A year ago the Herald launched a series called Home Truths: Tackling NZ’s housing affordability crisis. We followed house hunters as they tried to get into Auckland’s soaring property market, talked to experts about what first-home buyers should do and analysed the causes of the problem, from city planning regulations to favourable tax breaks for property investors. Twelve months on, has anything changed for the better? Home Truths series editor Andrew Laxon, business editor-at-large Liam Dann and political editor Audrey Young examine where we are now and what we can expect.

In the summer of 2013, John Key returned from his holiday in Hawaii with a plan for housing.

He sacked Housing Minister Phil Heatley - and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson - from Cabinet, reinstated former ACC minister Nick Smith (after suspending him for helping a friend in her ACC claim) and made him Housing Minister.

It seemed a good idea at the time. Housing affordability may not have been in crisis back then but it was emerging as a problem and Smith was one of the more experienced ministers.

Andrew Laxon: Gap growing wider for first-home buyers
Liam Dann: Who will fund Auckland's future?


The plan didn't work out so well.

It has been one of the most complex problems the Government has faced but has been one of the easiest with which to hammer it.

Smith's reputation has taken a beating and the star of his Labour counterpart, Phil Twyford, has risen in direct correlation to Auckland property prices.

Smith has been the whipping boy for a range of failures, not least those of Prime Minister Bill English when he was Finance Minister for failing to recognise the extent of the problem.

This time a year ago, English admitted he had not anticipated demand for housing to last as long as it had.

No one had expected migration numbers to stay where they were, he said in an interview for the Herald's Home Truth series. And no one had expected that interest rates would still be dropping.

There's still no change on that front and the throwaway line about New Zealand being a victim of its own success is wearing thin.

If the Government's first term was about weathering the global financial crisis, and its second was about responding to disasters, this parliamentary term has been defined by housing problems, both private sector and state provided.

If National does not win the election in September, housing will be a contributing factor.

Although the majority of voters are not affected by dramatic shifts in house prices, fair accessibility to housing contributes to the sense of well-being in the country.

If first-home buyers are locked out of home ownership unless their parents are wealthy, if the excesses of house prices and rentals in the private sector are flowing into big demands for state-funded and emergency housing, even those unaffected feel uneasy.

The Government has not been missing and anyone living in Auckland can see action on the ground. But responding to a housing shortage necessarily has a long lead-in time and the impression took hold that too little was happening too late.

If National does not win the election in September, housing will be a contributing factor.


National launched its 2014 re-election campaign with an expansion of the Home Start scheme for first-home buyers. It has worked with councils, developers and iwi to provide more affordable housing. And, finally, in Budget 2015 it tackled demand, requiring more information of home buyers including an IRD number, which has cut the portion of speculators in the market.

But as the Government dealt with the nitty gritty of getting more land freed up, more building consents approved, less red-tape, more trained builders, and more houses built of a non-leaking standard, the Opposition has had a field day.

Labour has been making emotional connections with young voters about being denied the Kiwi Dream of home ownership, New Zealand First has been able to put some rationale into its anti-immigration policies, and the Greens have been recruiting talented millennial candidates who embody the narrative of greedy foreign speculators trampling over the aspirations of our best and brightest.

For a couple of years, the Opposition was able to point to nothing apparent happening on the ground. When the raft of measures was rolled out one after another in 2015 and 2016, it was then criticised as a "piecemeal" response.

Labour's plan for first-home buyers, the Kiwibuild plan to build 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years, would take some years to crank up to full capacity, leader Andrew Little said this week in a concession to the same realities facing the Government.

House price inflation in Auckland may have peaked - prices month by month are slowing, flattening out or falling.

Little has avoided any suggestion the party wants house prices to fall because that is political poison.

Falling house prices brings a new set of problems for home owners losing equity in properties and for baby-boomers whose retirement plans are linked to house prices.

Whether Labour can credibly continue to use the term "housing crisis" in the private sector will depend on what happens to house prices over the next six months.

But up or down, housing will never lose its political potency, especially in election year.