Auckland is a city gripped by both a housing shortage and a building boom. But are Aucklanders ready to live in apartments and will tough new planning policies deliver the affordable homes desperately needed? Ben Leahy reports
Developer Mark Todd is mad. He's got a message for reluctant Aucklanders.
Get used to apartment living – it's coming whether you want it or not.
Auckland is already in a building boom brought about by major planning changes in 2016 that have allowed more townhouses and apartments to be built.
Now the council is grappling with a further directive from Government to build even more complexes, taller and closer to where residents want to live and work.
But some Aucklanders are pushing back. Inner-city residents, in particular, fear dramatic change that could strip the heritage and "liveability" out of their suburbs.
They worry about the spread of poor-quality apartments no one wants to live in, greater traffic congestion and more cars without parking spaces littering the streets.
Todd – co-founder of apartment developer Ockham Residential – says he's exasperated by such attitudes that have led to city fringe farmlands being chopped up and new homeowners being forced to buy ever further out.
The wealthy are telling everyone else to shove off to Albany, Kumeu, Flat Bush and Pokeno, he said.
"And we'll have the city centre to ourselves in our multi-million-dollar houses, thank you very much."
Auckland is a city in desperate need of more affordable homes with city prices rising 25 per cent in 12 months to hit yet another record high $1.15 million in June, according to the Real Estate Institute.
Yet exactly how much change the new government directives - contained in the National Policy Statement on Urban Development document - bring and how fast is up for debate.
One of the main upshots is that buildings at least six-storeys high will now be able to be built in the city centre, Auckland's 10 metropolitan centres and within walking distance of stops along public transport networks deemed "rapid-transit".
The metropolitan centres are Albany, Botany, Henderson, Manukau, New Lynn, Newmarket, Papakura, Sylvia Park, Takapuna and Westgate-Massey North.
Tim King, senior urban designer with Common Ground, said these changes aren't likely to dramatically boost housing stocks instantly.
That's because they are mostly an extension of the major planning reform Auckland Council completed in 2016 with its Unitary Plan, which was already delivering more apartments and townhouses close to public transport networks, he said.
The council approved a record 18,223 plans for new houses and apartments in the past year, which was more than from 2008 to 2011 combined.
Of these, around 66 per cent are for townhouses and apartments and 25 per cent are within walkable distances to rapid transit, Auckland Council said.
Property analysts Valocity also estimate that just over 17,000 new homes have been completed in Auckland since the start of 2019.
Yet the new government document also challenges Auckland Council to go further by also looking across the entire city for more development opportunities.
This may lead to many more apartments in inner city suburbs that had largely been shielded from development because they are considered to have special character.
Matt Lowrie from transport and urban design blog Greater Auckland said this is a massive change.
It also stands as a potential battleground.
Heritage groups say allowing developers into their inner Auckland neighbourhoods to potentially demolish villas and bungalows for six-storey apartments marks a major threat to the city's future.
"We are really worried about the things that make Auckland unique - the Waitematā Harbour, the volcanic cones and the kauri homes. Those are the things that give the city its identity," Character Coalition's Sally Hughes said.
The coalition - an umbrella group of more than 60 heritage, historical and community groups – already fought to protect heritage five years ago during the design of the Unitary Plan.
Now they feel they have the same fight on their hands all over again.
"Do we want a city that is shaped by developers or do we want one that provides more housing without losing the city's identity, history and its beauty?" Hughes said.
Todd argues that beautiful wooden villas in suburbs, like Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and Devonport will never be bowled over for villas.
"Those character wooden houses are some of the most amazing, unique suburbs in the world," he said.
Developers instead had their eyes on other sites in inner Auckland, also known as the isthmus.
Todd said these homes were a mixed bag that didn't have unified design or especially valuable character.
"The isthmus should be developed intensely so that when Auckland is the size of Sydney and Melbourne that is where the heart of the city is," he said.
Lowrie said the isthmus was the city's most desirable location.
Yet so far most apartment and townhouse had been built on the city's edges.
Auckland Councillors facing up to voters at local elections could be reluctant to change the status quo, he said.
"Council planners appear to be incredibly fearful of public backlash and more worried about a few talkback radio references than they are on providing housing for people," he said.
Council planning committee chair Chris Darby said it was about striking a balance.
He expected development to occur in inner Auckland, but said it would be done in an evidence-based way as staff went from house to house to assess each home's heritage or other special characteristics.
"By doing each site then you get a read on a street or part of a street as to whether its special character has a high value," he said.
No matter how development panned out, runaway Auckland house prices have driven growing interest in apartments, Todd said.
His company Ockham was scheduled to deliver 750 apartments at an average $750,000-$850,000 or 30 per cent below the city's median price, he said.
"There have been fundamental changes in the way people think," Bruce Weir, principal urban planner at Weir Associates, said.
"It's now anticipated in our major cities that your first home might be an apartment, whereas five years ago people would have been saying, 'You are dreaming mate'."
Still there are barriers standing in the way of apartments taking off.
Many Kiwis remain cautious of their build quality, especially after the so-called leaky buildings era in which many homes and apartments were found to be faulty and later needed repairing or demolition at a cost of billions of dollars.
Weir said while there are innovative apartment builders in New Zealand, there are not many with experience building higher than four storeys, at which point complexes become more expensive as lifts and sprinkler systems need to be added.
Red hot demand among buyers also meant developers can sometimes get away with "banging out" mediocre products, he said.
Urban growing plans may also add to public backlash against development.
New rules mean developers will soon be able to build apartments without providing any car parks for residents.
The idea is to boost demand for public transport and allow the free market to decide if car parks are desired or not.
Common Ground's King said the free market would eventually choose, but in the short term - especially before improvements in public transport came along - many people who bought apartments would still own cars.
"Our suburban streets are already filling up really fast and becoming a little unworkable," he said.
Weir said it wasn't enough to treat apartments simply as cheaper housing.
Big picture thinking was needed to turn them into places people wanted to live.
The metropolitan centres and transport lines that would be home to the future high rise apartments needed to draw people in by offering experiences not readily available in neighbouring low rise areas, he said.
That could include ensuring good shops and restaurants were within walking distance, and regulations to ensure apartments had higher ceiling heights to feel more spacious and were more energy efficient so they were cheaper to live in.
The council could also potentially buy up land to create expansive new parks and green spaces nearby.
"Without these advantages why would you shift? Is it to stare straight out at your neighbour's window - not gonna happen," Weir said.
Todd also said there were practical costs at play that made it hard on the construction industry.
The latest challenge is the lack of skilled tradesmen due to Government's closed Covid-19 borders.
"My bricklaying cost has just gone up 30 per cent because there are no bricklayers in the country," Todd said.
Apartments would continue to become more popular - but not overnight, he said.
Talk of rows of six-storey apartment towers suddenly springing up in suburbia next door to low rise houses were more about "whipping up fear" than reality.
"100,000 Aucklanders aren't going to move into apartments over the next five years. But that is where we are heading over the next one-to-two generations."
House hunters respond
On Saturday we shared the stories of first-time house hunters. Here's what they have to say about the ideas in today's Home Truths coverage.
Apartments are certainly not for everyone. For me, apartments are affordable and in useful locations, the only cons are body corporates poking noses into private lives, and potentially no view except into the apartment next door.
Taking two out of every ten sections with houses on and putting up apartments on that footprint will allow houses to remain and apartments to be slightly spread out.
In Vancouver when they extended their Skytrain (actual effective fast transport!), to less-developed areas, housing complexes sprung up around the new stations. Kumeu and Flat Bush...where's the fast train?