NZ ski towns face Aspen's empty fate because of housing issues

Aspen is beautiful, but has also been called an "empty town" of "unoccupied billionaire holiday homes".
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Aspen is beautiful, but has also been called an "empty town" of "unoccupied billionaire holiday homes".

It's hard to imagine, with the pre-snow season bustle, that one day Queenstown and Wanaka could be almost devoid of locals.

But after a recent fact-finding trip to Aspen, Queenstown Lakes district councillor Alexa Forbes says the two tourist spots could be on that path.

Forbes visited Aspen in April with Queenstown Chamber of Commerce members and has delivered a 19 page report to the council revealing, among other things, the US tourist resort is an "empty town" of unoccupied "billionaire holiday homes".

A lot of Queenstown's problems are the same as those in Aspen.

A lot of Queenstown's problems are the same as those in Aspen.

The Colorado resort has a permanent population of about 6000 - a similar size to Wanaka - and has experienced a similar escalation in land values.

READ MORE: 
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Queenstown's housing shortage near 'crisis' point 

 

Many Aspen workers commute more than two hours from dormitory communities and then catch buses home again.

Queenstown Lakes deputy mayor Lyal Cocks says solving the housing crisis is not just a council reponsibility.
JOHN EDENS/FAIRFAX NZ

Queenstown Lakes deputy mayor Lyal Cocks says solving the housing crisis is not just a council reponsibility.

Families, schools, retailers, businesses and even the police have drifted away from Aspen to the communities where locals live.

Forbes says a national response is required or "all the beautiful spots in New Zealand" will eventually become like Aspen.

"The problem [in Queenstown and Wanaka] is identical. Personally, I think this is a New Zealand-wide problem and Queenstown is the canary in the coal mine. It is geographically constrained and has such a high demand for worker accommodation," Forbes said.

Queenstown Lakes district councillor Alexa Forbes worries that Wanaka and Queenstown could lose its locals.
JOHN EDENS/FAIRFAX NZ

Queenstown Lakes district councillor Alexa Forbes worries that Wanaka and Queenstown could lose its locals.

"The same drivers of change that have affected Aspen will start to affect us. And Wanaka is not immune. You see people pushed out to Albert Town, Luggate and Hawea," Forbes said.

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Indications the district could be going Aspen's way included nzski.com's decision to house up to 150 workers in Cromwell and bus them to Queenstown, and the movement of schools and families from town out to Frankton, Forbes said.

"Aspen has some amazing programmes that are working to reverse the 'empty town' problem they have. They  . . . have managed to house 30 per cent or more of their working people within the town. They're working towards moving that number to 50 per cent. Despite these the gap is still growing. We have much to learn from Aspen - our issues are very similar - and they have been immersed in them for much longer than we have. Some of their solutions won't suit us, but some will," she said.

Some of the consented yet undeveloped properties in Wanaka.
Mark Cornell/Fairfax NZ

Some of the consented yet undeveloped properties in Wanaka.

SEA OF LAND

Minister of Housing Dr Nick Smith says Wanaka and Queenstown have a "housing challenge",  but when Wanaka-based deputy mayor Lyal Cocks looks around, there's a sea of land to build houses on and even more land coming on stream.

Cocks has rejected Smith's exhortation for the council to release more land for housing, because Wanaka's consented zones already provide for an estimated 5279 houses, minimum, while the entire Queenstown Lakes district has a capacity for way more than 15,000 new dwellings.

Some of the undeveloped yet consented properties in Queenstown.
Mark Cornell/Fairfax NZ

Some of the undeveloped yet consented properties in Queenstown.

Cocks and Forbes are questioning whether a national response is needed to help the district answer some tough questions about housing affordability and dwindling supply of seasonal accommodation.

Queenstown Lakes District Council planning practice manager Blair Devlin says the dwelling capacity estimates need to be updated, as they don't include about 9500 Queenstown sections from recently approved developments.

Cocks says there's a much bigger picture in terms of the housing crisis that means the community has to be "all in it together" and "it is not just a council thing".

It was not just about releasing land; it's about whether and when property owners and developers want to develop.

It's also about whether there will be too much competition if developers all start releasing titles all at once.

His questions include: should second home owners be allowed to leave houses empty? Should businesses be providing accommodation? 

"It's a really important issue and there's a lot of pieces of the jigsaw that we have to put together," Cocks said.

Forbes questions whether building a whole lot of new houses in the district is acceptable if two-thirds of them were to sit empty except for two or three weeks a year.

If the Government wanted to increase housing supply, houses had to be made available all year round, she said.

"That has to be done on a national level. We don't have the mechanisms to do that at the moment. And I wonder, if we filled all our existing houses, would we even have an accommodation crisis?"

 - Stuff

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