Despite being mostly damp and unstable, Wellington’s character homes have long been fiercely protected. But as tenants advocate Ashok Jacob argues, their loudest proponents aren’t the ones that need protecting the most.
Despite extensive coverage in the national media, Wellington’s spatial plan debate could seem confusing to outside observers. For example, I can see why it might come as a surprise to learn that the loudest campaigners for what is essentially mass deregulation of city planning are young people on the left – people like me and my colleagues at the advocacy group Renters United – who at the same time support more stringent regulation of other aspects of housing, like the property management industry. Take a deeper look, though, and it becomes clear that Wellington is in a real bind when it comes to housing.
It’s no secret that New Zealand doesn’t have enough houses. Everyone says so, from true blues right to the deepest reds and greens. While my friends in the Green and Labour parties disagree about the other remedies needed to fix the housing crisis (while my friends on the right insist that supply is the only issue), we all agree that more housing needs to be built. Most of us also agree that new housing should be denser and more urban than the current stock. Faced with an urbanising world and a looming environmental catastrophe, this seems like a no-brainer.
But in Wellington, as in Auckland, one of the main barriers standing in the way of getting this housing built are character protection rules. After the mass housing builds of the 1930s and 1940s, a class of newly-propertied people in the inner suburbs organised to protect their interests from outside meddling. For example in the 1960s in Highbury, a small suburb down the road from my flat in Aro Valley, locals organised and protested after Victoria University tried to buy multiple properties on the main street, Holloway Road, for a new sports field. After a lengthy battle, the council granted the entire street blanket character protection. Today the street is dotted with derelict houses, and many others are damp and unstable. Weatherboard villas built in the 1920s were not built to last a century, especially not without the extensive maintenance that Wellington’s absentee landlords have largely refused to carry out.
In this recent episode of his podcast When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey talks to Ashok Jacob about the costs of Wellington’s inaction on housing and whether the Wellington Spatial Plan can make a difference.
I’ve lived among poor renters for long enough to know that living in a heritage rental is a generally unpleasant and often hazardous experience. But when it comes to some of the city’s loudest voices in favour of character protection, they often tend to be homeowners who lack the experience of what it’s actually like to live poor in Wellington in the 21st century. Some of those voices, like the veteran Greens in the city, come from working-class backgrounds but have since benefited from the last vestiges of the post-war consensus. Many are now homeowners, a status few from my generation will ever attain.
Last year, I spoke at the Newtown Residents Association in favour of removing character protections from the suburb. The response was vitriolic. I was 21, the youngest speaker by several decades, and the only speaker of the night supporting the proposed spatial plan. During my presentation, I was heckled several times, and one person threatened to “declare war” on those who promoted the plan. A show-of-hands survey of the mostly grey-haired audience revealed that the vast majority were homeowners and many were landlords. That’s especially significant in a suburb where renters make up almost half of the population. Because the fact is, residents’ associations aren’t representative of the community, simply because students and young workers don’t have the time or resources to organise themselves. Perhaps even more importantly, they don’t have the vested interest in the status quo – and thus, the zeal to fight their corner – that homeowners do.
Our elected members on the council are no help to us on this either. As well as being homeowners themselves, many are politically beholden to residents’ associations. In addition, council bureaucrats – by giving residents’ associations disproportionate representation in the consultation process – are leaving the rest of us out in the cold (or indoors in the cold. Either way, we’re cold).
I’m glad that the council recently voted for radical change to our city’s housing-scape, rather than bending the knee to property owners and those with vested interests. Of course, there is still a fight ahead to ensure that new housing is accessible, affordable and of good quality, but we were always going to have to fight for that. For now, I’m glad that the misguided fears of the propertied are no longer stunting our city’s progress.