Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Talk of urban agency bright spot in horror week for PM

Threat of empty house tax and a marae working miracles piling pressure on Key.
Mr Key still seems to be in deep denial that there even is an Auckland housing crisis. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Mr Key still seems to be in deep denial that there even is an Auckland housing crisis. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

At last, Prime Minister John Key is flirting with the concept of a one-stop shop urban development agency to build the tens of thousands of new homes Auckland desperately needs.

It's an idea pushed by the Productivity Commission last year, and yesterday, Deputy mayor Penny Hulse and Property Council chief executive Connal Townsend leapt behind the concept.

Not that we should get too excited. Mr Key still seems to be in deep denial that there even is an Auckland housing crisis. He admits his "thinking is still in its infancy" over the need for such a government-led approach.

Part of his reluctance is no doubt linked to Labour's promise at the last election to do just this, and build 100,000 low-cost houses over the next 10 years. But after the horror couple of weeks the Government's had in dealing with Auckland's homeless, National is fast running out of alternatives.

It can't have helped the prime minister's blood pressure to hear, over the weekend, the National Party's de facto Auckland mayoral candidate, Vic Crone, announce plans to whack his empty Omaha holiday home with a penalty tax unless he rents it to the city's homeless.

It's hard to see her radical plan for a targeted rate on the 33,000 or so empty houses dotted across the city as appealing to the conservative voting establishment. Or, for that matter, given the record capital gains being recorded, forcing many of them to start opening their empty homes to others.

It conjured up visions of East End urchins being packed off to reluctant middle-class foster homes during the blitz in wartime London. The street-smart of Otara suddenly let loose in Matakana and Omaha has a certain appeal. Though I suspect, not to the locals.

Ms Crone's brainwave certainly needs more tweaking. More than 5000 of the empty homes recorded in the 2013 census are beachside holiday homes - about half scattered around the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. The latter, at least, will be on tank water, so out of the reach of the Watercare water meter readers who Mayor Crone was going to use to enforce her new penalty. It's not even clear how many of these "ghost houses," as identified in the 2013 census, are permanently vacant. The analysis has not been done. But even if we went a step further with draconian legislation forcing landlords to fill all 33,000 empty dwellings, that would only solve the immediate shortage. It wouldn't address the annual need for 13,000 new homes in Auckland to keep up with population growth.

For the Government, the Crone tax was at least a diversion from the nightmare unfolding at Te Puea Marae, Mangere Bridge.

Who could have predicted that a modest South Auckland marae would single-handedly humanise the Auckland housing crisis. It's taken it out of the hands of the politicians, their spin doctors and the bumbling Work and Income and Housing New Zealand bureaucrats, and provided a daily human interest story for the media to lap up.

The latest miracle was to conjure up a "brand new" 4-bedroom state house for a teenage cancer patient, her dad and four siblings, who had been sleeping on the marae floor.

When Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett's press secretary titillated a senior journalist with the news that the marae chairman, Hurimoana Dennis, a police inspector and national Maori strategic adviser for NZ Police, had been stood down on full pay since last September and was under investigation by his police bosses, the mud boomeranged back. Mr Dennis allegedly helped a 16-year youth in a relationship with a 15-year-old girl to move to Australia. But instead of a diversionary teen sex scandal story erupting, the minister got attacked for leaking. The inspector remains smelling of roses. Instead of rising to the bait, he sticks to cataloguing the number of homeless in his care, the number he has managed to rehouse, and offers thanks to all and sundry.

It was a turn of events that surprised me. It must have stunned the politicians.

Meanwhile the crisis deepens. As deputy mayor Hulse highlighted yesterday, Auckland is short of upward of 30,000 houses now, and needs another 13,000 a year. Yet last calendar year only 6000 dwellings went up.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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