The Government has at last publicly responded to the Productivity Commission's report on housing affordability. But it has spent too much time producing a plan that - as one commentator scoffed - looks more like a rough first draft. Annette King, Labour's housing spokeswoman, smartly noted how Finance Minister Bill English's package was laden with references to "considering new ways", "undertaking more inquiries", "doing more work" and "undertaking evaluations".
Mr English would prefer we believe his "comprehensive work programme" presages big changes in the housing market. The four key aims are increasing land supply, reducing delays and costs of Resource Management Act processes, improving the timely provision of infrastructure to support new housing, and improving productivity in the construction sector.
Increasing land supply should mean lower prices, especially in Auckland. But it's not as simple as facilitating new housing developments. New roads and schools then must be provided, new sewerage systems built, and so on. Anyway, Auckland council claims it has 18,000 sites available within existing city boundaries, but only 4000 houses are being built each year. Land availability, clearly, is not the only obstacle.
Nor is making more land available as uncomplicated as it seems. As Green party MP Steffan Browning points out, that will lead to residential dwellings increasingly encroaching on food-producing areas. He questions the prudence of allowing urban sprawl to erode the country's productive land.
The rekindling of the debate over affordable housing has quickly been framed. As a blogger shrewdly observed, it had become a debate between "sprawl" and "intensification", earnestly argued between those who would push back the planners' ring-fences around cities and those who demand we build with greater intensity within the ring fences.
Neither option should be ruled out by policy-makers. People should be free to choose between apartment blocks, lifestyle blocks, or any blocks in between, but with an important proviso tempering their decision: the ability to pay. In the upshot, affordability means the same in the housing market as it does, say, in the car market, where we might have to settle for a dunger when we really want a Rolls-Royce.
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