Editorial: Housing fight unequal

Last updated 05:00 01/03/2013

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OPINION: Getting a clear and accurate picture of the housing market in Christchurch since the earthquakes is not easy.

Anecdotal accounts of a shortage of houses available to rent or buy and of rocketing prices abound, but there have been few hard figures about the wider reality.

The problem with this is that alarmist talk risks generating its own reality and will certainly spread unnecessary despondency.

That would be a pity for an investigation, published by The Press this week, shows that in fact, while the housing market in Christchurch has become more competitive and rents and prices have risen affecting low-income families in particular, talk of a general "housing crisis" is not borne out.

Whatever may have been happening a few months ago, when there were reports of would-be renters engaging in doorstep bidding wars for desirable properties and real-estate agents demanding fees to allow people to view properties, it does not appear to be happening now.

The situation is, of course, still very fluid. The influx of outside workers for the rebuild, which has only just begun to get under way, may lead to greater difficulties in future. For the time being, though, there is no reason for anyone to panic.

There is no doubt that the housing market is tighter than it was before the earthquakes. But the tangible signs of that show that Christchurch is not wildly out of kilter with the rest of the country.

According to figures based from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, the price of a house in the middle of the market went up by 8 per cent in the three years to the beginning of this year. In that time a house in the same part of the market in Auckland rose by 8 per cent and in Timaru by more than 20 per cent. Houses are selling a little more quickly than normal, but the Christchurch prices do not show a market under intense pressure.

The rental market is more problematic, but it is affected by a number of short-term factors. Many people are seeking short-term rentals while their earthquake-damaged homes are repaired. Rents in that market have risen, but a sizeable proportion of that rise is because more houses are now being let fully furnished than was the case before.

Outside the short-term market, rent rises are more modest. It should be remembered, too, that rents in Christchurch had been flat since some time before the earthquakes.

For all that, some poorer people, for whom any rise is a hurdle, are feeling squeezed. The low-paid and those on benefits are not only facing higher rents but also landlords who can afford to be pickier about those they will allow to become tenants. Those near the bottom of the housing ladder have been shunted even lower.

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Even here, though, the evidence is equivocal. The waiting list for Housing New Zealand properties, for instance, where the criteria for eligibility is low income and a "high housing need", has fluctuated over the past year and only just started to rise again after a dip in the middle of last year. That may, of course, be because many clients have given up an unequal battle and moved away.

The suggestion by some that a few desperate cases of hardship represented a wider crisis was not accurate. The Government has always insisted this was the case but has so far been unwilling to release detailed results of its own surveys of the situation. There is no reason why it should not do so.

- The Press

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