Unitec housing won’t happen overnight

Bruce Morris heard all the spin and slogans at the announcement of Labour's big Mt Albert Kiwibuild project, but says there are 1001 issues yet to be resolved before it is reality.

This article first appeared on the website and is published here with permission.

There's nothing quite like a bit of nostalgia and a line of slogans to sell a political plan, and there was plenty on show at the Government’s unveiling of the vast Unitec residential development.

The name of the 1972-74 Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk popped up and so did his belief that “all Kiwis want is someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”.

Then there was Housing Minister Phil Twyford, who called the huge project “a showcase for the best of modern urban development” before outlining the aspiration “to create a place for people to put down roots and to live, work, learn and play for generations to come” and build “a supply chain of beautifully built modern homes for Kiwi families”.

Plenty of other talk, too, from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (“It is about rebuilding homes, but it’s also about rebuilding communities”) and Mayor Phil Goff down, about an attractive, modern response to keep people warm and happy.

Fair enough. After years of housing-market neglect from a National Government that did little to encourage stronger supply and virtually nothing to quell demand, the Labour-led coalition is rolling up its sleeves and starting in Mt Albert.

As Twyford declared: “This Government will not sit around while children are living in cars and families are cramped into overcrowded housing. We need bold action to solve this.”

But let’s not get too dewy-eyed. Or too rah-rah.

The vision of a lasting 21st-century equivalent to the state house programme that began in the 1930s under Michael Joseph Savage is at one end of the spectrum (without quite the emphasis on “state”). That’s the romantic end.

In the middle are major concerns over how 3000 to 4000 dwellings can be built in an inner-city suburb — one of Auckland’s oldest — that is already struggling with choked thoroughfares at peak hour and what effect the extra traffic will have on local streets, especially the little culs-de-sac and feeder roads that will eventually be opened up. And, of course, the hassle over many years of the construction work itself for those who live nearby.

On top of that, toss in worries about whether existing schools will be able to cope with the population gain, along with such standard issues as sewage, stormwater, shops and having enough green space, room to move and community facilities to support the grand vision of a place that everyone will love.

At the very end of the spectrum — as far away as you can get from the dream of a modern urban utopia — is the fear that it may all turn pear-shaped.

It’s easy to label someone an elitist spoilsport for daring to suggest a high-density, low-cost (for most) residential development has the potential to fail if care is not taken. But the last thing any Government wants is a brand-destroying legacy that looked good on paper but turned ugly.

The awful phrase “tomorrow’s slum” is already being bandied about by those who would probably like to see Labour fall flat on its face – and the Government must surely be aware that, despite the need for haste, great care is needed to give its answer to the housing crisis the very best start.

So, what do we know thus far? In a nutshell, Minister Twyford tells it:

The start in about a year on a programme to build 3000-4000 dwellings — apartments, terraced homes and stand-alone houses — on 29ha, which is all the land on the site zoned residential. Most will probably have two or three bedrooms.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of them will be built under the KiwiBuild banner, giving first-home buyers the chance to own a house for between $600,000 and $650,000 or an apartment for about $500,000. (The average price for a Mt Albert house is well above $1 million.)

Around 20 per cent (600 to 800 units) will be state houses or units.

The rest (on the minister’s arithmetic, that’s probably between 1400 and 1900 houses) will go to private buyers on the open market.

Buyers unable to raise a big enough deposit or without the ability to service a large mortgage will be helped through a shared-equity arrangement, where the Government, a bank or some other investor provides funds to support the deal in the early years.

A ballot system will initially be used to allocate homes under KiwiBuild, which will not be means-tested. But the Government says that as the programme gathers momentum, supply will more closely match demand and the need for balloting will disappear.

Rules will be introduced to prevent buyers under KiwiBuild from quickly flicking their properties for capital gain. Labour’s own website says owners will have to hold for five years (or pay back any capital gain), but Twyford is now saying “we are still working on that”.

The Government will be partly relying on prefabricated, off-site manufacturing to constrain costs and produce more houses of better quality.

Auckland iwi will be invited to bid for the development rights and will become central to the project.

The initial instinct is to suggest that a Government in a hurry to satisfy its electoral promise of 100,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years, half of them in Auckland, will aim at the 4000 figure. But that seems high, especially when added to the likely 500 or so units Ngati Whatua will build on the perimeter of the precinct.

The minister has talked about a fully developed site that would have houses or apartments covering 63 per cent of the land. If 4000 is to be the target, that’s a lot of units to build on 18ha or so, and suggests that apartment blocks rising seven and eight storeys (and possibly higher because the zoning allows for taller buildings in certain spots) may dominate parts of the development, particularly the KiwiBuild and state-housing segments. There’s plenty of scope there to get the slum agitators going unless the architects are outstanding and the unit dimensions are sensible.

In the end, as reported by Mt Albert Inc, the need for an integrated traffic assessment (ITA) to measure the impact of vehicles and come up with solutions to keep things flowing may force the Government to pull in its target.

It could be that 2500 or 3000 units (plus the 500 or so on the Ngati Whatua land) will be all that Auckland Council allows if its engineers worry about the ability of local roads to handle the extra traffic.

But who knows?

Twyford (also the Transport Minister) made much of Mt Albert’s “superb transport links” — with the future promise of light rail to Pt Chevalier at the northern end of the land — and cheekily noted that developers might even take the view that “you don’t need to own a car to live there”.

That appeared almost an invitation for council planners to take a long-term view — when the city rail link is finished, bus services are further ramped up, light rail is around the corner and cycle lanes are as common as mud.

Auckland Transport would love the idea of a development that swings the city away from car-centric to public transport and bikes, and in a decade or so, when the project is finally completed, that may not seem so crazy.

But there is an ocean of water to pass under the bridge before anyone can start imagining the role of the Unitec land in Auckland’s unlikely development as the Amsterdam or Copenhagen of the South Pacific.

It is plain the Government is still thinking on its feet, with 1001 issues yet to be discussed, let alone resolved in this first major crack at delivering the election campaign goods when construction capacity is awkward . Apart from the sale of the land (presumably at a cost that gives the Government some leeway and does not stretch the economic case too much), it seems virtually nothing of this project has yet been finalised, though the very precise reference to buildings covering 63 per cent of the land is interesting.

The Tamaki Makaurau Collective is a key player as a development partner and the Government will take it slowly until it can form a binding agreement. That could take a month or two, and despite Labour’s impatience to get affordable housing moving, the development must fit in with Unitec’s own transition to its 10ha future site.

No one is talking timelines, and the minister’s suggestion work might start on the first houses in about a year seems optimistic. But a bit of optimism to interrupt the pessimistic tone in the business of housing is no bad thing.

The original Unitec master plan for the site will probably be there for the Government’s agents (possibly Housing NZ’s expert subsidiary HLC, which handles the job at Hobsonville) to develop if they want it.

But until it is refined and settled – pinpointing what is to be built where and when – there will be no contracts to let and no great physical movement on the site.

Then, of course, the architects, engineers and other site experts and developers will get involved and the council starts looking at consents and judges those applications alongside the traffic assessments.

For a project of this size, even if the dimensions finally come down to 2500 or 3000 dwellings, it is a long, involved process where nothing will happen overnight. Most likely the development will progress in a series of stages spread over seven or eight years; it may be a full decade before the job is over.

That will frustrate a Government looking for runs on the board, and it will infuriate locals putting up with years of construction hubbub.

But time taken now to get things right — to find the appropriate density with ample open space, appealing design and a decent mix of medium-rise apartments and terraced and stand-alone houses – will deliver the best chances of an enduring outcome accepted by the community and still appreciated in 50 years. Fingers crossed.

This article first appeared on the website and is published here with permission.

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