Header image: affordable housing in London by architect Peter Barber
This is a guest post from Hayden Donnell
On Friday night’s episode of The Project, planner Graeme McIndoe conjured up what was intended as a frightening vision of a housing-filled future. If the government gets its way, homes will soon be allowed to be built metres apart, with living rooms overlooking bedrooms, he said. “There’s a risk it’ll be a disaster on the scale of the leaky home crisis,” he said.
McIndoe is one of a coterie of planners, politicians, and council officials campaigning in the media against the bipartisan Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Bill, which would allow three houses up to three storeys on sections zoned residential in major cities. These opponents fret that allowing new housing will mean having to deal with demolition waste. They complain that allowing people to build houses will mean having to service those developments with infrastructure. Most of all they fear the bill will enable – in their words – urban slums.
These concerns are overblown at best, and dishonest at worst. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are filled with the kind of “radical” three-storey housing this bill enables. How many of these critics have embarked on holiday jaunts around Europe, wandered the lanes of terraced housing, and remarked on their beauty, only to return home and devote themselves to ensuring the same thing can never happen here?
New Zealand media talking about how anything more than a single story house will remove all trees, sunlight and create ‘slums’ is frustrating.
Gentle reminder of what this looks like from my jaunts around Montreal Island. All I see are beautiful thriving neighborhoods. pic.twitter.com/Ga3jLxJCOP
— John (@johnage) November 23, 2021
You don’t have to go overseas to see medium density housing though. It’s also on display in places like Oriental Parade in Wellington, where three-storey apartments and townhouses rise off the footpath. Even in the swanky Auckland suburb of Ponsonby, villas sit within centimetres of each other.
Checked out the setbacks in some character areas today pic.twitter.com/WMZUj3ag1M
— Jon Turner (@JonTurnerNZ) November 5, 2021
These homes are held up as untouchable character buildings by many of the same people who would make them illegal under the government’s new plan. They were constructed before planners got their micromanaging mits on the architecture of our cities. Many of the design interventions imposed by our councils in recent decades have been infused with an urge to legally mandate the aesthetic preferences of the comfortably housed. That’s often been counterproductive. Setback rules have incentivised the “sausage flats” seen in many places across Auckland. Height-to-boundary ratios have limited density where it’s most desirable.
1/ THREAD: The Coalition for More Homes is pleased to share our alternative Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS). We acknowledge the bipartisan drafting of the Bill, something rarely done in Parliament. This is a strong acknowledgment of the seriousness the housing crisis. pic.twitter.com/dTJYRO4fzd
— Coalition For More Homes (@morehomesnz) November 11, 2021
Opponents of the government’s housing bill have made loud calls for a continuation of this persnickety approach. In its presentation to the select committee considering the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Bill, Auckland Council proposed a four-metre setback at the front of every property, to allow space big enough space for a mature tree. Apparently in Auckland, berms are reserved exclusively for parked cars.
Elsewhere, developer Nigel McKenna told the committee that medium density housing doesn’t suit Aotearoa because of our national addiction to grilling juicy steaks. “We have different needs. So densities that actually work in other countries don’t actually work here, because we actually do want to live outdoors and have barbecues,” he said. Auckland mayor Phil Goff shared that sentiment. “They’d love to have a bit of a barbecue on a front lawn,” he said, to justify his argument that barbecue-enabling layouts should be mandatory in new builds.
At their core, these proposed rules are less about incentivising better design than about stopping houses being built. It may be true that we love to barbecue, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal to not have space for one. People who’d rather eat takeaways, or who feel comfortable grilling skewers in a park, shouldn’t be forced to live in homes that don’t suit their needs. Neither should every renter have a mature pōhutukawa foisted upon their lawn.
it's tragic comedy watching @DarbyatCouncil and planners at @AklCouncil angst about setbacks for low-medium density housing, given that large areas of many thriving and wonderful cities have no setbacks.
Amsterdam, Vienna, Stockholm …
Can Auckland have nice things, too? pic.twitter.com/fbjXcJq64M
— Stu Donovan (@StuartBDonovan) November 17, 2021
At least these submissions focused on the people living in these new homes. In general, planners, politicians, and architects have been more worried about the impact new development will have on existing homeowners who have seen the value of their biggest assets rise 25% in the last year. Some have claimed new housing will “rob” these homeowners of sunlight, and proposed regulations to ward off that potential larceny. The Project presenter Laura Tupou opened the show’s segment on the housing bill with the words “could you wake up to find your neighbour building a three-storey house next to your place and there’s nothing you can do about it?”.
These complaints show how many of the people who are influential in shaping our cities are operating in reverse. A sensible approach to growth would ask first how to enable enough housing supply in the areas where it’s needed, then how to design that growth in the prettiest way possible. Instead they’ve flipped those considerations, asking first how to regulate and reshape development to make it suit the preferences of rich homeowners, then how many houses can be built once those concerns have been accommodated. The resulting rules are billed as creating liveable cities. In reality their main purpose is protecting privilege.
Look at any planning map from Auckland or Wellington, and you’ll see visual evidence of our councils’ overriding impulse to insulate the wealthy from the effects of development. City fringe suburbs in both centres have been virtually exempted from dense housing. In Auckland, Ponsonby, Herne Bay, Grey Lynn, Birkenhead, and Mt Eden all contain large expanses of single house zoning. In Wellington, the same is true for suburbs like Newtown and Mt Victoria.
These rules may limit development, but they don’t stop population growth. While many of the councils submitting on the housing bill complained about the potential it will cause sprawl, their own planning rules essentially make that sprawl inevitable. Their decisions to limit housing near city centres ensure growth is diffused to outlying areas. In Wellington, that means Upper Hutt. In Auckland, the most intensive development is taking place in working class suburbs like Massey and Henderson in the city’s west and Manukau in the south. A tour of those suburbs will show why the hand-wringing about sunlight and setbacks from the bill’s opponents rings hollow. Our cities are already filled with the kind of housing some of them have decried as “uglification”. They just never get as worked up about shading effects if they’re happening to poor people.
Henderson isn’t the only place helping keep Herne Bay preserved in amber. As the city fringe sits unchanged, developers are also paving over forests, wetlands and productive land to construct new satellite towns in greenfields areas in Millwater and Kumeu. Worse still, a portion of our city’s growth is being forced into crowded flats, emergency motels, and sometimes, cars.
On The Project, McIndoe concluded his interview with a warning. “Blinds will be drawn, they’ll be miserable places to live,” he said, of the housing the bill enables. But a new, warm house isn’t really a miserable place to live. A mouldy flat is a miserable place to live. So is a motel, or a car. The opponents of this bill talk a lot about slums, but the gross inequities of our housing crisis are far more likely to cause social and economic problems than any new building typology.
For too long, our councils and planners have been prioritising their fears of drawn blinds and absent barbeques over those very real harms. Now they’re asking us to listen to them again. But their concerns are a kind of Trojan horse. They’re designed to sound sympathetic, with appeals centred on stuff we all appreciate like sunlight and outdoor space. Open them up though, and it’s the same poisonous approach that’s already contributed to us having the worst housing crisis in the world. Politicians should be wary of taking advice on how to fix that crisis from the same people that helped cause it in the first place. Don’t let them inside the city walls.