The government shocked everyone yesterday as Minister of Housing Megan Woods and Minister for the Environment David Parker held a joint press conference in the beehive theatrette with Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins and Opposition Housing Spokesperson Nicola Willis.
The only thing more surprising was what they were actually announcing: New Zealand is abolishing single family zoning.
This is unequivocally fantastic. The government’s housing program, while good in many respects, has been plagued with a big hole which this reform will go a long way to fill.
Building on top of the NPS-UD, the government will be forcing councils to allow people to build as-of-right up to three homes of up to three storeys on most sites in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch. This is similar to the rules we have in Auckland currently in the Mixed Housing Urban Zone (MHU) – our second densest residential zone, which makes up about a fifth of our residential land area.
In fact, the government’s proposed rules (called the Medium Density Residential Standards, or MDRS) take things a step further with curtailed recession planes. The current rules under MHU mean that you cannot build up to the 3 story height limit in the parts of site within 8 metres of the boundary, while the updated rules mean that restriction only applies within about 2.8 meters.
As I’ve written about previously, these differences can be more dramatic than you think: for a typical suburban Auckland site, this would be a 50% increase in dwellings, and may be the difference between a project being viable or not. Having fewer per-lot restrictions also means more developments can proceed without amalgamation (combining adjacent lots into a single, larger lot), which is incredibly important for producing a fine-grained urbanism that makes a neighbourhood feel more human.
The real kicker is that this means all but Auckland’s THAB zoned areas will be up-zoned. This represents a staggering 92% of Auckland’s residential area. PWC estimates this may mean up to 50,000 extra homes in Auckland over the next 5 years.
Upzoning everywhere is important as it not only increases capacity, but choice. It means an older couple trying to downsize aren’t forced out of their neighborhood. It means students & families aren’t bidding against each other for housing which doesn’t actually suit either of their needs.
Having a minimum density everywhere is also important for supporting investment in things like transport, shops, schools, parks. This ensures that people’s basic needs are met within their neighborhood while being able to access things like a big job market that a big city provides.
This updated NPS-UD package also brings forward the timeline, and takes a stab at solving the issue that has plagued the NPS since its inception: councils who are disinterested in the entire project. At every, single, turn, Auckland Council has taken the literal interpretation of the document to undermine or dodge its plain intentions. Consequently, government have produced a new Intensification Streamlined Planning Process (ISPP). Auckland Council will notify their intensification plan in August 2022, before it goes to an independent panel who will make recommendations. Council are allowed to disagree with those recommendations, but if they do, its taken out of their hands and the Minister for the Environment makes the final call in August 2023.
The council’s response
Medium density everywhere is an opportunity to massively improve the design of our buildings, our quality of life, and how our buildings contribute to the vitality of the city. The MRDSs propose a set of minima that the Unitary Plan must at least implement, but that doesn’t mean that council should simply stop there. The recent infill and townhome boom has meant homes have been more abundant and affordable than they otherwise would have been, but it has also brought (fixable) issues.
While Wellington City Council took an aggressive approach to allow vastly more six story development around their city centre, it also voted to endorse the application of universal design principles for new housing stock. A similar approach here would be more than welcome, as many 3 storey walk-up apartments don’t even provide ramps on the ground floor, let alone elevators to access the above ones. Housing choice cannot simply be housing choice for some, especially as medium density typologies are most often useful for elderly folk who don’t need much floorspace, and often can no longer legally drive, so must live closer to public transport and shops.
Beauty and Design
Beauty matters, but beauty is a luxury good. In a buyer’s market, it’s prioritised as people want to live in beautiful places. In a seller’s market it’s ignored as developers can mass produce ugly for a quick buck. The issue is that for us to get from where we are today (a seller’s market) to where we want and need to be (a buyer’s market), we need to mass produce housing.
People can often agree on aesthetics, but beauty does not conform to a set of well-defined rules. We could theoretically rely on panels of architects and urban designers to make aesthetic judgements on a case-by-case basis, but they would quickly drown under the volume required to dig us out of the housing shortage, while adding a lot of uncertainty that would disincentivise development right as we need it.
Therefore, we need to take an approach of harm-reduction while buyers are able to wrestle back control of the housing market. The simplest way to accomplish this? Street trees.
Council needs to make sure that as we see our population growth, that our infrastructure keeps up. There’s no reason that 100% of the growth in trips from additional population doesn’t come from public and active modes, and in fact we should expect it to be greater than 100% as the widespread population density makes running faster and more frequent public transport services more viable.
Road reallocation can offer this in a way which does not significantly burden ratepayers, but requires the political confidence to deliver programs like connected communities. AT should be bold, looking to use the NPS as a mandate to get these necessary changes over the line.
Given that we may expect a lot of neighbourhoods adjacent to public transport to be redeveloped, we should also be actively looking for opportunities to rebuild with public pedestrian connections to bus stops, especially where streets are not laid out in a traditional grid pattern.
How will these changes affect your community, and what could council do to make those changes the best they could be?