Housing Affordability and Planning

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A summary of economist, Shamubeel Eaquab’s presentation at the NZPI conference 2017

By Sarah Burgess

Being a young person for whom buying a house is a daunting and depressing thought, Shamubeel Eaquab’s (well-respected economist and author of Generation Rent) speech at this year’s NZPI conference in Wellington was pretty enthralling and right on topic. For those who couldn’t make it, here’s the general gist:

Home ownership is the lowest it has even been in New Zealand since 1946. House prices are higher than ever, and the idea that if you work hard enough, you can afford a house, has not been true for many decades. Baby boomers love to quote their 20% interest rate struggles, but Shamubeel noted that the reality is that now, house prices are so high that it’s saving for the deposit that’s the difficultly. 20-30 years was the standard timeframe to pay off a mortgage, while nowadays it’s more like 50 years.

Immigration is also often blamed for the increased housing demand, however natural population growth accounts for the bulk of the demand. Uncontrolled immigration is what results in the volatility of demand that our market is unable to respond to adequately. Our industry just can’t handle it – from the slowness of our consenting processes through to difficulties with labour shortages and the cost of construction materials, and we can’t anticipate and respond to demand as it becomes apparent. This is not helped by the fact that we have an existing shortfall of something like half a million homes.

The media love to promote stories of young people still managing to buy homes (as if a few success stories means there actually isn’t a problem and we’re all just too addicted to avocado on toast), but in these cases there’s almost always a unique circumstance, such as living rent free for the savings period, or using the bank of mum and dad. Shamubeel pointed out that it’s no longer enough to have a job, even a good job – you have to have parents who are homeowners too.

Of course, the run-on social effects of this are quite contrary to what modern democracy would like us to believe are the foundations of NZ society. The rise of the landed gentry, where only the already rich can get richer, directly contradicts what most of us would like to believe is the NZ culture – which is that a bit of hard work can get you anywhere.

Shamubeel argued that what fundamentally underpins the current housing market crisis is a change in philosophy (and not just the RMA). On a per capita basis we have the lowest provision of social housing ever since the 1940s. Fundamentally, this statistic and the attitudes seen on a day to day basis, indicate that we don’t want to invest in the poorer groups in society. It’s both a political and an ideological choice.

As well as the obvious social issues arising from the housing affordability crisis, one of the lesser-mentioned implications discussed was the impact on entrepreneurship. A key source of funding for entrepreneurs and new business owners is borrowing against their homes, which would be drastically affected by the unattainability of home ownership. The long-term implications for innovation is something that I haven’t seen raised in the media before.

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Shamubeel concluded that what’s happening in the housing market is fundamentally about politics. Public sentiment is everything – with it nothing can fail, and without it nothing can succeed. Politics will force action from us as planners, and politicians will look to us to do their bidding and this pressure will continue until the issues with housing have ended, which in his view, is unfair.

The public perception (which we all well know) is that we’re just holding things up without adding any real benefit. My experience as a private planning consultant is that the resource consenting process is slow and painful, but that a lot of this is attributable to the lack of capacity and resources that Council has at its disposal to be able to process the unprecedented number of consents it receives.

The planning environment (particularly between central and local governments in my view), is far too adversarial, giving rise to counter-productivity. Shamubeel noted that if the politicians won’t take or demonstrate leadership then it’s up to the planners to take charge because we’ll be held responsible when it fails. However, this was also followed by the statement that solutions cannot be implemented without political will, leadership and endurance through the cycles.

The overall message that I took away from this presentation is the albeit cliché idea that politicians and planners need to work together to tackle housing affordability. I wish I could say this felt achievable, but in my view the current system and leadership falls well short of facilitating this type of collaboration.

On Auckland’s Mayoral Housing Task Force: Taking account of students’ housing experiences?

By Maulik Thakkar

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It is particularly challenging to set out a group of priorities for any local government. Auckland Council, following recent elections, is no stranger to this. Commissioning a mayoral task force to address the woefully dire housing stock situation and come up with strategies that can kick-start a rejuvenated effort to build affordable high-quality homes is to the new mayor’s credit. Whether it will actually come up with a useful set of solutions is another matter entirely. Let’s take a moment to examine some things that might have been missed by those tasked with putting together some sort of solution.

The task force consists of a number of highly regarded industry professionals, academics and experienced technocrats. Council press releases cheerily tout the number of years that members have devoted to housing issues. At the same time, no part of the task force’s fact-finding processes included face-to-face consultations asking young people at Auckland’s universities about their housing experiences and aspirations. This is particularly disappointing given that it is likely to be young people who continue to struggle with housing security in the future, given that current pricing trends appear bleak for most students.

No one ever wants to be the first person to rock the boat, or in any way upset a potential employer who might one day hire a young planner. In a way, the question that Auckland’s decision-makers must ask themselves is ‘Do we want to aim to be the world’s most liveable city only for a particular group of short-term temporary professionals, or only for educated middle-income families seeking to settle here for the long term, or something else entirely?’ If the mayoral task force seeks to make a tangible difference with its upcoming report, it might consider sending out some members to speak to the diverse range of income-earners in universities. They will undoubtedly be the ones who have to live with the effects of their recommendations.

Bite-Sized Series: “Confessions of a NIMBY Young Planner”

By Anonymous

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Will we be able to afford the funds for an Airport Rail Link?  – Fears of a young planner

There are parts of my job that are extremely difficult. Meeting with Auckland Transport’s people, who want to turn New Zealand’s largest city into a fantasy version of all of the world’s busiest public transport networks put together, is one. Meeting with Auckland Council staff, who like to dream about density in broad daylight, is another. Consulting with frustrated neighbours for resource consent applications, who can’t fathom why nobody can do anything about the worsening congestion problem, is yet another. Sometimes I find myself wondering why planners around me are always so laser-focused on change, as if they’re all looking for grass that’s greener – just on the other side of that fence.

When I go to team meetings, I don’t tend to contribute very much to the conversation. I don’t talk about my fears: how New Zealand will be able to afford the funds for an Airport Rail Link in Auckland, why rate-payers would rather that planning ceased to exist as a profession, or whether the Resource Management Act has any relevance in today’s reality. Out in the field, I try to reassure members of the public that their backyards won’t be affected by the current project, that their ability to conveniently drive around in their cars won’t be threatened and that they’ll still be able to grab a drink at the pub in the evenings. I keep my head down and I carry on, regardless of my concerns that New Zealand can’t accommodate newcomers at the rate we’ve tolerated for years.

At night, my worries about whether the next generation can afford such lavish infrastructure spending come back to me. I’m not certain that there is an economic benefit for a country which has always been so distant from the rest of the world. Being able to fly to a wider choice of destinations from Auckland hardly means that we’re better off today than we were in my parents’ generation. We still struggle to hear opinions that don’t gel with the mainstream narrative. I know that my peers wouldn’t agree with my concerns, and would likely defer responsibility for investment decisions to future generations. That’s probably what scares me most – that the New Zealand is ill-prepared to acknowledge limitations in it’s own capacity to become the success story it so desperately wants to be.

Bite-Sized Series: Choosing a mode of transport: my choice?

By Maulik ThakkarMaulik transport

Every morning, I wake up to a critical decision that determines how bright my day will turn out to be. I’m deciding between taking the bus to uni, which means that I’ll spend an extra 7-12 minutes waiting for the bus to arrive or stuck in road traffic compared to taking a bike. At the same time, I’d be able to make progress on the book I’m reading this month. On the other hand, I could be taking the bike and be at uni in 23 or so minutes, provided that no motorist decides to throw their weight around and act like the road belongs only to car-owners.

What puzzles me is that I can’t fathom why more motorists find themselves unable to empathise with the feeling of vulnerability that comes from being on a two-wheeler. Yes, you have access to bus lanes and bike lanes and can therefore use road arteries to get around faster – but how safe are you when people easily muscle into those spaces? To what extent is awareness about bikes a part of driving licensing requirements, and is there anything that anyone can do to increase empathy among motorists? Which options are available to individuals who want to park their two-wheelers at a bus stop or railway station, and how might awareness about these be spread?

I don’t think that there’s a simple, concise or clear answer to the question ‘What’s the best mode of transport to get to and from work everyday, and be able to stop for groceries/pick up the kids enroute?’. Being given lots of options is one way of selecting our own optimum modes, which could be different for each day. Not having access to bicycles or not living close enough to a bus stop or railway station is a step in the opposite direction from having the choices. However, what often goes unsaid is the contempt that motorists have for anyone who doesn’t own a car – itself a product of being unable to see oneself in somebody else’s shoes.

 

Bite-Sized Series: Internships Q&A

Software_engineering_internWhat’s an internship?

An internship is an opportunity to gain some full-time work experience before your career has started in earnest. It can be a good way to explore different options and obtain insight on your career direction.

The form internships take in the New Zealand planning context vary significantly – but generally you’re looking at 3 months full-time work over a summer during University holidays.

Closely related to internships are casual placements in which an employer may allow you to pop in to help out a couple of times a week. This type of casual arrangement can often follow a summer internship, but there are no ‘rules’ set in stone.

Do I have to do an internship, and when’s a good time to do one?

No – there is no requirement, and you shouldn’t panic if you can’t obtain an internship or aren’t in a position to take one. However an internship is always a good thing to have on your CV when interviewing for graduate roles.

Anytime is a good time to gain exposure to work, but the second-last or last year before graduating is a very good time. By that point you’ll have learned a lot from uni, so will correspondingly learn more from your work experience.

For many reasons, you may be unable to attain an internship or placement, or you may not be in a position to be able to accept one. You may be after financial security that fixed or part time work can’t provide, or you might just be unlucky. If so – don’t fret! An internship isn’t the be-all and end-all of work experience.

There are lots of things you can do to demonstrate skills that are transferrable to planning (time management, teamwork), and develop your planning knowledge and interests. You can approach think-tanks, not-for-profits and advocacy groups for volunteer experience, you can write submissions on issues/projects you care about, or get involved with the NZPI. All can help you develop and get an idea on what your interests really are.

What will I do in an internship?

It varies. You may be asked to undertake a single particular task to assist the team you’re working with, and it could be something menial that nobody else wants to do!

That said, most good employers/colleagues will be keen to impart some wisdom and exposure on you, so will probably invite you along to interesting meetings or involve you in projects. You could become a go-to person for background research on projects that more senior people don’t have time to do.

Don’t stress too much – your main job as an intern is to learn from your employer, and in return they get some help from you – it’s a win-win. You’re highly unlikely to be given anything truly make-or-break, so relax and soak the knowledge up!

Will I be paid?

Generally, yes. Most formal full-time internship programmes will be paid, generally below the rate of a graduate, but probably higher than any part-time job you may have had in high school!

Less formal arrangements such as casual placements are sometimes unpaid, though this is uncommon. As a casual helper, you are likely to be given flexibility re your hours and days worked, and could include reimbursement for food and travel experiences.

What internships are out there, and how do I get a foot in the door?

Public sector organisations, particularly Councils, and large private consultancies are the most likely to have formal internship programmes for planners. Auckland Council for example runs a formal internship programme which includes positions in the resource consents department.

These types of programmes are advertised well in advance – typically a first intake of applicants in around March for the following summer – so you’ll need to keep your eyes open. It is advisable to sign up for job alerts via the website of your chosen Council or consultancy to ensure you are notified early. The NZPI job alerts in Planning Focus may also include these sorts of notifications, so ensure you are signed up.

Other public sector organisations (such as Auckland Transport) and medium-sized consultancies may also employ interns, but will generally do so in a less formal way and will not be advertised until later in the year (around September).

The way to an internship in a smaller consultancy is less obvious. Smaller consultancies will often approach University heads of school or lecturers to get recommendations, so make sure your lecturers know you are keen in the event that opportunities come up. Otherwise, a polite direct approach via email could lead to a discussion – contact for most consultancies can be found on the Planning Consultants Directory online.

Networking is really important – it’s highly clichéd advice, but it’s true. A lot of internships and placements are filled via word-of-mouth and personal contacts. Talk to as many people as possible and see what they recommend. Sign up for the NZPI mentoring programme when it comes to your town or city. Maintain a contacts list, and ask people for further contacts. Don’t barge in and demand ‘gimmeajob’, but do ask for suggestions and advice.

Doing this, you’ll very quickly find that many planners love giving advice, and indeed find it flattering to be asked.

What will I get out of it?

You may not necessarily undertake huge volumes of work as an intern, but the key benefit is exposure – to contacts, to the work environment, and the nature of planning work. Simply being in a planning office is a learning experience in and of itself, and having friends in the industry really is invaluable when starting out.

Some internships can also become part-time jobs or casual placements when you go back to uni, and can lead on to a full-time job once you have graduated depending on the employer.

‘The Lighthouse’ – a millennial planner’s view

 

It’s getting hard to remember a time when housing wasn’t unaffordable. It’s even harder to recall a time when planning wasn’t the scapegoat for a dysfunctional housing market – mere sand in the gears of the free market. Luckily for us memory-challenged millennial planners, Michael Parekowhai’s The Lighthouse sculpture on the end of Queens Wharf is here to remind us of a more caring, egalitarian New Zealand.

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“The Lighthouse” on Queens Wharf

A state house sure is a jarring sight on such prime real-estate – it can’t help but look a bit out of place against a backdrop of shiny skyscrapers to the south, the Hilton to the west, and the occasional cruise ship towering over its eastern flank. But Queens Wharf, purchased back in 2009 by the ARC as the ‘People’s Wharf’, is itself an anomalous gem in a city which has always been too quick to privatise its waterfront spaces. Where better to honour increasingly privatised social housing than on an all too rare piece of public waterfront? Anthony Byrt finds a similar parallel in the “mansion-less strip of green” at Bastion Point which he calls “a tribute to the power of peaceful resistance”.

The opening was a collective, democratic occasion befitting an artwork which pays tribute to a classless past. Public space was being used for its intended purpose. People – not just arty types – were there to engage with the artwork, to socialise, and to protest. Kiwi favourites were jamming inside the house, strummed guitars and vocal harmonies washing over the small crowd like gentle waves.

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Celebration of kiwi egalitarianism, symbol of the unattainable kiwi dream, or signal for a safe harbour and a roof over your head?

On the west side of The Lighthouse is a flight of stairs leading to a platform with commanding views over the Waitemata. As night fell, I climbed and immediately understood the wordplay of the sculpture’s title. Privately, I had previously likened The Lighthouse to Jay Gatsby’s green light – a rapidly receding light across the water symbolising an unattainable Kiwi dream. Standing there, I realised that the sculpture isn’t an insult to those struggling to get on the housing ladder, but rather a reminder of what’s driving our growth challenges in the first place – a safe harbour, shelter from the storm, a roof over your head, warmth and light, and people that still care for one another.