COMMENT

Cheap, fast and good. What do they say? You can have only two of the three. But when it comes to housing, the Government doesn't have the luxury of choosing: it desperately needs all three. And right now, it's not really hitting any of them. Is it early days? Let's hope so.

The debate has been dominated by the first two. Calling $650,000 houses affordable has been an insult to tens of thousands of wage-earning prospective home-owners who feel as locked out of the housing market as ever.

Declaring there would be 1000 KiwiBuild homes completed by July this year when they'll be lucky to hit 100 was a deplorable exercise in fantasy-planning.

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But vital as cheap and fast are, over time the third criterion will be the most important. If we build badly the consequences will almost certainly be disastrous.

Building badly gives you leaky homes, a problem that has consumed the time and money of great chunks of the construction sector, distorted the insurance market and the lending market, gobbled up council funds, made consenting officials slow, obstructive and shy of new technologies and ruined the lives of tens of thousands of citizens.

Building badly means failing to keep up with new construction technologies. The old way is easier, we'll just do that. It means building homes that are not flexible enough for modern households.

It means breeding desperation, because people and groups become isolated and communities do not get the services and facilities they need to prosper. All the poor people go there, all the young families go way out there, all the old people get stuffed into here.

It pretends there won't be changes in energy generation, transport, water and waste useage, many of which are happening now. It locks communities into housing not fit for purpose as we confront what could be catastrophic climate change.

Building badly means not joining up your thinking. Treating housing as a distinct problem, instead of one important component among many in the quest to make better cities and towns for everyone who lives in them. That's not just a worthy goal. It's essential.

And let's not forget, building badly is what Bill English proposed in 2014. As the National Government's finance minister, he said we "might have to get ugly" to get more houses built. He was rightly condemned for it by pretty much everybody.

The current housing crisis – the crisis you have because you're not adequately addressing the crisis – is a tragedy, and one reason is that the drums have never stopped beating for cheap and fast, but not for good.

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How many houses have you built today, minister? That's pretty much the opening question faced by housing and urban development minister Phil Twyford every time he's popped up to talk about it. Followed closely by, You call that an affordable price?

Fair questions, to be sure. But not the only questions.

Twyford and the Government have, to date, resisted the cacophony of voices telling them to build lots of cheap houses in the countryside. That's good. We already know about the social devastation that descends on suburbs that are poorly planned, quickly built, under-resourced and isolated.

They have also introduced a 30:30:30 guideline for the proportion of social, rental and market housing in big projects. That helps create viable communities for all who live in them and reduces the risk they will become the slums of the future.

Those projects are integrated into wider social, economic and environmental planning: they're built along transport corridors, with shopping and community facilities right there in the planning. These are all quality criteria.

There's not enough quality happening, especially in ecological planning and the use of new technology in the builds. But there is some, and there will be more.

The Government announced last November that 102 firms want to take part in a programme of "off-site manufacture". Twyford said at the time the procurerment processes would "take time" – but the prefab revolution is definitely coming.

Not that we can wait for it. Twyford needs to attack this crisis, and in doing so he cannot capitulate to those who say they're happy with quick and dirty.

He has to build cheap, fast and good. It's not acceptable to say that can't be done. He has to find a way.

And as a corollary, let's not create the political conditions where that really does become impossible. No more unrealistic numerical targets, please minister. And, from the rest of us, no more public discourse that treats those numbers as the only targets.

This week we've heard from the research company Demographica that New Zealand cities are right at the top of housing unaffordability, which is a disgrace. But Demographica's solution, which they have advocated before, is also a disgrace. They want more urban sprawl.

We've also heard from another research company, the NZ Initiative, that KiwiBuild is a failure. Their solution is the same.

Everybody who thinks the only target is to build houses more quickly and cheaply will say this. For all the reasons above, it's blinkered and it's wrong.

We've also heard this week, courtesy of an RNZ survey, that wealthier, whiter and older voices get heard disproportionately in local government consultations. That should surprise absolutely no one, and it's directly related to the crisis in housing.

That crisis, after all, affects two groups disproportionately. The first is the homeless and those whose living conditions are so poor they effectively are homeless. The second is those who earn a moderately reasonable living but still do not expect ever to own their home: in Auckland, they include many teachers, nurses and others.

There is no housing crisis for those who already own their home. That would be, far more than any other group, those who are wealthier, whiter and older. Around 70 per cent of Pākehā live in an owner-occupied home, according to Statistics NZ. The combined rate for Māori and Pasifika is under 40 per cent – and it's falling faster than for Pākehā too.

The crunch – actually, one of many crunches – will come when plans are revealed for the new light rail lines to run from downtown to Mangere, and downtown to the west.

Each of those lines will provide core transport infrastructure for tens of thousands more people who live and work along them. That's people who will be able to participate in the life of the city, and not be stuck in dormitory suburbs in the middle of nowhere.

But will it happen? Will we hear from the people who stand to benefit most from all the new houses and apartment blocks on those lines, or will they be drowned out – as happened on Dominion Rd last year – by others who fear a loss of parking, or cannot abide the idea of multi-storey buildings in their world?

Solving the housing crisis, solving it well, means listening more to the people who usually get listened to the least.