Lamorna Rogers: The housing crisis isn’t taking a holiday


I don’t know the answer to the housing crisis but I do know that there’s some things we’re not talking about.

We’re not talking about what happens in towns where huge shares of the properties are holiday homes. I’m talking about towns such as Kororāreka (Russell), our nearest town, where 40 per cent of houses are unoccupied. And that’s not because of lack of rental demand.

Just look at the Russell Noticeboard and there are so many pleas for rentals. And people aren’t talking about the spillover effects of this kind of massive wastage – the fact that whānau (family) that want to come home to live and work can’t. Kororāreka is trapped in a weird place where people wash in and out during holiday times but the permanent population is too small to sustain mahi (employment) and businesses all year round so it is effectively locked in a zero growth cycle.

The mantra that the problem is housing supply doesn’t ring true here – there are houses, it’s just that they’re being hoarded.

Granted the local council (Far North District) are completely off its game – for Russell area it is planning for only three new houses a year. But, even if houses did magically appear, who would be the buyers?

When I popped into town the other day, talk on the street was that another house had sold and it was to someone in Auckland looking for a holiday home. You might shrug your shoulders at this – yeah well, that’s just a small town – the big problem is in the cities like Auckland and Wellington. Well yes and no.

Because part of the pressure on the big cities is that they are a vortex where jobs and housing have become ever more centralised. If smaller towns were able to absorb more people from the cities, at the margin this would help relieve pressure on the urban housing markets. Post-Covid there are actually big opportunities there.

Another thing that’s not being talked about enough – the type of houses that are being built aren’t what ordinary people need and they aren’t diverse enough. I mean maybe they are houses that meet “wants” – the McMansion with the butler’s kitchen and the media room – but needs are more basic. Warm dry homes, bedrooms and a bathroom.

Basic houses are cheaper to build and cheaper to buy but the market is skewed towards the money – exxy, all-singing, all-dancing, houses. Economist Shamubeel Equab was totally on the money here. There are firms looking at solutions for this – the mahi that TOA Architects is doing on modular housing is inspiring – but they are small, with limited resources.

The Government should be absolutely chucking money at firms like TOA to speed up the process – fund lots of these small guys, some won’t work but the few that do will make a massive difference.

The public has a part to play here too – get comfortable with risk; accept that if we want a revolution in housing (which is surely needed given the scale of the housing crisis) there will be some casualties along the way.

Don’t have a hissy fit every time something goes wrong – plant 1000 seeds and rejoice in the ones that flower.

And the other thing that’s not being talked about? Pain. There is real pain out there and it is disproportionately concentrated in a few communities. We hear a lot about first-home buyers.

I’m going to talk about another community, Māori. I am an administrator on By Māori, a Facebook group to tautoko (support) Māori businesses. I was shocked by the huge member response to a recent post on Māori architects.

Not the sexiest of subjects right? But when I read through the comments, I totally got it, the hopes, the dreams, the māmae (hurt). The By Māori whānau were excited at the mahi being done to build homes that are affordable and comfortable to live in, they loved the idea of housing that is indigenous to New Zealand and reflects our culture and place.

But, for some, there was just despair because owning their own home is totally out of reach.

Minimum wage, insecure employment, no hope of ever building a deposit or being deemed creditworthy. Māori are sitting at a nexus of issues here – over-represented in low-income casual mahi (with the Māori unemployment rate rising to 9 per cent in the December quarter as opposed to a fall to 4.9 per cent overall), lower home ownership rates meaning that more are renters and exposed to an increasingly unstable tenancy environment, often unable to build on Māori land due to the complexity of the process and lack of capital.

Collaboration could help. Are iwi/hapū/trusts doing enough? Do they have housing goals that they are delivering on, are they actively supporting papakainga builds, are they helping to educate and skill up the whānau? Some of the whānau want to build earth homes, others would be happy with just a cabin (flow around council red tape), others could be tomorrow’s chippies, builders, architects.

Are Treaty partners doing enough? Government could help with funding, co-builds, risk sharing, – is Kainga Whenua ever going to be anything more than a Clayton’s scheme?

What are councils doing to support iwi/hapū in their builds – there are win/win opportunities here.

Once again, I don’t know the answer but I do see a whole heap of market failures that are contributing to the crisis.

And these market failures are going to need different responses from a whole range of people, institutions and agencies.

Change can happen, it all starts with a single step.

If you’re thinking of buying a second home so you can bolt to it when Aunty Jacinda announces the next lockdown, think a little more deeply, be mindful of the ongoing costs to those communities compared to the temporary benefits to yourself.

If you’re in a position of influence, what can your community/institution do? Change won’t happen overnight so in the meantime, let’s tautoko those who are suffering where we can.

“Mā pango, mā whero, ka oti ai te mahi” (by black and red [meaning different kinds of people] together the work is done).

• Lamorna Rogers is a recovering economist who moved from Sydney (population 5.3 million) to Rāwhiti (population 150) where she is living and learning.

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