Housing is a problem beyond politics

Last updated 10:17 25/06/2012

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Decent, affordable housing is a basic human right. In the second of a five-part series, David Killick argues Christchurch needs practical housing solutions - now and for the future.

People sleeping in cars. Families living in garages or earthquake-damaged homes because there is nowhere else to go. People freezing in sub- zero temperatures.

People struggling to feed their families because rental accommodation has soared and even the basics are beyond their means.

This is shameful stuff. You might expect to read about it in a Third World country, not New Zealand.

"People are living in houses that are not fit for human habitation," says Mike Peters, of Addington Action, a volunteer group that is helping people by supplying cheap fruit and vegetables and putting insulation in earthquake-damaged homes.

Peters slams the authorities as "callous and uncaring". Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee initially said housing was "up to the market" to fix. He now says there is no crisis. Nevertheless, the Department of Building and Housing is investigating.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, housing is a basic right. "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family [sic], including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services".

Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel has launched a petition calling for legislation to establish a rent cap in Christchurch, "to ensure security of tenure and to eradicate homelessness and overcrowding in homes by providing affordable, warm and healthy rental houses to all members of our community".

The petition calls for the immediate establishment of a community taskforce.

Housing is an urgent problem that is beyond politics. It demands a bi- partisan approach. I would support any party that comes up with a practical solution. If they can build instant villages for construction workers, why not displaced people? What happened to the campervan villages?

Long-term, we need a fundamental change in the way we plan, design and build housing.

Over the last 20 years the gap between those living in comfortable well-designed homes and those forced to endure substandard housing has widened alarmingly.

New Zealand used to pride itself on how many people owned their homes. No longer.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission identifies "affordability and accessibility as barriers to the full realisation of the right to housing".

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The Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey ranks Christchurch as "severely unaffordable". Houses cost 6.3 times annual household earnings. In some United States cities, such as Dallas- Fort Worth and Houston, houses cost just three times or less than annual household earnings.

No wonder people are saying "what recovery?" No wonder they are leaving.

Lack of progress, low wages and rising costs (including rate rises substantially higher than inflation, even for houses that are uninhabitable) are driving Cantabrians out.

Demographia co-author, Christchurch retired property developer Hugh Pavletich, says the New Zealand residential development and construction sector is "a complete shambles. While they are getting new starter housing on the fringes of the affordable North American markets for about US$600 per square metre there, here in Christchurch and New Zealand generally it is going in for NZ$2500-plus per square metre - much of it just expensive rubbish".

We need affordable sections of $50,000 or less on the fringe, he says. It is up to the Government to make land available.

Could we do that? New Zealand has plenty of land.

In Europe and the United Kingdom, for example, the main restriction on development is the physical lack of available land.

While a few subdivisions have been proposed, new houses will be unaffordable for many - especially those receiving an average $300,000 payout for a red zone property. Insurance delays are stymieing development.

The old-style suburban subdivision model is outmoded and fails to accommodate changing social patterns such as smaller families, single people, or the growing number of elderly.

It is also land hungry, with large single-storey homes plonked in the middle of the section, with unused front lawn and unnecessary grass berms.

Alternative solutions have been proposed or are under way. New Yaldhurst and Belfast village subdivisions by developers Tom Kain and Mark Prain seek to create new local communities by building density multi-story houses catering for mixed use, and by minimising the dominance of the car.

Another development has won backing from the Christchurch City Council. A non-profit consortium comprising the New Zealand Housing Foundation, Abbeyfield, the Housing Plus Charitable Foundation, and the Salvation Army has purchased a 15,000 square metre block of land in Hornby for $525,000 (below the council's valuation of $1.3 million) to build 42 units catering for low to medium-income residents.

Alarmed by the housing crisis, businesswoman Sue Robinson has founded the Canterbury Affordable Housing Trust and is seeking Government funding.

Property owner Liz Harris, who lost about 130 rental apartments and boarding house rooms in the city in the quakes, plans to rebuild, but says there have been big insurance delays. She hopes to have work under way on four projects offering 28 apartments within three months.

These are good moves. But they are not enough.

Cluster housing or co- housing is an interesting alternative. A group of people buy a large section and develop it together. The result is not just more affordable housing, but a community with shared facilities such as parks, vegetable gardens, and meeting areas. Co-housing is popular in Denmark and parts of the United States.

Architects design the whole development - not just single houses. Well-designed homes in a real community are not just places you can afford, but places you really want to live.

Two top international experts are visiting Christchurch this Friday (June 29) for a public address, sponsored by the New Zealand Green Building Council: Architect Bill Dunster, whose company Zed Factory has designed low-energy sustainable developments in Britain; and Tim Horton, commissioner of the Integrated Design Commission, South Australia.

His mission is "to be a bridge between Government and the design, planning and development sectors - to transform the urban environment and enhance quality of life through a multi- disciplinary, design-led approach."

It sounds like just what we need.

(The Hagley Lounge, Christchurch Netball Centre, Hagley Avenue, 5.30pm to 8.30pm, bookings essential: adnz.org.nz/events).

If they can do it overseas, in Britain, Australia, the United States and Germany, why not here?

These are new concepts for New Zealand. They have not been the norm. But the norm has changed.

We need new solutions. Christchurch and Canterbury could be a world leader for eco-friendly, sustainable housing. We have the potential.

So far little thought seems to have been given to where new developments should be. Simply building new houses anywhere, with no thought of how they will fit into the whole plan, is an ad hoc approach.

Transportation is a vital component of any integrated plan.

That is the subject of next week's article.

Last week's Perspective generated positive feedback. I shall incorporate some of the responses later in this series.

David Killick edits the monthly At Home supplement for The Press. He has a strong interest in design and has lived previously in Britain and Germany. The third article in his series will run next Monday. Email: david@davidkillick.co.nz.

- The Press

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