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Image: Archi Banal
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OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 8, 2023

The truth about new housing and the Auckland floods

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

A pair of Auckland councillors have leveraged the city’s flood disaster to protest government’s legislation enabling more medium density housing. Hayden Donnell says our elected representatives would be better off pointing the finger at themselves.

As residents across her ward worked to clean out their waterlogged houses, Mt Eden-Puketāpapa councillor Christine Fletcher logged into Facebook to take aim at what she saw as the culprit for the flooding which wrecked their properties. Her post didn’t mention Wayne Brown or Civil Defence. She identified another issue: the fact we keep letting people build houses. “We must stop those who are determined to foist more and more housing on Auckland, well in excess of the Auckland Unitary Plan. Their plans are flawed. Auckland cannot cope now,” she wrote.

That post was picked up by Newshub and echoed by Waitematā councillor Mike Lee in a story by the Herald’s Bernard Orsman. “We need to intensify where suitable, not intensify everywhere and every which way because that will only lead to more disasters,” he said, adding that development should only be allowed where good stormwater infrastructure is in place.

If these councillors believe Auckland’s development patterns have contributed to the severity of the floods, they’d do better to take a deep breath, put on a guided meditation, and look inward. While it’s true the government has moved to enable medium density housing across the city, its bill only became operative in part in August last year, and includes provisions for councils to restrict development in flood-prone areas. Unless the flooded houses were built in the last five months, they were consented under rules set by prior councils, including the 2016 Unitary Plan.

Māngere: Building density zoning under the Unitary Plan, left; and flood plain mapping, right. Zoning map legend: Pink and purple are business zones; tan, yellow and orange are housing – the darker the orange, the higher the density. More detail here.

That plan shunted disproportionate amounts of growth to areas like Henderson, Ranui, Māngere, Wairau, Sunnynook, and Mt Roskill, all of which went underwater last Friday. At the same time it banned dense housing in the places where it makes the most sense, restricting construction to a single house per lot across large swathes of the city’s central, well-connected villa suburbs under so-called ‘special character’ rules. Lee and Fletcher have been among the most vehement supporters of those rules, which cover 41% of all the land within 5km of the city centre and more than 90% of places like Ponsonby, but an analysis done for The Spinoff shows how they may have contributed to the damage wrecked by Auckland’s storm. In general, less of the residential land in special character areas sits on flood plains, while the poorer suburbs with fewer restrictions on development are more vulnerable to inundation. Outside of rural and coastal settlements, Auckland is building fewer houses where flood damage is less likely.

Houses in Auckland’s ‘special character areas’ are less likely to be located in areas at risk of flooding (an exception is homes on the coast). (Graph: The Spinoff)

A look at the council’s floodplain maps throws up some stark examples of this discrepancy. Dense development is almost entirely cut off in several areas least vulnerable to flooding, including Ponsonby and Herne Bay. In some of the most susceptible areas, including Henderson, Māngere, Ranui, and Mt Roskill, medium or high density housing is the norm. Auckland’s councillors are attempting to retain the vast bulk of their character protections even in the face of the new government legislation which makes them, at best, legally questionable. They continue to foist floodwaters on the poor in order to protect the lifestyles and aesthetic preferences of the city’s richest residents, who happen to be their most reliable voters.

Ponsonby and Herne Bay are filled with single-house zoning despite having almost no flood plains.
Henderson is zoned for dense development despite being heavily affected by flood plains.

Their planning decisions have also hindered our ability to build resilient, high quality infrastructure. With development cut off in many central, desirable areas, housing has sprawled across Auckland’s countryside. Drive 40 minutes in any direction from the Sky Tower and you’ll be confronted with affluent suburbs springing up in places like Warkworth, Drury, and Kumeu. Those kinds of greenfield developments are expensive, requiring new roads, power lines, and pipes. Multiple studies have shown that sprawl costs more than twice as much as more compact development. It’s hard to pay for a state-of-the-art stormwater system in the central suburbs when you’re having to plug potholes for thousands of residents in the backstreets of Pukekohe.

There’s a perverse logic to Lee and Fletcher’s response to these problems. If we simply don’t let people build so many houses in future, there’ll be fewer around to flood. But that begs the question of how Auckland will accommodate its future growth. One solution could be the construction of a wall at the top of the Bombays to keep out newcomers. Another is the forced relocation of housing opponents to Tauranga. Instead, both councillors lapse into magical thinking. Lee has long advocated a kind of degrowth agenda, while Fletcher says the city doesn’t need housing because it hasn’t had a lot of inward migration lately, which may or may not have something to do with a global pandemic which shut down most inward migration.

Coming up with these sorts of excuses to avoid having to build needed infrastructure is a patented, time-honoured technique for Auckland’s local body politicians. If the ideal approach to future planning is planting trees under whose shade you will not sit, their approach has generally been to have a meltdown over the price of seeds. Their short-sighted, penny-pinching history can be seen in everything from the city’s inadequate public transport network to its faeces-spewing sewer pipes. But the area where it’s most evident is housing, where planning rules designed to choke growth have contributed to a punishing and intractable price crisis.

The best way to avoid future disasters isn’t to perpetuate that crisis even further; it’s to build more houses in places that won’t go underwater. Thankfully there are several such areas in the heart of Lee and Fletcher’s electorates. If we want to prevent a repeat of the Auckland floods, constructing 20-storey apartment buildings in Ponsonby and Mt Eden would be a good start.

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