among the biggest issues he deals with. “A lot of people are really nervous or plain fed up about the pace of the construction versus the infrastructure to actually support it,” he says. People might feel differently if parking issues were addressed, the suburb’s stormwater issues were sorted, and a rapid transport network was introduced. “We have unacceptable levels of stormwater overflow into the harbours already from Te Atatū,” he says. “People would be a lot less upset if they had a rapid transit bus network.”
In response to queries about the level of development, Auckland Council directed The Spinoff to its Unitary Plan and The Auckland Plan 2050, a blueprint to help the city accommodate another million people over the next 30 years. Those documents “allow for a huge number of additional homes to be built across the city close to public transport and urban centres, with increasing numbers of higher-density homes and more housing choices being delivered at record levels,” it reads.
Developers are working within the rules, says Henderson. Press him further on that, and he’ll say: “I don’t want to be specific about them. I might end up in court.”
Yet Henderson wonders if Te Atatū’s the right suburb to build all of these new homes. Other suburbs closer to town, with better infrastructure, could share the load. “The unitary plan has forced places like Te Atatū to have far more housing than places like Kingsland or Grafton or St Heliers,” he says. “People have legitimate concerns about that.” Te Atatū isn’t the only West Auckland suburb suffering, with Massey and Glen Eden also expanding rapidly. But the isolated location and connected community spotlights the issue. “If you’re a resident in Te Atatū, that’s your whole world.”
Intensification can be done right. Henderson lives in a townhouse in a purposebuilt suburb across the bridge in Te Atatū South. “It’s absolutely amazing. We all know our neighbours, all our kids play together,” he says. It has easy access to greenspace and playgrounds. The difference in Te Atatū is that developers are “retrofitting intensification”. Then there’s demand. As long as townhouses keep selling, developers keep searching for new sections to intensify. “Te Atatū’s actually a bloody good place to live. It’s gorgeous. People want to live there,” he says, agreeing part of the issue is a generational clash. “It’s very hard when you’ve got a community where people have been here potentially for generations to see change in such a quick amount of time. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that.”
How much more construction can Te Atatū Peninsula take? For those sick of the noise, traffic, construction, parking and stormwater issues, Henderson’s answer may not please them. “We have historically been underbuilding our housing for a very long time,” he says. “It’s malleable. I can’t really give you an answer.”
* Names have been changed and last names withheld to protect identities.