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The BulletinMay 26, 2023

Is the ‘density done well’ dream dead?

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National’s housing about-face could mean less urban housing, more city-edge sprawl, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

From an ‘emphatic yes’ on housing density to ‘we got it wrong’

Christopher Luxon was only a couple of weeks into his National leadership when, in December 2021, he gave his backing to a law change aimed at dramatically increasing housing density in our major cities. His deputy Nicola Willis, the bill’s sponsor, called the bipartisan legislation a “win-win” for home buyers and renters alike. “Today National and Labour are coming together to say an emphatic ‘yes’ to housing in our backyards,” she said at the time. The amendment to the Resource Management Act obliges councils to allow construction of up to three dwellings of three storeys – townhouses, in other words – on most urban sites, and had been welcomed as a game-changer by housing advocates. On Wednesday, Luxon said his party had got it wrong. Greenfield development should instead be the focus, he told audiences in Auckland (and again yesterday in Queenstown), and councils should regain the right to determine density controls for their own urban areas.

The councils bite back

Luxon’s u-turn is not only a response to homeowners worried their neighbourhoods will be subsumed by a tidal wave of townhouses. Councils have also voiced their disapproval by watering down parts of the Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS). In Christchurch, the council voted not to adopt them at all, eventually passing a new set of standards that exempt almost half the city’s residential properties from the national rules. In Auckland, the council used a “special character” loophole to exclude most of affluent suburbs like Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Devonport from medium density builds. And Hamilton City Council has tried to claim the entire city should be exempt, “because it all feeds into the Waikato River catchment,” reports Sharon Brettkelly of RNZ’s The Detail. So where should all the required housing go instead? Luxon wants more of it on former farmland, and according to urban planner Malcolm McCracken, that’s a big mistake: “Can we afford to invest in and subsidise greenfield growth? From both a financial and emissions reduction perspective, the answer is no.”

‘Once again the outer suburbs get absolutely shafted’

The Spinoff’s Ben Gracewood is among those incensed by Luxon’s about-face. He’s seen his Te Atatu neigbourhood become a traffic-snarled building site in recent years but had believed it was for the greater good. Now? “Once again the outer suburbs get absolutely shafted… We’ve taken one for the team and are crammed here in our dormitory suburbs while the other half of the team sip lattes and Lime around like nothing has changed.” On his Kākā newsletter, Bernard Hickey says that even if National doesn’t become the government, the damage may already be done “because the opponents of MDRS at council level, and the potential developers and off-the-plan buyers, will know to run a mile if their plans depend on MDRS”. In a fascinating piece on his Museum Street newsletter, republished on The Spinoff, Henry Cooke looks at National’s internal divisions over housing intensification, and says it’s a u-turn they may live to regret. “The best way to breed new right-wing voters is to give them a mortgage,” he writes. Without the MDRS, that home owning dream may be even further out of reach.

Kingmaker? What kingmaker?

For now though, National’s prospects are looking rosy. Last night’s 1News Kantar Public poll has National up three points to 37% and Act steady on 11%. Converted into seats in parliament, National would pull in 47 and Act 15, for a total of 62 – enough to form a government without the need for Te Pāti Māori as a kingmaker. One poll is just one poll, of course, so The Spinoff has created some spiffy data visualisations showing the results from the last five polls, and the changing fortunes of the left/right blocs since the 2017 election.

Keep going!