Jenée Tibshraeny discusses the 'democratic deficit' around the Auckland Unitary Plan and why densification is not a generational issue

By Jen​​ée Tibshraeny

The Auckland Unitary Plan fiasco is so much more than a generational debate – it’s essentially a battle between a few thousand ‘not-in-my-backyarders’ (NIMBYs) and the rest of the country.

The Auckland Council on Wednesday voted to withdraw its ‘densified’ and ‘up-zoned’ maps it had presented in December as evidence to the Independent Hearings Panel on the Auckland Unitary Plan.

In doing so, it’s essentially opting for zoning rules that would leave Auckland 200,000 houses short of what’s needed to accommodate its burgeoning population (according to a group of experts assembled by the Panel).

Those who would’ve been affected by the Council’s proposed zoning changes don’t want their leafy suburbs to be “ruined” by three-storey buildings and townhouses.

Yet I believe the rest of the country’s population understands the math: According to Bill English, Auckland is expected to grow by 700,000 people in the next 30 years – almost the population of the South Island – so 13,000 news houses need to be built each year.

Furthermore, the country’s fastest growing type of household is people living on their own, so we need to build more apartments and townhouses to ensure a greater range of housing types are available.

According to Statistics New Zealand, 11% of the NZ population is expected to be living alone by 2038, compared with 9% in 2013. The average household size is also expected to decrease from 2.64 people in 2013, to 2.50 people in 2038.

Housing crisis trumps systemic flaws

I appreciate a couple of the arguments chief NIMBY, the chair of the Mission Bay Kohimarama Residents Association, Don Stock, made at Wednesday’s meeting. He believed the Council had been secretive in the way in amended its initial zoning plan for the city to include more densification, without consulting residents affected.

He also questioned why the Council had proposed to have changes to the plan concentrated in about eight suburbs. For example, it proposed large chunks of Mission Bay, St Heliers and Westmere be densified, yet other inner-city suburbs like Herne Bay, Ponsonby and Mt Eden, to remain as they are.

I agree the process could’ve been handled better, but believe most New Zealanders will side with Auckland architect, David Gibbs, who at the meeting said the housing crisis trumps the flaws in the system. We need to focus on what’s really important – housing supply – and get the densification ball rolling ASAP.

The median house price in metropolitan Auckland is about 10 times greater than the median household income. Furthermore, 18.8% of an average annual household income in Auckland is spent on housing costs (ie rents, mortgages, rates, insurance, etc), compared to the national average of 16.0%.

Densification not just a “young person” thing

As those from Generation Zero and Auckland Council’s Youth Advisory Panel have said, young people are struggling to pay exuberant rents to live close to where they work and study in the city.

No, young people are not self-entitled and unrealistic, as the NIMBYs who rudely yelled out “poor thing” when representatives from the above spoke at the meeting, would make you believe.

Those of us in our 20s/early 30s have long ago given up the dream of owning a property in Auckland’s inner-city suburbs. We’ve accepted the only way to enter the property market is through Auckland’s outer suburbs (if we’re lucky) or the regions.

What we cannot accept is paying inflated rents when we see a better way forward.

This is not just the perspective of the “young”. Ask anyone who lives in Auckland’s outer suburbs and spends hours commuting to work each week, whether they’d be happy to down-size if it meant living closer to town.

And then there’s the elderly. I’d like to ask the NIMBYs of Mission Bay whether they’d like to move to the whops when old age catches up with them and they have to down-size their homes. Do they really think they’re going to be able to stay in Mission Bay when all the land is occupied by large properties?

Or what about their parents – would they like to see them shipped off to retirement homes in Tauranga, rather than have them live nearby? I would hate to see elderly people pushed to the outskirts of Auckland and disengaged from their local communities – their friends, churches, doctors, sports clubs, etc – because of poor planning and decision-making.  

And then there’s the Auckland property owners. I don’t see how they wouldn’t be pro-densification. We are going to need a lot more houses – fast – for demand/supply to reach equilibrium and prices to fall substantially. There is pretty much no way an Auckland property owner isn’t going to earn hefty capital gains on their property in the foreseeable future.

As for the aesthetics of the lovely leafy suburbs, the level of densification the Council had proposed wasn’t extensive enough to rapidly change the vibe of an area. In fact, it was minimal – even insufficient!

We are talking about land owners simply having the ability to build townhouse complexes and three-storey houses, not the creation of magic buttons that will transform villas to apartment blocks overnight. Developers will still need to front up with the capital and go through the red tape of the Resource Management Act to densify.

As for those in other parts of the country, they’re implicated by the Reserve Bank putting the brakes on the rate cuts needed to bolster the economy, due to it not wanting to aggravate the beast that is the Auckland housing market.

“Democratic deficit”

So how does this 1:1000 – NIMBY vs. the nation – ratio even constitute a debate you ask?

Because the NIMBYs who make up the ‘1’ are loud and loaded. They have the time and resources to advocate their position through the right channels. Just look at this photo of the extraordinary Auckland Council meeting on Wednesday. White, seemingly middle-class and middle-aged is all I can say.

Sadly the Council bucked to the pressure of a loud minority, nullifying all the time and money it put into updating its submission on the Unitary Plan. A “democratic deficit”, as said by Generation Zero’s Dr Sudhvir Singh at the Council’s meeting.

Singh urged the Council not to define the community by who turns up to meetings, but rather acknowledge the number of people unable to attend due to being at work.  

The issue in now in the hands of the government-appointed Independent Hearings Panel. It is expected to recommend a new Unitary Plan in late July, after which the Council will have 20 working days to make a decision on whether to accept the plan. 

While the Panel can technically be more brazen about densification than the Council, the Council will have its final say weeks away from elections in September and October.

It is for this reason I urge people to make their voices heard. There’s never been a better time to remind the decision-makers who they really represent.