Land key to housing crisis

OPINION: David Killick
OPINION: David Killick

Lack of affordable housing, congested roads, and uncertainty over where and what to build are challenges that dominate the Christchurch rebuild and will continue to do so for some time.

None of these challenges is surprising. None is unique to Christchurch. These challenges were all present before the earthquakes. The earthquakes have brought them into sharp focus and have pushed them to crisis point.

Christchurch faces an ongoing crisis but it is not unsolvable.

We need a wider perspective, to be open to new ideas, and not be mired in parochialism and negativity.

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Former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud, who visited Christchurch this month, has more than 30 years' experience in urban planning. Now based in New York City, he has worked in places as diverse as France, the United States, Central America, Yemen, and Thailand.

Bertaud believes many of the challenges facing cities around the world are universal.

The two biggies are mobility and affordable housing.

"Cities are big living entities, which are transferring rural populations into an urban one," says Bertaud. "People choose to move to cities because they see more opportunity. They need somewhere to live.

"The challenge is finding accommodation for them because if you don't, you will have to increase salary enormously to compensate for the rent, and then the construction will cost so much that maybe even it will stop."

Providing affordable accommodation, according to Bertaud, is not that hard.

"The solution is to increase the supply of land. I would not bother so much on the construction of the housing itself, I think that can be taken care of fairly easily by the private sector."

Is he right? The issue goes to the heart of New Zealand's housing crisis, which is at its worst in Auckland and Christchurch.

The questions also help you work out whose strategies - if any - stand the best chance of success.

Simply build more houses as cheaply as possibly?

Restrict ownership? Or change the structure of property values?

Let's figure it out. Look at your latest property valuation, or that of someone you know. Compare land value and "improvements" (the house). I bet land value accounts for over 30 per cent of your total property value. In some desirable areas, like coastal areas, land value may be over 50 per cent.

That is crazy. Bertaud says the rule of thumb is that land should be no more than 30 per cent.

In Houston, Texas, it would be only 15 per cent. "It's strange because normally when the land prices are very high it's a very dense country like Japan or Holland. This is not a dense country."

Exactly. Unless we expect farms to take over the whole countryside, New Zealand has plenty of space for houses. "It's a self-inflicted problem, frankly."

To be fair, other countries have also experienced soaring property prices, far above the rate of wages and salaries, regardless of which political party has been in power.

Governments, local and national, still cop the blame.

Restricting land supply and imposing too many controls also stifles business growth, especially in the central city, Bertaud warns.

"I think it's so inconsistent to put restrictions on height and say at the same time we want a compact city, we don't want sprawl. If you put a restriction on height, it means you want people to use more land but you don't provide this land."

Catch 22. Sure, some zoning is necessary but planners have gone overboard, Bertaud believes.

The main role of planners should be to separate public from private space, and to provide infrastructure. That includes a good transport system.

Getting from the suburbs to the centre and back again is always easier than developing a good transport system to connect suburban hubs with each other.

Long-term, he reckons self-drive cars or small vehicles you can hire could be a solution.

As for sprawl, we should not be too concerned, says Bertaud.

I would agree, so long as we build real communities - a series of self-contained, attractive centres - not just expensive, featureless subdivisions. We need more diverse designs: townhouses, terraced housing, and cluster housing, and we need mixed-use neighbourhoods. Planners should encourage them.

We need to do it now. Faith that Christchurch will somehow magically rebuild itself and we just need to give it time is misplaced.

We all need to be engaged, think about the issues and what kind of city we want, and take action.

We need to do that to ensure we get the best policies and plans.

Sadly, the focus on "dirty" politics - however justified that attention - has detracted from the serious challenges facing New Zealand and our city.

Those challenges will remain long after this ugly election campaign is over.

The Press