Herald on Sunday
HOW TO FIX THE HOUSING CRISIS
This is a story about housing supply and how we can get more of it. It’s not about the increased cost of housing or the difficulty young people face getting their first home. It’s about the fact we need more homes.
It’s based on the knowledge that for some years we haven’t built enough homes to shelter the increasing population. Cost and supply are related, but if there’s to be a discussion about buying homes, there need to be homes to buy.
“At the moment we’re producing under 7000 homes a year in Auckland,” says Professor John Tookey, head of AUT’s Department of Built Environment. “We need 15,000 a year, so year on year we’re getting a bigger gap.”
One way to close the gap may be to think differently about the kind of dwellings we inhabit.
Maybe we can’t continue to live in free-standing houses on their own patch of land.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of those. Whether you’ll like them or not is a different matter.
TRIGGER WARNING Nimbys may find most aspects of this
story distressing. Paul Little reports.
MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Medium-density living has been Auckland City Council policy since whenever, and forms the basis of the Unitary Plan.
This is a European-style model of semi-self-sufficient communities connected by streamlined public transport linking to each other and to the natural assets that are our borders: the Waitemata and Manukau harbours and the Waitakere Ranges. It involves encouraging construction of a variety of homes, notably groups of low-rise apartment buildings clustered around parks, shops, transport hubs and other facilities.
And it has been opposed, brick by brick, every step of the way, by Nimbys who think it sounds like a great thing to do, but only if it’s done over there.
But the Nimbys are becoming outnumbered by other, younger people who are making themselves heard. There are signs overseas the backyard worm may be turning, as millennials identifying as Yimbys (Yes In My Backyarders) advocate a housing revolution.
In cities “from Seattle to Sydney, Austin to Oxford” reports the
Guardian, groups are organising themselves and demanding housing — any housing — be built, but preferably high-density and supported by public transport that would obviate the need for cars.
The modest medium-density plans for Auckland seem like a sophisticated and civilised option in the face of such rip, shit and bust activism.
Apartment towers are historically the least-favoured solution, yet they fit more folks per floor than any other. One reason towers have not found much favour here is we like being able to see a fair whack of sky wherever we are, and we enjoy the views of our precious volcanoes from so many points.
We have also been put off by the perception of the UK’s postwar public housing towers. These form the seedy background to innumerable TV crime dramas and dystopian novels, with their alienated inhabitants, graffiti spattered stairwells doubling as drug markets, and sheer ugliness.
Which is a pity, because there is no reason why they shouldn’t work if the earlier problems are acknowledged and addressed.
“Certainly there were mistakes with towers in terms of technology,” says Tookey.
“You do need outdoor areas at altitude. People don’t want to have to get in a lift and travel to go outside. You need roof gardens.” And the rest. Last year the
Financial Times reported a revival of interest in high-rise living, made more palatable by such innovations as events spaces, tennis courts, playgrounds and even, God help us, community festivals. Open air gyms or children’s playgrounds can be provided at several levels. It seems the sky’s the limit .
If you play well with others, coop housing may be the option for you. Auckland architect Thom Gill of Studio Nord is involved in a project called cohaus, a form of co-operative housing originating in Europe. It works well, he reports, with eight groups, but works best when there are 15-25 households involved.
He sums up the advantages of co-operative housing as: “The alignment of incentives. Good-quality housing that lasts a long time — becausetheownersaregoingtolive in it themselves; reasonably priced with money spent on the right things — because it’s the owners’ money and they determine how it is being spent; positive contribution to the local community — because the owners are going to be part of that community themselves.”
As for the buildings, co-housing takes a range of forms.
“The important thing about it is a pre-existing group of people who are all working together. The people have to form up beforehand.”
He has the people — 14 households ready and willing — for an Auckland development.
Much of the bricks and mortar will be familiar to those living with a body corporate: “The whole site is held in common — everybody shares ownership and use of the landscaping and the courtyards.”
Beyond that, “We’re looking at having a common room that is a flexible space for parties or dinners. There could be a big bike shed because lots of people are keen on cycling, with charging points for electric bikes. We’re also interested in a pair of shared cars that would be owned by the body corporate, so people can ditch their own cars but a car will still be available.”
And then there are the social advantages. The complex is designed, says Gill, “to subtly encourage people to run into each other. That’s different from apartments where privacy is first and foremost.
“In our case, there’s a common pathway around the inside of a courtyard leading to most of the units, which is how you get to your front door. You pass other people’s doors and run into people.
“Fundamentally it’s more sociable.”
A quarter of New Zealand homes have just one occupant, so it’s clear they do not need a kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms designed for a family of four or more. And perhaps they could share facilities with other residents.
Japan, where limited space and a large population have long driven innovative housing solutions, has some conspicuous examples of purpose-built shared accommodation.
A standout project that will presumably inspire many imitators is a three-level, 12 bedroom, shared occupancy home in Nagoya, designed by Naruse-Inokuma Architects. It combines individual bedrooms with shared kitchens, living spaces and bathrooms. The firm aimed to make it easy “for complete strangers to naturally continue to share spaces with one another”. The living spaces, for instance, are designed to work equally for large groups or just for one or two people.
If this home is the gold standard, around the world there are less sophisticated examples of shared housing, including traditional student flat arrangements where the students are middle-aged professional and business people.
In many cases family homes and the traditional sections they stand on are under-utilised. The kids move out and — somehow — find their own home and start a family.
Meanwhile Mum and/or Dad cling to the original family home until both die and the kids can finally sell it and get access to some of the capital locked up in it.
If regulations were eased to make the building of a “granny flat” on that section a straightforward
process, Mum and/or Dad could move in there and the next generation family could live and grow in the main house.
The laws about what is or isn’t a granny flat and what can or can’t be done with it have traditionally been confusing so may need to be rationalised.
It’s not a permanent long-term solution — it really only works for one generation — but it would easily and cheaply double the number of homes without taking up any more land than that currently being used to accommodate a clothes line, a barbie and a trailer.
Or “Honey, I shrunk the granny flat”, because if you can fit one granny flat on a section you can probably fit two micro-houses, usually defined as a dwelling of about 50sq m. But there are micro-houses and there are micro-houses.
Architect Sally Ogle of Wellington firm Patchwork Architecture, designs “mostly small houses — 100sq m rather than 200sq m. That’s a sensible way of making places cheaper and fit on smaller pieces of land.” She thinks the micro-home concept is often misunderstood, quoting one example that “wasn’t a house, it was an uninsulated shed”.
The difference between a micro-home and a shipping container with a window cut in it is the former has to have plumbing and there are numerous zoning and other obstacles to overcome if it’s to be official. “Anything with plumbing, you need consent for, regardless of size,” says Ogle. Although micro-houses might be adequate for a singleton or a couple, she points out they don’t suit any larger unit than that.
THE WASTE LANDS
The solutions listed here are in general based on the belief we have used up enough of our not-so-wide open spaces and need to preserve as much as possible of what’s left for recreation, growing food and general ecological wellbeing.
However, many pieces of land are being used in wasteful if not extravagant ways.
When was the last time you drove past a golf course and said to yourself: “Wow, look at that place — it’s packed!” We almost certainly have more golf courses than we need: 22 in the greater Auckland area. In fact, we are “second in the world for the number of courses per capita for the population of 4 million, so getting on the tee is never a problem”, boasts golf.co.nz.
Likewise, pockets of industrial land are lying semi-dormant. Imaginative re-use of industrial sites is common around the world and could be made to work here.
Car yards take up a vast amount of valuable urban space. And do we really need all those demolition sites where tonnes of timber and scrap metal take up space for years waiting for someone to find them a home — or to use them to make one?
MIX THE GENERATIONS
This is hardly a new idea — it’s how domestic life used to be structured and still is in many societies. So don’t kick Gran out — keep her in the spare room. You get free babysitting and homespun advice. Having the kids around will keep her young and healthy. And the kids will have an objective third party to whinge to when you can’t be bothered being reasonable with them.
In Europe, they’ll tell you this is why several generations live under the same roof. But the main reason is because it means they don’t need as much housing as they otherwise would.
THE MARAE MODEL
This is a possible version of co-op housing modelled specifically on the marae structure. Its viability is one of many visionary programmes being researched under a little-known government initiative, costing many millions of dollars and called the National Science Challenge, where it comes under the heading “Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities”.
Ella Henry, lecturer in the Faculty of Māori Indigenous Development at AUT, stresses it is early days, but: “Those of us in the Māori research team believe traditional Māori community or neighbourhood models may still be applicable in a contemporary environment.
“All that means is a community that cares about having a community centre, gardens, childcare, walkability for elders and finding roles for elders as volunteers or workers in childcare. Those are the fundamental principles of traditional Māori and they translate well to a contemporary setting.”
What’s new is that these marae will go not out but up — say to three storeys, because a number of Treaty settlements involve smallish blocks of land in urban areas, such as those held by Ngati Whatua in Orakei and Ngati Paoa in Point England.
A visitor could expect to feel “like they were walking onto a marae. For instance it could have a gateway like that at the Aotea Centre, which is philosophical rather than practical, but can be used as that on certain occasions.”
John Tookey preaches a pre-fabricated solution to the housing shortage.
Our use of pre-fab housing goes back to colonial days, when components were shipped out from the old country and assembled here. Like improved high rises, today’s pre-fab homes have corrected the errors of the past, most notoriously exemplified in the post-war US cookie-cutter community of Levittown, Pennsylvania.
The current construction model means “every house is its own supply chain — there is no consolidation of demand by having a consolidated ordering schedule,” says Tookey. You build one house. Then you build the next house, which slows down building.
Prefabrication, he points out, does not mean conformity. After all, many different Mazdas are on the market but “five models are produced on the same production line in a factory in Hiroshima”.
Streamlined production is the answer because “if we’re providing half as many homes as we need to, there’s only two ways you can go. You either double the number of people building homes or double their productivity. Or a mix.”
His views are echoed by Associate Professor Masa Noguchi of the University of Melbourne’s School of Design, a prophet of the oxymoronic “mass customisation”. He explains: “Market research says today’s consumers are no longer satisfied with generic, monotonous products.”
But opposing forces at either end of the supply equation are at work: “Builders, to achieve mass delivery, try to enhance the level of product standardisation, but the market is demanding enhancement of the level of customisation to accommodate diverse ends and demands.”
Noguchi describes “a paradigm shift from mass production to mass customisation. Which means standardising many components to deliver customisable products. These components could be staircases, windows, doors, interior and exterior aspects.
“The buyer picks components and puts them together like Lego blocks. So the components are mass producible but the final products are customisable.”
Baby boomers are about to start dying in hitherto unprecedented numbers, leaving their properties to a generation that is smaller in number than theirs, improving the ratio of houses to people. So for many people in need of a home, the only thing they need to do is wait. But that is probably the least popular option of all.