• Auckland councillor showed the Herald around his street where some homes sat empty
Overflowing letterboxes and unmown lawns in one of the country's richest suburbs - it's easy to assume a vacant home is being sat on for capital gain.
Devonport's Stanley Pt, where houses sold in the past year for a median price of $1.86 million - the second most expensive suburb after Herne Bay - was cited by Auckland councillor Chris Darby this week as a prime exhibit for some of the 33,360 dwellings he called "ghost homes" that were vacant on Census day in 2013.
The figure almost matches the 36,597 homes that were officially overcrowded on that day.
An analysis of the 2013 figures showed 75 empty houses in Stanley Pt on Census day.
Darby showed the Herald a handful of the homes on Stanley Point Rd, which are close to his home.
One is owned by an Indonesian couple who stay there only a few times a year, another by the rich-list Spencer family. Darby said three others have been vacant for between four months and two years.
But all showed evidence of being cared for and their owners had various reasons for them being empty.
"I walk this street just about every morning to my ferry," Darby said.
"It's when you are walking on your street that you notice activity, or the lack of it.
"We are talking about ghost houses. We talk about undeveloped land being land-banked. This next layer of the discussion is the developed land that has got houses on it but the houses themselves are not being occupied.
"The capital gains are so phenomenal that, for some investors, that insulates you from the need to rent because you are picking up so much profit in your capital uplift and with some properties there is a considerable risk if you bring a tenant in."
He said he did not advocate an extra tax on vacant homes, but they were part of Auckland's "multi-faceted" housing crisis that required a "multi-pronged" solution.
Rather than focusing on developing green spaces to solve the housing crisis, vacant homes could be looked at too.
"I'm not saying this could accommodate 10 families from West and South Auckland. But we need to understand it in all its parts and not be so fixated with the Government view that there is a one-hit solution in the supply of new greenfield land."
Quotable Value records show one of the houses, a large two-storey home on a 2049sq m property, was bought by an Indonesian couple, Suhardiman and Lina Ijawan, for $3.25 million in December 2011.
QV records show that the couple also own another house at the end of the street with a 2014 rateable value of $2.2 million, which is occupied.
An Indonesian friend who looks after their Auckland properties, Denny Manukau, said the Singapore-based couple bought the house planning for their children to go to university here.
"Here is quite safe and good for the children."
He said the couple stayed in the house several times a year, most recently for a month last December, but were now renovating it and planned to rent it out by October.
The most valuable empty house in the street is a $12.7m block owned by the Spencer family, who inherited a fortune from the Caxton Pulp and Paper business. Darby, who lives next door, said he saw lights on in the house for only about two weeks a year when a family member returned from overseas.
The property is owned by the Clime Group, whose directors are Stephen Allbon of Remuera and Berridge Spencer of Surrey, England. A Clime spokesman said the family had no comment to make.
A house at the northwest end of the point that sold last July for $2.7 million is being advertised for rent at $1500 a week. Ray White agent Stephanie Hanlon said its owners had returned to China.
"They own a house in West Auckland that they live in. They spend half the year here and half in China," she said.
Hanlon celebrated on Facebook when she let the Stanley Pt house to the Saudi Arabian consul for $3600 a week last October, but said the Saudis left when a vacant section next door was sold, creating a potential security risk. A Trade Me listing in February this year said the house was available for rent again from March 15.
Darby also cited two other houses, which were clearly vacant yesterday. Their letterboxes were overflowing and, in one case, the lawn was overgrown.
However, both houses showed evidence of work being done.
A neighbour said one had been vacant since he moved in six months ago but he had seen geotechnical engineers on the property and renovation work started yesterday.
Auckland mayoral candidate Vic Crone said houses vacant for six months or a year should attract higher rates.
"We need to be encouraging people who are buying homes with no intent to live in them to actually get them on the market," she said.
But rival mayoral candidate Phil Goff said that would be unfair on owners with legitimate reasons for leaving houses empty, such as planning renovations, being between rentals, and deceased estates. He said the Government should ban non-residents from buying existing houses and tax capital gains on houses sold "within five or even 10 years".
On Monday, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith said properties might be vacant because owners are on holiday, renovating, selling or tenants coming and going, but Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford says "ghost housing" is a huge issue in Auckland and he is concerned about the effects.
• 33,360 vacant homes
• 36,597 overcrowded homes
• 203,820 people in the overcrowded homes
Source: Statistics NZ, Census 2013 (Auckland). Overcrowded means more than two people per bedroom, or bedrooms shared by adults other than couples or by opposite-sex children.