Housing’s magic bullet fails to fire


OPINION: From our back yard you can see Lake Wakatipu. Unfortunately for our neighbours, you can also see straight into their living room and kitchen.

Back in the day, the property sloped heavily down a fenceline to a corner point at the same level as the neighbour’s back yard.

But at some stage, a deck was built which afforded great views of the lake - and of next-door’s Sunday roast.

If the neighbours complained at the time onlookers might generally box them into two types: victims of injustice; or NIMBYs, the Not In My Back Yard types.

This small example of the fraught nature of property ownership, planning rules and consenting is relevant because the mother of all battles is looming over fast-tracked housing.

The logic for so-called ‘special housing area’ developments is clear.

The government says a lack of houses is pushing up prices – so if we build houses more quickly the district can catch up.

To get onto the fast-track, developers have to meet tests over things like being next to urban areas, being close enough to hook in to water and sewerage schemes, and vague notions of affordability.

Simple, right? Wrong.

First-off, this place has had a careful history of planning where houses should be built – including a veritable mountain of Environment Court decisions protecting the basin’s outstanding landscapes.

It would be madness just to tear that up.

On the face of it, some of these developments are smack-bang in rural areas - in places where the creaking infrastructure’s unable to cope. The NIMBYs might have a point there.

And when the houses are built, who’s to say they’ll go to first-time buyers?

This place is crawling with cashed-up investors.

Many of them are from overseas - the last census says 32.3 per cent of people who live here were born offshore, compared to a national average of 25.2 per cent.

There’s nothing wrong with wealthy people. They help make Queenstown what it is by spending their money here.

The thing is, if you’ve got a few extra quid sitting around there are worse investments than the local property market.

When I first hit Queenstown in 1997 the average house price was $185,600. That skyrocketed to $585,100 last year.

If someone bought in the ’90s they may well have doubled their money without even painting a wall. But back to today and special housing areas, I wonder if everyone’s ready to go.

If you offer a house-and-land package at “affordable” prices today – on quite a small plot, it seems - there will be people who haven’t saved their deposit and others who haven’t moved here yet.

By the time people get their act together, stage four of the subdivision might be offering slightly bigger sections for more money. Or investors might sell at the “real” market price.

There’s nothing right now to stop people buying two, three or four sections.

Residential development in this area is rife with stories of property speculators buying multiple sections and flicking them on for a healthy profit.

So who’s getting the helping hand? Without ironclad protections it might be developers and speculators – which adds heat to the housing market.

Yes, the very beast we’ve created to solve the housing crisis might end up making it worse.

Where’s Queenstown’s council in all this? Last week it had the chance to mandate affordable housing components for fast-tracked subdivisions. It chose to leave it to developers.

That seems a bit weak. In 10 years, I predict the councillors of the day will be having the same debate.

Let’s hope they’ve taken their concrete pills and take a tougher line - which is actually in the interests of the community they serve.