This is a guest post by Frank McRae

Saturday’s episode of current affairs show The Nation on TV3 featured a panel discussing Auckland’s Unitary Plan. Featuring prominently in the discussion was much clutching of pearls over the prospect of “shoebox” apartments. Over at the Herald reporters have been popping monocles over shoeboxes too (Panel paves way for shoebox living). The issue has been raised due to the removal of minimum apartment size rules from the recommended plan.

I want to explain why “shoebox” apartments aren’t a problem that requires regulating against.

1. You don’t have to live in one

No one can force you to live in a shoebox. This isn’t North Korea. It’s not even Cuba.

2. Bank lending rules mean that developers will tend towards building larger apartments

A recent article in The NBR also raised concerns at the prospect of shoebox apartments (paywalled). Despite its intentions, the article actually made a convincing case for why Minimum apartment size rules aren’t needed. The article noted that banks generally don’t like small apartments and often won’t provide loans for apartments less than 50m 2 in size. If that’s the case then developers generally won’t want to build tiny apartments. Developers aren’t in the business of throwing away money and if prospective apartment buyers can’t get a loan for a tiny house then the developers won’t want to build something no one can buy.

3. The market has an incentive to provide larger apartments

People generally favour more space than less space if they can afford it. This provides an incentive for developers to build larger apartments. Indeed, the latest round of intensified construction going on in Auckland’s city fringe is producing much larger and higher quality apartments than the construction boom of the early 2000s. This shows there is demand for larger apartments and that the market has moved on from where it was 15 years ago.

4. Limited development opportunities incentivise the development of smaller apartments

Until recently, intensified residential development was largely prohibited in most areas outside of Auckland’s CBD. This made well located residential floor space scarce. This scarcity provided an incentive to build tiny apartments like those that proliferated in the early 2000s. If additional residential floor space can be constructed in more areas, the scarcity of floor space is reduced and there is potential to provide bigger apartments. Additionally the more development opportunities there are, the more developers will need to compete on things like size and quality to attract buyers.

5. Small apartments can be nice and some people want to live in them

Despite all of the above there are still some circumstances where a developer will want to provide a small apartment and there are some people who will want to live in them. With good design, small studio apartments can be nice and they can work for some. Young people with an active social life may only need a house for crashing and the occasional shower. Why should they be denied the option of paying less money for less space? And if a cramped apartment is the best someone can find within their budget and other constraints, how would they be better off if that apartment didn’t exist?

Planning rules should be about controlling the external effects of development. It’s hard to see what external effects small apartments create and why they should be of concern to anyone other than those who choose to live in them. If hand-wringing about “shoeboxes” is really from a genuine concern for the welfare of those living in them, then the hand-wringers should be even more concerned about people living in cars (the ultimate shoebox dwelling) and uninsulated garages. A small apartment is a much better option than a car or homelessness for those without other options. And for those really concerned about others having better housing options, the best way to achieve that is to ease the arbitrary rules that create an overall shortage of housing and prevent more affordable housing from being built.

Note from Matt: 

Here’s an example from New York of a studio apartment of just 28m² showing that when well designed, small doesn’t have to mean bad. Here’s also the NY times writing about it. As a reference the minimum size in the Proposed Unitary Plan was 30m². Kent has also written about Mico-Apartments in the past.

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  1. Excellent post Frank and I like your term “well located residential floor space”. Maybe we can move the conversation up from the emotive “freeing up more land” to one all about the need for more residential floor space. In all its forms. It joins the divide between up and out. Lovely. Well done.

  2. Stephen perhaps you’ve missed the point of this post – the problem is all about number of residences not floor space. Auckland is full of radically under occupied houses, because planning regulations have stopped them building more than one “dwelling” on a site and mandated a larger apartments than people can afford and would live with.
    I think its instructive to look here at the Tiny House movement where no coercion is involved and the houses are typically 20m2 (not counting the sleeping loft). Many people seem keen to build and live in these – mainly for reasons of avoiding the planning regulations stopping them doing what they want to do – build another dwelling on an existing property.

  3. These might all sound well and good tucked up in white middle class quinoa chomping suburbs or city centre and espousing the ideals of cutting edge design of hipster tiny homes.

    I can see these units being racked up by investors not too concerned about design, bank rules and tenant welfare. Rental income per m2 being the golden god. Sub standard places will pop up in the lower socio economic areas under the guise of affordable housing. What it will do is aid the apartheid divide of Auckland where west and south Auckland inherits the social problems of cramped conditions and overloaded infrastructure and services to deal with the problems.

    I sadly can see parts of this unitary plan creating the same problems of suburbs like otara repeated all over again in the name of affordable housing if things aren’t planned better.

    How about we bring in a plan. West and South 40m2 minimum. North and East go for broke.

    1. Otara is just that – a suburb. It largely consists of standalone houses – many with people sleeping in sheds and garages, to our shame – rather than blocks of 20m2 apartments. Furthermore, it was built, in large part, by the state housing authority.

      Banning privately-developed small apartments seems like a rather indirect way of addressing your concerns.

    2. We should make it illegal to sell six inch subway rolls in South and West Auckland because I don’t find them enough for a good meal, only East and North Auckland residents should have the choice to select their own meal size.

      1. We should make it illegal to offer less than $15 an hour in west and south Auckland, but north and east can offer whatever they want (because the market is king)

        1. Or we could make it illegal to offer contracts of less than 36 hours a week because some people value full time work and think they get to dictate to others how to live their lives.

    3. Well I guess we can tear up the unitary plan and the thousands of hours that went into it, Rharris has solved everything with his one sentence “plan”

    4. You are still talking about bad houses, not small houses. You have not made any case why a small place in Otara is any more problematic than in the City Centre.

      And I’d argue that lots of new compliant small apartments/houses in Otara would be *much* better than homelessness in Otara or cramming 15 people in one “spacious” home. Not very spacious if you sleep 3 to a room or more.

  4. The problem isn’t necessarily the size, it can also be the quality of the build. A smaller apartment will usually be downtown and the requirement for a higher standard of finishing (decent sound proofing of walls, double or triple glazing and climate control should be compulsory) is vital. When people think of shoebox apartments they also think stuffy, noisey places with paper thin walls that have windowless bedrooms that turn into ovens in the summer.

      1. Yup – this will be good to keep in mind when people blame Council for quality issues like that should they arise. Central Government (via MBIE) have said that this is not a RMA issue and must be left to the building code.

    1. Good point – design standards for acoustics, light, etc. are more important for apartments than they are for stand-alone houses. While I’m usually all for ‘de-regulating’ the form and bulk of buildings on sites, if we’re going to have a higher-density city there’s also a stronger case for tighter design-type regulations that ensure minimum levels of comfort for occupants.

    1. That apartment from NYC is seriously expensive.

      “The 302-square-foot unit I stayed in rents for $2,670 a month, furnished…”


      Something similar in Wellington would be half this amount!

  5. The keywords in this article are “well designed”. Let’s hope the smaller apartments are functional and well designed.

    1. Bad design happens at every scale; why not outlaw vast hideous mansions too?

      If design quality is what we are after then design review panels with actual powers are the better tool. Not random size rules.

        1. Of course houses can be poorly designed as well. But I think poor design will affect small apartments much more badly than big apartments or houses.

          “Hidious” and “brutal additions” is an entirely different discussion, the UP is certainly not going to regulate aesthetics.

    2. And when all is said and done about good design, there remains the ever-present possibilty of “bad occupants” who do not live tidily, quietly or considerately, spoiling it for everyone else. Unfortunately this likelihood rises with affordability and can turn a well-designed area into a ghetto..

      Needs to be some way of guarding against the place-ruining antics of the minority.

  6. It seems that most of the talking heads objecting to ‘shoebox’ apartments have never lived in them. Are they therefore just objecting to having to drive by them or are they using the narrative of the ‘horror’ of shoebox living as a smokescreen for their real but less publicly acceptable objection which is to people different to them living near them?

    1. I have had plenty of friends buy or live in small downtown Auckland apartments, and their views are all generally the same. They love the lifestyle and the location, but they moved out due to shoddy construction (one friend sold her apartment in the Imperial Gardens when she noticed a new crack and a visible curve had developed in the concrete stairwell), poor finishing and heat and noise. Having looked around inside several apartment buildings I am convinced many of the first generation of Auckland apartments were built to a standard that means they will only last 20 or so years, and after a period as slums for foreign students they’ll all need to be pulled down due to serious structural defects before the end of the 2020 or 30s.

      Well designed has to include aircon, triple glazing and sound proofing walls, as well as buildings owners can feel confident will still be standing in 100 or 200 years.

      1. “Well designed has to include aircon, triple glazing and sound proofing walls, as well as buildings owners can feel confident will still be standing in 100 or 200 years.”

        Great, but this is also supposed to be affordable! This is high-end-of-the-market stuff. We also need cheaper options for those unable to afford this.

  7. I fear one entire development where there are 100s of shoeboxes, but I like developments that have a combination of shoeboxes and larger units.
    In some of my bachelor years I lived in a “shoebox with a view” and loved it.

    1. Absolutely – let’s build communities, not ghettos. We need apartment blocks with a range of apartments catering to a range of people – students, couples, families, older people.
      Well designed and built. I don’t agree that we have to skip on the quality of the built just so as to be cheap – it is not sustainable, and there are many studies which show that the additional cost of good, energy-efficient design is very low,

  8. All of points 1 to five could also be applied to poor quality flats, or shabby flats or ugly flats and even to insulated garages. There are plenty of countries that have parts of large cities where people are free to build what they want, We call them slums or barrios.
    To use David Lange’s phrase we are going to have filing cabinets for poor people.

    1. We could also apply them to leaky homes and garden sheds, but just like garages they don’t beet the Building Act standard for habitable dwellings.

      1. You are the one arguing we don’t need planning controls and you think I am reductive! Some people like libertarian ideas for exactly the same reason others opt for religion. Simple answers that can be applied to any problem. If the answer doesn’t quite fit, no problem just redefine the issue until the answer does fit.

        1. “You are the one arguing we don’t need planning controls and you think I am reductive!”

          I’m not saying we don’t need planning controls, I’m saying we don’t need this one specific planning control. Planning controls have their place but they should be justified by a specific externality or market failure that i don’t think has been established in the case of minimum apartment size rules. Like Obama said about the Iraq war “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” I’m opposed to dumb regulation.

        2. Are diseases due to overcrowding a significant externality? Genuinely affordable housing for poor people seems beyond the private market’s ability to provide, so a state-backed alternative will be needed in any case.

        3. Oh I understand your position. So you didn’t think there were any adverse social effects last time where people lived isolated lives in dogboxes too small to take friends back to? Where the room is too small to live with another person without conflict. Where at best you have space to boil 2 minute noodles and watch a screen while lying in bed. They will be ok. I am sure the free market will make sure that nobody buys one to live in, they will all be bought by the heros of the market orthodoxy -slumlords.

          Perhaps you might also consider the heading “What happens Next” where if they allow no lower limit someone starts marketing a tube to live in. Or where a government department, known for never missing the chance to cut a corner, starts arguing that if 15sqm is ok for the private sector then it is fine for social housing too.

        4. John, in my experience people who have a strong policy argument based on concrete evidence of adverse effects don’t have to use emotive terms like “dogboxes” and “slumlords”, or resort to slippery-slope arguments about people living in tubes.

        5. “Are diseases due to overcrowding a significant externality?”

          Yes overcrowding diseases are an externality, but they’re an externality of overly restrictive planning rules that prevent more housing from being provided, not small apartments.

          “Genuinely affordable housing for poor people seems beyond the private market’s ability to provide, so a state-backed alternative will be needed in any case.”

          Well I agree that the housing crisis is so bad we definitely need more state housing but I don’t see how that relates to minimum apartment sizes. This need for state housing has been exacerbated by the failure to reform planning rules earlier.

        6. Peter fair enough. Anywhere I have called them dogboxes let’s change that to there correct name – tenements. As for slumlords, I’m sorry I have no other name for them.

        7. mfwic – thanks for providing some great examples of the kind of snobbery, rooted in contempt for people with different preferences than you, I was talking about.

        8. “So you didn’t think there were any adverse social effects last time where people lived isolated lives in dogboxes too small to take friends back to?”

          No, anyone who actually thinks about that realises it isn’t a problem. Small apartments are awesome. if you want something large enough to bring a friend back to then look at the apartment before you rent or buy it and check that you can do that. It’s much fairer than regulating housing that you don’t like out of existence.

        9. ” if you want something large enough to bring a friend back to then look at the apartment before you rent or buy it and check that you can do that.”
          So what is your next argument? Sweatshops are awesome if you want high wages or fire escapes then just dont work in one?

        10. “” if you want something large enough to bring a friend back to then look at the apartment before you rent or buy it and check that you can do that.”
          So what is your next argument? Sweatshops are awesome if you want high wages or fire escapes then just dont work in one?”

          Sweatshops – unsafe, children working, low pay. Demonstratable negative consequences.
          Small apartments – cheap rent. No negative consequences.

          You are yet to actually name a negative consequence.

        11. Slums, barrios, dogboxes, slumlords, tenements, sweatshops.

          Your well considered arguments and measured language have added much to the debate.

        12. Substandard housing has been linked to psychological problems, domestic violence, health issues from crowding, crime and substance abuse. I think that is why our forefathers (and mothers) got rid of them. Of course you probably think people who dont want those problems dont have to live in a little tenement – no one is forcing them. But as soon as you allow them they will become part of the baseline. The Council will add up the number of potential 20sqm hovels that could be built under current zonings and refuse to approve plan changes for other houses on the grounds they are not required.
          One of the reasons we have town planning was to try and lift ourselves out of the appalling conditions thousands of people had to live in. Why would we allow housing so substandard that people cant be happy in them, cant form relationships or have a child? And yes someone will get pregnant and what then? Would you throw her out or take the kid? Of course not, these will become homes that children live in too.

        13. Looking forward to your upcoming post on sweatshops Frank. Just use your same 5 points, they will apply. 1/ You dont have to work in one – its not North Korea. 2/ Bank lending rules mean factory owners will tend to build better quality factories. 3/ The market has an incentive to provide better workplaces after all if you have a choice who the hell would want to work in one. 4/ Limited industrial zonings favour small cramped factories ie zone more land and we will have less sweatshops. 5/ Sweatshops can be better than the alternative of being unemployed or picking things out of rubbish dumps.
          There you go Frank I did it for you.

        14. John – once again, you’ve gone for ad hominem, slippery slope arguments, and emotive terms. Doesn’t add much to the debate.

          The articles you cite also don’t add that much either. The Hong Kong situation isn’t good, but the overall issue there doesn’t seem to be dwelling size, but an overall *lack* of dwellings. Hard to see how banning small apartments would improve that. It would simply make people homeless, which is actually *worse* than living in a small apartment.

          The Atlantic Cities article is a bit better but if you go and click on the links you’ll see that the research it cites focuses on the effects of household *crowding* – i.e. more people per dwelling – rather than the effects of less floor area per person. It’s not actually germane to a discussion of minimum apartment size rules. In fact, if anything it’s an argument *against* them, as low-income people may be faced with a choice between living alone in a small apartment and living with others in an overcrowded flat or house, which is a worse option.

          Given the evidence on the health and social effects of household crowding, I’d say that there’s a potential rationale for a maximum ratio of people per bedroom. But I have no idea how you’d enforce that, so the best alternative is – as Frank says – to simply let people build more dwellings to reduce pressure to crowd.

        15. “One of the reasons we have town planning was to try and lift ourselves out of the appalling conditions thousands of people had to live in.”

          Indeed, communism was tried. Can’t remember how it worked though?

        16. Peter tenement is actually the word. It was in common usage once as there were a lot of them about in the major cities. Since the first world got rid of most of them the word became pejorative. If we are going back to cramped little flats then we owe it to people to use the correct word. I don’t accept it is emotive. The choice is do we accept there is no place for society to decide what is too small? 40sqm was a ridiculous limit, I have lived in smaller in London in Belsize Park and is was great for two of us. But at some point if you go small enough the social effects of little flats will exceed any benefit. Planning is the correct place to control those social effects. As for how things would work here in New Zealand, we both understand that as soon as a little flat becomes legal and someone lives in it, then Housing New Zealand is off the hook and doesn’t have to provide. Sooner or later that someone will a mum with two or three kids. Simply saying they shouldnt choose to live there (point 1 of Franks thesis) is banal.
          Part of the reason we have planning was to lift society. To argue that it isnt efficient is simply stating the obvious. There are lots of things we do that are not efficient, we do them because they make us better. When housing standards drop we normalise them. People have been living in garages in Auckland so long that now we think that is normal. Now all the garages are full so they live in cars. The answer is to require a good standard of house including a minimum size, and then society builds that for those who can’t afford to buy one. As minimum consumption rules go that is not a dramatic position, nothing like Switzerland where you are required to spend a minimum proportion of your income on rent.
          My real point is we got rid of tenements, why would we lower our standards as a society both for ourselves and for others?

        17. “Looking forward to your upcoming post on sweatshops Frank.”

          Your example isn’t emotive/ hysterical enough. Why not reach for the top and bring concentration camps in to it? That way you can really make sure good faith arguments are avoided as seems to be your style.

        18. I dont think they were historically connected the way tenements and sweatshops are. At the time when people had to live in tenements many also worked in sweatshops. The home and work options for poor people under classical economics. I am sure both were economically efficient but quite undesirable.

  9. Quality is the real issue I do not see how “leaving it entirely to the market” will deliver that. I strongly disagree that planning is all about the “external effects” of buildings – the “interior effects” also matter. Creating liveable dwellings for all should be a key component of the UP but the IHP’s rewrite of the plan gives no reassurance on that score. Given that there is a place for tiny houses/apartments these should definitely be allowed BUT only where the applicant/developer can show that they do indeed have a well designed proposal – in other words designs smaller than the default minimum size would be allowed if appropriately designed (such as the example highlighted by Matt), whereas those that are simply cheap and nasty would not pass muster.

    1. “Creating liveable dwellings for all”

      But you go on to define what you consider to be liveable ending with a belief that some of these developments would not pass muster.

      A few years ago while studying I was in a group with a person living in a shoebox. He was studying all day and into the evening and just needed somewhere to sleep. He didn’t cook or entertain there. It was a perfectly livable dwelling for him. The primary benefits to him was it was well located to university and was cheap. So in the eyes of that person, and many like him, this accommodation passed muster perfectly.

  10. It is a good thing that these issues are being discussed and to add to the discussion, I would make the following comments in response:

    1. You don’t have to live in one

    If small studio apartments is all the market provides then you kind of are forced into living in one. A way around this would be to encourage a greater mix of apartment sizes/bedrooms. This would be particularly important if at a policy level we want to encourage more families to live in centres. Some cities internationally require a % mix of studio, 1 bed, 2 bed and 3 bed apartments within a single develop to enable more families to live in the CBD

    2. Bank lending rules mean that developers will tend towards building larger apartments

    As an architect I have worked on a number of apartments here in Auckland and in Christchurch. Developers pay no regard bank lending criteria. For apartment development its all about rental yield per square m, particularly outside the main CBD.

    3. The market has an incentive to provide larger apartments

    This maybe true for certain circumstances. But in areas with lower returns or where the market for larger apartments is less certain (outside the CBD), smaller apartments will be the norm.

    4. Limited development opportunities incentivise the development of smaller apartments

    I see this a significant issue. Lower value areas where we want to intensify will be proliferated with low quality development (not just size here, but overall quality).

    The original Unitary Plan tried to address this through design standards basically applying everywhere not just the CBD. It created a consistent benchmark for basic amenity standards.

    5. Small apartments can be nice and some people want to live in them

    I completely agree. I live in one myself.

    But the key point here is that design standards (not just minimum floor area, but circulation spaces, ventilation, natural light etc) ensure that all apartments, regardless of the developer, the architect or the location will deliver a basic level of amenity.

    The New York apartment example looks great. However New York City has clear design standards for new apartments and apartments for rent, this includes minimum floor areas along with other design outcomes (venitlation, circulation space, storage space etc) It is not left to the market to deliver these outcomes. The design standards create a safety net to ensure New York doesn’t get poor quality development. We should have the same here.

    1. “venitlation, circulation space”

      Both in building act.

      “minimum floor areas ”

      This example breaches the minimum floor area requirement.

      “storage space ”

      We should also dictate minimum oven size, fridge size and dishwasher size. People are incapable of observing the size of them /sarc

    2. Good design is about making a complex set of trade-offs within a given set of constraints to get the best outcome. Planning rules for things like circulation spaces, ventilation, natural light are a blunt tool that only increase the constraints the designer must work within, limiting their ability to make favourable trade-offs within the bounds of the other non-regulatory constraints. Of course I agree that good design matters, I just don’t agree that using blunt restrictive planning rules is the best way to achieve it.

      1. “Of course I agree that good design matters, I just don’t agree that using blunt restrictive planning rules is the best way to achieve it.”

        So what’s the best way?

    3. “If small studio apartments is all the market provides then you kind of are forced into living in one.” – That is true but it will take many, many decades before your choices are that limited. We aren’t talking about starting with a city from scratch here but the Auckland we have now – one full of houses on sections and little else.

    4. I don’t think anyone is suggesting council should mandate that only small apartments should be built. In the absence of regulations, why would a free market produce only small studio apartments? Large 3 bedroom apartments can be immensly profitable too.

  11. In the early Modern era governments granted monopolies to a few favoured individuals. They had the monopoly to import a range of products including rope and even playing cards. Even NZ dabbled in this practice and enriched a few families (oil and cars) at the expense of the wider population. Right now we have another form of monopoly when it comes to housing. The Government, central and local, have created policies that restrict the supply of dwellings and limit individual property rights. The massive increase in house prices is not a natural phenomenon but rather very deliberate and careful policies to enrich a few at the expense of the others. Just as the state cannot plan the economy as a whole neither can they plan a component of economy such as housing let alone individual choices in housing. The Unitary Plan is a step in the right direction in restoring the property rights of individuals but it should go much further. Right now, the government has granted a monopoly to individual property owners; it should be remember that access to the city centre is a resource and people are paying a significant premium to live close to the city. It’s time to remove the restrictions and allow the market to actually work and provided the choices that individuals want rather than Soviet style planning and distribution.

    1. “Soviet style planning and distribution” actually created many examples of extremely effective and affordable apartment-living for a huge number of low-income people, even if aesthetics were not always paramount.

      Soviet-style apartment living could be comfortable as well as affordable with necessities like municipally-provided heating simply included in the rental (or rates, for those since sold off).

      One aspect that characterises many Soviet-era developments is that they were not designed around mass-use of cars, and this meant recreational and play-space between buildings instead of carparks. Although cars are now steadily encroaching, even today residents that want them often still have to keep them or garage them remotely from the housing complexes.

      For all its faults, I am not aware that the Soviet Union had a problem with homelessness or people forced to sleep in cars. Unfortunately post-Soviet Russia now does have these problems.

      1. Actually, the Soviet Union had huge problems housing people for a *long* time after World War II. Planning bureaucracies allocated most resources to heavy industrial projects, leading to chronic difficulties rebuilding the housing that had been destroyed in the war and housing people being “reallocated” from rural areas. Housing shortfalls lasted for decades, and even after people got housed it was often in terrible communal flats without much privacy. By contrast, in Western Europe, parts of which suffered similar levels of destruction, rebuilding happened within a decade.

        >Wikipedia on the topic:

        Industrialization brought more people from rural areas to the cities. As few new housing units were built immediately after the war, an already severe housing shortages became worse. Eventually, chronic housing shortages and overcrowding required an extensive program of new construction. As a result, most communist countries adopted the solution used in the USSR which included strict limits on the living space to which each person was entitled. Generally, each person was entitled to about 9-10 square meters (100 square feet). Often, more than one person had to share the same room. Two or more generations of the same family would often share an apartment originally built for only one nuclear family. There was no space allocated to separate living and dining areas.

      2. ” is that they were not designed around mass-use of cars, and this meant recreational and play-space between buildings instead of carparks” – Having lived in a Soviet era apartment block in Krc, Prague, I completely agree.

        I was very apprehensive when I moved in but it was a great experience. The apartment was warm and comfortable for me and my flat mate as well as very cheap.

        There were schools and supermarkets close by as well as a 5min bus ride to the Metro station. As you say, in between the towers there were football fields and parks for children. There were often children out playing until the sun went down.

        It was also located right next to a forest. I am sure if all those people had been put into stand alone housing that forest would have been built on.

      3. Did a google search and found an article from 1988 outlining the homeless problem in the USSR As in most things in the Soviet Union anything they didn’t like was handled in the usual manner.
        Also it is possible that the Soviets could come up with a nice place to live just that usually the outcome was poor as in every single other aspect of the economy. In addition, what the Russians today is not a free-market but rather a more feudal economy where loyalty to the government is given special economic privileges.

        1. OK, I stand corrected (about Soviet homelessness). I guess I believed the propaganda that there wasn’t any. However I was aware that multiple families sharing small apartments was a reality for many.

  12. Some good points here – particularly on the role of bank lending practices in shaping the city.

    But I don’t buy the idea that we need to abandon all design standards in Auckland to ensure developers build enough to make housing affordable. From what I can see, this is the thrust of the IHP’s argument for throwing out most design standards.

    There’s a good case for specifying some minimal standards (light, size, ventilation, acoustics) that go beyond our very minimal building code:

    1. Housing sits around for a long time, uses tonnes of materials and occupies valuable urban land for 50 – 100+ years. It’s not like clothing or an iphone that’s a personal good that you can easily replace when you don’t like it. Ensuring long-lived housing assets are fit for purpose over the multiple generations of occupants who will use them is critical.

    2. If poor quality housing is built – it won’t be thrown out but will be lived in by someone over the life of the asset – particularly if there’s a housing shortage. Exploitation exists. And poor design features like inadequate ventilation, daylight, size have demonstrable effects on occupants’ health and wellbeing.

    3. In a context where 50%+ of home purchasers are investors not occupiers, a minimal set of regulations protects tenants’ and future occupants’ interests who are easily forgotten when short-term investment returns are the main motivation for buyers.

    I know regulations like minimum floor size are blunt instruments. But most regulation is – and a democratically-agreed set of minimum housing standards is quite reasonable to insist on. Whether you regulate through the Building Act or Unitary Plan is a technical argument. The fact is our current building code is minimal – and I can’t see it being updated substantially any time soon. In the meantime we have a review of the planning code that represents an opportunity to ensure the next 400,000+ homes built for Auckland are minimally decent for their occupants.

    1. “ventilation, daylight, size have demonstrable effects on occupants’ health and wellbeing”

      What effect does a small apartment have? Happiness, proximity, free time due to reduced need to clean? Perhaps we should restrict large dwellings.

    2. I think there is certainly a case for regulating the invisible aspects of apartments like insulation, ventilation, and noise and you’re right that it’s a technical argument whether this is regulated through the unitary plan or building code. I do however think this is best addressed through the building code. All dwellings need to get building consent anyway so a strengthened code could enable these issues to be addressed without adding another layer of bureaucracy to contend with in the form of additional resource consent matters.

      1. Exactly, the building code should be up to standard. Many things people are ‘scared about’ with apartments are not planning / RMA issues.

      2. Agree, I think this is a building code issue. Under the RMA, I don’t think you could actually have a rule which places more stringent controls on housing than is set in the building code. The building code currently sets out minimum standards which, when met, Central Government considers provides an acceptable level on on-site amenity, is healthy, fit-for-purpose etc. (whether you agree with where the standards are set or what they cover is a different matter). In that context, any PAUP rules which exceed those standards couldn’t be considered necessary to avoid/remedy/mitigate any identifiable ‘adverse effects’ as other pieces of legislation/ regulation have already essentially determined the threshold for what can be considered an adverse effect. There is no use having countless pieces of legislation, regulations, plans etc that contradict one another.

  13. In 2000s a lot of novice buyers saw beautiful off the plan marketing pictures of beautiful apartments. Unforunate they were misleaded, and instead they bought a leasehold, leaky, poor design, cold, damp, poor sound isolation, poor material, doggy bodycorp tiny apartment.

    How can we protect the consumers not be tricked again?
    Industry self-regulation won’t work.

    1. Probably by treating it as a proper investment class run by professional managers rather than having a bunch of novices buy property and hope it works out. I certainly wouldn’t trade shares or FX on my own account, not sure why property would be any different.

      Also the building code is improved since then and council inspections and compliance (all that pesky red tape that some of our mayoral candidates are keen to ‘streamline’) is more diligent.

  14. Quite a few years ago the size of the so-called shoebox apartments was an election issue, and from memory the current regulations grew out of that. If there is a desire to reintroduce the small apartments, why not make it an election issue again, there is one this year. I think the problem then was that Aucklanders were seeing for the first time what they thought the intensification of their city could mean with the rows of apartment buildings in plain view as they left the motorway at Nelson Street, all with their washing flapping from the balconies – “it looks worse than a Hong Kong slum” was one common comment. Those apartments might be perfect for some people – vacancy signs are conspicuous by their absence – but to the voters at large they represented the worst aspects of inner city living, and it was the voters from wider Auckland that held sway.

    1. So why should anyone get to tell other people that their dwelling must be of a certain size? So they don’t have to look at them? That is a ludicrous argument, I don’t like looking at cars, I’m not going to call for a ban on them!

  15. Actually there is nothing wrong with a shoebox shaped small apartment. The real problem is those shoebox apartment built in 2000s are also associated with low quality construction, insulation, design and sunlight shading.

  16. It’s interesting how people pretend to be concerned about certain issues, when really they’re just using them because they support the same outcome they want for other reasons.

    People who want to stop Skypath users going past their houses pretend to be concerned about safety and the numbers of exits on enclosed structures. Supermarket owners that want to stop competition pretend to be concerned about the environmental impact of new retail developments. People who want to be able to drive with less congestion pretend to be concerned about the impact of road pricing on lower income families. People who want to protect their property values and oppose change pretend to be concerned about good quality building and design.

    1. It’s not about protecting our own property values or opposing change – people can be concerned by something which has no direct impact on their personal lives.
      We have examples in the CBD of badly built, badly designed, apartment blocks (hello Nelson/Hobson Sts), plus huge numbers of leaky buildings throughout the country. We have a chance to learn from these mistakes and make sure that Auckland in 20 years time is a city we can be proud of. This means making sure that we end up with well-designed, well-built dwellings of all sizes, to accommodate a wide range of needs. Whether the market can be trusted to deliver, or needs regulations, is worth discussing.

      1. “badly built, badly designed, apartment blocks ”

        If they are hugely popular then are they badly designed? Everyone derides them but there is clearly a great market for them and I actually really like them.

        Leaky building and poorly built building are nothing to do with minimum apartment size. They are the result of a disastrous relaxation of the building act which most people aren’t fit to judge by inspection, not small apartments which people can judge even if they literally can not see.

  17. I 100% concur with this article. I have always detested minimum apartment sizes and balcony sizes too for that matter. It really is over regulation and intrusive assumption making about what people need/desire.
    Good call panel!

    1. or:

      Small apartments are like big houses. If you don’t like them, don’t get one.

      Except that due to our fine zoning code, in a lot of areas big houses is the only thing getting built. Ooooops!

  18. For all the fear of investors snapping up shoeboxes and turning them into slums, I have a simple policy solution that I would like the smarter people on this site to contemplate, cause I see nothing wrong on it. Here it is:
    “for a house(apartment/garage) to get accommodation allowance, this must have a wof”.
    No wof, no taxpayer money, thanks. Then you’ll see cowboy property investors disappear overnight.

    1. I would suggest apartments selling off plan must be includes grading standards by set by nz architecture association.

      It is similar to home appliance that list power and water efficiency.

      Instead it set a score to a set of ‘liveability’ criteria according to architecture association ‘best practices’.

    2. Great suggestion. Funnily enough, that’s happened in many other countries: poor home = reduced public funding. Back when I worked in the uk the Decent Homes Standard and Ecohomes got applied to social housing; led to major upgrades for large volumes of dodgy older stock.

      I don’t see government thinking that way yet, but someone should tell Bill that it could save him lots of money in the IRRS budget…

  19. for all the talk of the ills of small apartments, no one seems to have considered whether minimum apartment size regulations are effective at achieving their stated goal.

    From what I can tell, they don’t reduce over-crowding, improve ventilation etc. Instead, they increase the cost of living and cause more people to share the same dwelling, rather than inhabit their own. So the choice is not between one person in a 20sqm apartment (without minimum apartment size regulations) or one person in a 30sqm apartment (with minimum apartment size regulations).

    The choice is actually between one person in a 20sqm apartment or two people in a 30sqm apartment. TradeMe shows how Auckland’s high housing costs, exacerbated by regulations like minimum apartment sizes, has resulted in overcrowding of dwellings that are too large for the people’s incomes. Same thing for standalone houses.

    Personally, I don’t but the minimum apartment size regulations at all, primarily because I think they’re ineffective at reducing the problem they purport to solve: Over-crowding.

    1. I dont think reducing overcrowding was ever a stated goal of minimum flat sizes. I think it was always about providing enough space for people to live reasonable lives. Even if minimum sizes works against overcrowding we can still do both- have a minimum and build more to reduce overcrowding. Smoking contributes to GDP but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to reduce smoking and work at increasing GDP.

      1. well I’m confused. Here I was thinking that reducing overcrowding was equivalent to providing more space for people, but you’ve just suggested they’re not. Please explain.

        1. I am saying you can have minimum sizes for flats and you can build more houses so people dont have to be overcrowded. But as you are an economist I am not surprised you are confused Stu. Life is more complex than the ceteris paribus assumption. You seem to be assuming everything else must be held constant and the only two things we can do are either set minimum house sizes or deal with overcrowding.

        2. Mwfic you’ve still got me confused.

          We’re talking about minimum apartment sizes. My point was that the goal of this particular policy seems to be to increase the size of dwellings so as to reduce crowding. You argued otherwise, but didn’t actually identify what this alternative policy objective might be. Feel free to enlighten us.

          You’ve now suggested that we can 1) apply minimum apartment size rules but 2) build more houses some other way to mitigate the impacts of the regulation. This seems irrelevant to the topic at hand, especially when you’re silent on the details of the policy changes that would be required to leave people as equally well off as they were without the regulations.

          What regulations would you relax to ensure that suffcient dwellings were able to be built in a location and at a price point that is comparable to what would have been delivered without the minimum apartment size rules? Please explain.

          Not sure what ceteris paribus assumption has to do with the price of fish and chips.

        3. “Feel free to enlighten us.” Sure Stu. You have defined the goal of minimum house sizes as reducing overcrowding. My first point is I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that is the goal. Second you have suggested having two people living together is overcrowding, again I think you could be on your own there. You have then baldly stated that it is a choice between 2 people in 30sqm or 1 in 20sqm. Why? What is to stop two people living in 20sqm? How will you stop a single person having a partner, or a baby, or even a partner and a baby? But having determined that minimum sizes increases overcrowding you then assume that there are no other ways of reducing overcrowding ergo society must choose between minimum apartment sizes or reducing overcrowding.

        4. John – in your comment above you offered links to studies on the adverse health and social effects of overcrowding as evidence for why small apartments are bad. Given that you haven’t offered any specific evidence on the negative health effects of living in a small apartment, as opposed to living in an overcrowded dwelling, it’s reasonable to assume that reducing overcrowding *is* your goal.

          You’ve offered some hypotheticals, like “what if two people cram into 20m2?” But we could easily ask the same questions about *any* type of dwelling, e.g.: “What if ten people cram into a three-bedroom house?” or “What if a family lives in a garage?” Do you think those hypotheticals imply a case to ban three-bedroom houses or garages?

        5. Peter we already have planning rules that are supposed to stop garages being used as houses and yes I support those rules otherwise someone will convert a storage facility into a housing development. The fact that garages are used as emergency shelter is different to planning to use a shed as a home. Similarly I support the idea of not allowing someone building a cupboard and calling it an apartment. Seriously do you not see the point of some lower limit on apartment sizes? At least in a trailer park you are on the ground level and can move outside in warm weather and create some space between people. I know limits are not ‘efficient’ but when there is demand for appalling conditions we are supposed to collectively help.

        6. If you want to help, you should offer up your spare bedroom to someone living in a car. Not ban the production of affordable units that don’t meet your aesthetic preferences.

          If there was strong evidence (or any empirical evidence, really) that living in a small apartment harmed people, I’d support some restrictions. The problem is that rather than *providing* that evidence, people start ranting about “slums” and “dogboxes”. I wrote my master’s thesis on informal settlements in developing countries, and on the back of that I can categorically state that small apartments in Auckland *do not* qualify as slums.

          Take a look at UN-Habitat’s criteria for identifying housing deprivation. The only one that applies in the NZ context is overcrowding, which is defined as 3+ people per room. But crowding is more common in low-density suburban areas than in the city centre.

        7. “Seriously do you not see the point of some lower limit on apartment sizes?”

          No, many of us don’t and you haven’t articulated one. It seems like the point is for you to tell someone else how to live.

  20. The problem with shoebox apartments is that in a market with a supply shortage, they become the default entry level price – and not necessarily any cheaper. Other options just become more expensive. I find the whole argument of a ‘market will decide’ what people want strangely duplicitous given the total market failure in our current housing market whereby more and more people have no choice at all.

  21. I don’t think minimum apartment sizes have been promoted just to prevent overcrowding. In my experience, they have been promoted to provide a certain so called level of amenity for inhabitants.
    I find it all really arbitrary, and overly intrusive, and value laden.
    The same applies to outdoor space. Who says I need a 6m wide outdoor space for it to work for me? Maybe I only want / need a very small courtyard with space for a seat or two and small BBQ. Or in the case of an apartment, no balcony (I’ve lived in two apartments without balconies that were wonderful) Who is to say that is wrong?
    Planners / urban designers???
    The conventional planning approach is that this is wrong, and that I MUST have an outdoor space of X, Y and Z.
    I personally detest that, but I am apparently in a small minority of planners who seem to think that. I’ve had a few odd looks over the years when I have argued this…
    But then I am a very libertarian and non-dogmatic planner.
    In the Proposed Queenstown District Plan I pushed getting rid of private open space requirements, and the plan as notified achieved that. But I bet there is better than even chance that they will be in there in the final decision….
    Again, well done IHP in Auckland!

  22. “Why should they be denied the option of paying less money for less space?”

    Actually, you pay a heck of a lot more for space with apartments than you do houses. Generally speaking, apartments are around 10 to 20 times more expensive per square metre than a house, sometimes more.

    Which highlights the silliness of such statements as “not everybody wants to pay for a parking space on their property”. The cost of an unused parking space on a section is cheaper than not having that space at all in an apartment.

    1. Sorry but that is complete bullshit Geoff. The average house in Auckland is 202m2 and costs $990,000. That’s 4,900 per square metre of house. The idea that apartments cost fifty to a hundred grand per square metre is clearly lunacy.

      If you’re looking for cheap floor area a house is the worst place to go.

    2. Let’s see, my apartment is 38 m². I’m sure the owner will be happy to sell it to you for about $1.5M.

      Actual prices seem to hover around $300k these days, which is more expensive per m² than houses, but I think it’s a safe assumption that high-rise costs more per m² to build than low-rise.

      And also surface parking is a bit cheaper in suburbs, but assuming a land cost of $1k per m², that’s still at least $20,000 worth of land sitting under your driveway and parking space.

      1. Yes houses are generally cheaper per sqm than apartments but that doesn’t make them objectively cheaper. A $10 million farm will be cheaper per sq than a house but its not more affordable.

        1. That’s only if you arbitrarily decouple the cost of a house itself from the cost of the land it sits on. Given you can’t build a house without land then you can’t actually do that.

          If you want to go out and buy a given amount of housing, say three bedrooms with 100m2 of floor area, it will never be cheaper to do that with a standalone house.

          Or put another way, A 40m2 apartment for $300k is expensive, but show me where in Auckland you can buy a 40m2 house for less.

        2. We will never know, because 40m² houses are practically outlawed over here.

          The closest we get to tiny houses is just around the corner. There’s two small cottages hidden between these towers along Nicholas Street. One of them was sold last month, does anyone know how much it went for?

          And: if that 200m² mansion costs about $1M, that would count as $5k/m². That 1M includes land cost. That $300k for that apartment also includes land cost.

          Anyway, the real equation is as follows: suppose you’re one of the many 2-person households here in Auckland. If a 40m² apartment is large enough, then those extra m² in that house are wasted. So it’s simply $300k vs $1M and the apartment is only 30% of the price. Bargain. That is, IF apartments are allowed in the area you’re after.

          Now imagine we’re allowed to build low-rise apartments instead of that mansion, say 4 apartments of 40m² each. If we’re able to build that for a similar price as that 200m² house, that comes to $250k per apartment. And unless you do something really stupid when designing your lot, those apartments will have some common outdoor space, so you can still occasionally have your barbecue outside. Well, maybe I’m dreaming, but we could at least start by allowing these things in all our residential zones. It would be a good alternative to flatting in one of these big houses.

          (by the way, 200 m² average size? Who is going to live in all those mansions? I thought the average household over here has less than 3 people?)

        3. 3 person and less is well more than half. 2 people and less covers almost half of aucklands households.

        4. The average occupancy in 2013 census was 3.0. But approx 49% of households have only 1 or 2 occupants.

  23. In Queenstown much of the overcrowding is occurring in ‘spacious’ 4/5 bedroom homes rather than apartments. And that is largely a product of insufficient supply.

  24. There’s always been quite a lot of chatter about the ‘horrid’ CBD shoebox apartments.
    I have a very different take. Again, I preface this by saying I love good design and I’d always like to see better building design – but we live in an imperfect world, and there are always trade offs.
    The CBD is hugely more vibrant now than it was 20 years.That is not ‘all’ down to the huge increase in apartment living, but it’s a big part of it.
    If 15 years ago there had been high design and apartment size requirements, then I bet we wouldn’t have seen even half the apartments built. And the CBD would be much worse off for it.
    I place more weight on the use, function, activity, economics and affordability of cities than the aesthetics.
    But that’s just my view, and I respect that others place a lot more weight on aesthetics than the other things.

    1. “I place more weight on the use, function, activity, economics and affordability of cities than the aesthetics.”

      That’s a good point. Even Metro magazine, which has generally been pro-intensification, has described the Nelson Street apartments as “a disaster”. I just don’t think that’s true. Yes there could have been some better design and quality but people are too quick to overlook:
      – the contribution those apartments make to housing supply
      – that they enable many people to live near their jobs and universities
      – that they enable many people to live a low impact car free life
      – that much of the poor amenity of the area is due to the way the road corridor is treated.

      1. Precisely. Who is it the disaster for? The people that live there, and keep wanting to live there given the near zero vacancy rate of those buildings?

        Is it a disaster for the city centre, with all those extra people living, studying, working and shopping in town?

        Is it a disaster for society, have they created a den of crime and despair (I don’t think so).

        Who is the disaster for, the poor commuters who have to drive past those “ugly” buildings on the way to queuing up at their multi-storey parking building on the waterfront perhaps?

  25. I would also say that I wouldn’t have such a problem with minimum standards if I was confident council consent officers around the country would consistently use sound judgement , intelligence and common sense to consder clever departures from the minimums. But I simply don’thave that confidence as much as I would like to.

  26. Mfwic: comparing the tenements of old to a 30 square metre apartment like the one pictured in New York is fanciful.
    As others have pointed out, ‘overcrowding’ is an issue about space per person, not about the size of dwellings. A run-down old suburban house shared by six impecunious students is more overcrowded than a well-designed 30 square metre apartment occupied by a couple. When the couple want to have children they will almost certainly move out, and that’s fine.
    Issues about light, ventilation, sound insulation etc are, very properly, matters for the building code. If there are problems there, they should be tackled directly by building code conditions to do with those matters, not indirectly by legislating larger minimum dwelling sizes.

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