The housing bubble: What crisis?

ROB STOCK
Last updated 05:00 10/02/2013
building
David Hallett/Fairfax NZ
There is no one single solution to the affordable housing debate.
Opinion poll

How important an issue is affordable housing?

Very important - it's a national crisis

Concerning - many first home buyers priced out

It's still affordable in many areas

Not an issue - some people's housing expectations are unrealistic

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OPINION: For most "equity-swappers", the high cost of housing is not too much of a bother, though it may cause momentary feelings of surreal wealth or an occasional tickle of the conscience when we consider the plight of renters.

But house prices, in Auckland in particular, appear to be a battle line for the next election, and Labour has found it is one area where it can make real capital as the divide between the property haves and have-nots grows.

On the right of the policy debate are the supply-siders of National wanting towns and cities to sprawl ever-wider by allowing more brown and greenfield land to become sites for homes. The supply-siders, who do not seem bothered about future petrol costs from ever increasing road traffic, also want to see the hideous and outrageously costly council consenting process demolished.

As well as sprawl, there will be some degree - as yet largely unrevealed - of "in-filling" within city boundaries.

Though it may be unpalatable, dropping the minimum subdivision section size and allowing building up to three storeys without many hindrances would provide a path away from a giant Auckland with a low number of houses per square kilometre.

The kids, sadly, will have to go to the park to chuck a ball around while such infilling would also upset those living nearby.

On the left there are supply-siders too, though Labour wants to build cheaper homes in waves and sell them off to build subsequent waves.

That isn't mad. There are plenty of people in former-state houses who can attest to that, though it would result in more borrowing for the country and hence more risk at a national level. It would also only make a real impact when added to making development and infilling easier through measures similar to those National is talking about.

The left also has its demand-siders. The Greens want to print money to fund an equity-sharing scheme that right-wingers detest.

They have also broached the issue of limiting sales of houses to foreigners - something that happens overseas.

Certainly, the Chinese money flooding into leafy suburbs is substantial.

It is also not surprising.

There is rising affluence and environmental degradation in China. Some of the money used to buy homes in New Zealand will belong to families seeking better, freer, less-smoggy tomorrows for their children. Some, and who knows the proportion, will be the proceeds of corruption seeking a parking place overseas.

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But the suburbs targeted by much of that wealth are suburbs with better-than-average schools. And that reveals, for me, a facet of the first home-buyer debate, which I do not think has been adequately mentioned.

First-time homebuyers are mostly younger folk establishing families, and they have educational aspirations for their kids. The richest may opt for private schools. The next richest for the schools in the nicest suburbs. The next richest have to bid for the next set of suburbs and so on. If there were less failure in schools, parents and prospective parents would feel free to shop more widely.

The reason I mention this is because a) it has been largely overlooked, and b) it reveals something the politicians are trying not to know.

The truth of the affordable housing debate is that there is no one single solution as the political parties would have you believe.

Not enough homes are being built. Small-scale development is far too costly and slow. People have come to distrust developers. Infrastructure is lacking. Schooling is too variable. Land use is tied up. Foreigners are outbidding Kiwis. There is an antipathy to Brit-style housing density and attempts at it have been hideous and unliveable.

All of these things are true.

If we as a society really are bothered about bringing house prices down, (and anyone who saw Prime Minister John Key's October video diary saying National only wanted to stabilise, not bring down house prices won't count him in that camp) then I am afraid we have to improve our performance on all of these fronts.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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