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Finding the right housing solution

by Marian Evans
It’s gold, listening to in-person submissions to the Wellington City Council. I love seeing and hearing people whose submissions are based on lived experience in a particular place, caring about a particular community. I can then place their experiences alongside mine, in a tiny Mount Victoria hillside community overlooking Oriental Bay, where gardening residents encourage and support bees and other insects and small creatures on the roadside reserve that adjoins their dwellings.

Late last year I joined other Wellingtonians at the Council hearings on its Draft Spatial Plan (the Plan) when we gave oral submissions to complement our written submissions. The whole morning was run with grace, like clockwork, and I loved the super-simple and effective remote for the Powerpoint. But my 5-minute presentation was a miserable experience for all, because I thought the room would be much smaller, wore my reading glasses and couldn’t see my own Powerpoint. And with the seconds ticking away didn’t feel able to say ‘Hang on a mo, I’ll just rummage in my bag for my other specs’.

But I learned so much from the others who submitted. Anna Kemble Welch for instance, a City Council award-winning Newtown resident for 40 years, an architect who specialises in designing environmentally sensitive and accessible homes, part of the legendary Newtown Festival team and a long-time member of the Newtown Residents Association.

Like all those I heard and like me, Anna longs for more affordable, healthy and accessible housing in Wellington. But, and it was a big BUT, she did not believe that the draft Plan offers the right solution. And, in the few minutes she had available, she made a strong argument for a more sophisticated, more nuanced approach to spatial planning, based on her lived experience of Newtown.

Many of Anna’s arguments apply equally to Mount Victoria, where I’ve lived for 40 years or so. Others don’t. But they all emphasise the reality that, to create affordable, healthy and accessible housing, the Council needs to consider more factors than it does in the Plan. It’s also important for the Council to work closely with existing communities and use local knowledge to find the best solutions, for now and future generations.

The Plan we were responding to is largely based on a simple either/or. One- or two-storey dwellings that include pre-1930s homes in central suburbs — roughly the status quo but with a few extras, or market-forces-driven density, with highrise buildings everywhere possible, encouraged by removal of the Pre-1930s Demolition Rule that restricts demolition of pre-1930s homes.

Believing, as I do, that the second option will create more problems than it will resolve, Anna advocated for solutions that transform the either/or of the Plan. She believes it is possible to have both, in elegant ways that take account of other important factors, in what I call the Both…&… &… (&… &…) approach. She makes a compelling argument for density done well and offers positive, well-researched and well-argued suggestions.

Anna’s Submission

The Problem: The Plan’s Single Focus Approach

The Plan offers a market forces approach to Newtown residences, allowing highrise buildings of more than 6 storeys in ¾ of the residential area, scattered amongst 1- and 2-storey homes. According to Anna, this ‘is not good planning and will not lead to good place making. It is a recipe for gentrification, not for quality, affordable housing’.

‘Mixing building heights and types to this extreme in residential areas is not good anywhere in Wellington,’ she added. ‘Not all old houses need saving but increased housing density must be done well, at a scale and height that fits into the urban and social fabric of our existing streets without negative impacts’.

The Solution: Doing Density Well, Without Displacement

‘Newtown and Berhampore are communities where all the people matter — home to a very diverse, inclusive, creative, connected community, a mixture of renters and home owners, and a festival that celebrates this!’ said Anna. Residents want to welcome more people to live in the area without displacing those already there.

The &… &… &… (etc)

So Anna and her partner Martin Hanley have formulated a proof-of-concept alternative plan that shows where and how more than 2000 more homes can be provided in Newtown, 3 or 4 times the planning-for-growth number of 450 to 700 new homes required in Newtown over the next 30 years.

Their plan relies on concentrated development in Newtown’s Suburban Centre, already zoned for 4 storeys, by zoning this area for up to 6 storeys. It also embodies the recommendation by Newtown Residents Association to densify along the transport spine, after their own community engagement exercise for the Planning for Growth consultation in 2019.

The Suburban Centre already has buildings right up next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, without the side yards and set backs required in residential areas, and the road is wider than the residential streets. Many of these buildings need earthquake strengthening so they’re ripe for upgrading. Local commercial property owners are ready and keen to start building. They just need the Council to make this possible.

In their research, the couple examined the potential of every site in the Suburban Centre zone and included a few more on the periphery where there are underutilised properties, where increased density would not have a negative impact.

They used a mix of three different apartment building types as templates in their plan.

The advantages are —

1. A mix of comfortable sized apartments where each apartment has light and sun.

2. Iconic historic buildings have been preserved untouched, while others have their historic shop frontages left intact, but allow for apartments in behind.

3. Infrastructure easier to upgrade in a concentrated strip along the commercial centre: new homes are right on the bus route; sheltered by verandahs; right amongst Newtown’s shops, cafes, supermarkets, community services, library; within close walking distance of our schools, medical centres, hospitals, hospice, churches, parks and sports fields.

4. A win-win that plays important roles in reducing car dependency and fostering social connectivity.

5. Allows for community co-design — working collaboratively for the best outcomes.

6. Does not take away existing housing to make more.

Anna and Martin welcome the opportunity to work with others in the community to expand on their concept in the future, to identify more places where increased density would sit well in the landscape and neighbourhoods, to design the very best outcomes for the future.

I’d love them to do a similar exercise in Mount Victoria, where there’s been strong opposition to the plan, although the Mount Victoria Planning Group is also working on an alternative plan, not yet available.

My submission

My written submission related to the part of Mount Victoria around where I live, on the much-loved and much-used Oriental Terrace zigzag, within the St Gerard’s precinct and the only human-inhabited off-road stretch of the Mount Victoria Lookout Walkway.

My submission is mostly irrelevant now, because I discovered that the highrise designation that I thought was given to the houses at the top of Hawker Street and opposed, was in fact a designation given to St Gerard’s.

According to the Planning Office ‘…we believe this may have been a mistake. Thank you for raising it with us, we will look at this again and make changes as necessary as part of the updates for the Final Spatial Plan’.

I was also concerned because there was no reference to the upper Oriental Terrace, including the zigzag, because it falls within the Mount Victoria North Character Area Design Guide. Had the area been quietly excluded from the Design Guide, in an action that paralleled its removal from areas included in the pre-1930 Demolition Rule, back in 2008, without any consultation process and following a report that was riddled with inaccuracies?

Again I was reassured: ‘Our intention is that [the Design Guides] will remain in in a similar form in the new District Plan.’

Note, ‘similar’, but not ‘the same’, so I will keep an eye out.

So, now *almost* reassured, why did I still care?

Mount Victoria’s urban and social fabric used to be a little like Newtown, very diverse. I remember all the Greeks, for instance, who’d arrived via chain migration, many of whom later moved to other suburbs. And Samoans. And lots and lots of cultural workers (most who still live there are now quite old). And children with their paper runs, and collecting recyclable bottles to sell. It had vitality and lots of social connections.

But over the last decades that’s changed.

The Mount Victoria Housing Trust was set up in 1981 to curb gentrification, and gentrification has accelerated since then, alongside the retention/land-banking of a high proportion of sometimes run-down rental properties, often in dwellings subject to the pre-1930s Demolition Rule. And now, although the Mount Vic Hub, Clyde Quay School and various community organisations work hard to build and maintain it, social connection has reduced.

Most recently, Mount Vic’s had a special kind of gentrification, into Air BNBs.

Before Covid, most early mornings there’d be the sound of rattling suitcase wheels before light, as visitors left for early international check-ins at the airport.

Investing in that kind of gentrification has been an obvious choice for developers and home owners, given the suburb’s quaint housing stock (think San Fransisco again) and proximity to Courtenay Place, Te Papa, the Town Belt and its treasures like Innermost Gardens, to iconic St Gerard’s and its precinct, and to Oriental Bay and the waterfront.

Because of this history and geography, my submission didn’t have a lot of crossover with Anna’s submission. Once I was *almost* reassured, I changed focus, with some broader ‘Who Benefits?’ questions.

The first was ‘Will the elements of the Draft District Plan help de-gentrify and enliven Mount Victoria and provide housing for those now excluded, especially social housing?’

I don’t think so, because the Plan encourages Mount Victoria development that’s all about market forces. As Anna said about the Plan’s potential effects on Newtown, it is a ‘recipe for (accelerated) gentrification, not for quality, affordable housing’; and not about the overall well-being of people and community.

In Mount Victoria it will mean more new, big, expensive, single family houses, sometimes on sites where several households were accommodated in a house divided into flats. There will be more and expensive apartments, too.

Where does the Plan refer to housing that’s accessible to low-income students, artists, refugees, essential workers and single parents in this beautiful suburb?

Nowhere.

So the answer to ‘Will the elements of the Draft District Plan help de-gentrify and enliven Mount Victoria and provide housing for those now excluded, especially social housing?’ has to be NO.

I also agree with Anna that ‘Mixing building heights and types to this extreme in residential areas is not good anywhere in Wellington … Not all old houses need saving but increased housing density must be done well, at a scale and height that fits into the urban and social fabric of our existing streets without negative impacts’.

Will this Plan generate negative effects in Mount Victoria?

Those negative effects are to some extent dependent on chance, on which landlords/owners sell off their housing stock and when. But, overall, the Plan’s proposals seem more than likely to cause —

More wind tunnels in an already windy suburb that is becoming more windy because of climate change;

Random and ugly scales and heights;

Random losses of sun and views;

Loss of the remnant of community diversity that remains, and reduced community spirit;

A homogenous population of comparatively wealthy people, whether homeowners or transients;

Lots of dwellings without direct access to green spaces.

My final question was ‘Will the Plan make Mount Victoria even more of an attraction, for New Zealanders and international tourists?’

At the moment, those who aren’t lucky enough to live in Mount Victoria pour through it for recreational purposes: walking, jogging, on bikes, visiting the Town Belt, Oriental Bay and the waterfront and the top of Mount Vic. The scale of the suburb makes for a pleasant visit. But those negative effects would change that.

So, largely freed from my original concerns and with my questions answered, I looked closely at the Council’s map of Mount Victoria, to see where there might be options for housing that could include social housing without the negative effects of the current Plan.

My oral submission

Anna’s submission advocated for development in central Newtown and I believe there’s also a good argument for high density development along Kent Terrace, close to Courtenay Place.

But further up Mount Victoria, I think an &…&…&… (etc) approach calls for a little bit of sacrifice, of around 80 pre-1930s homes, as they become available, along the entire boundary between Mount Victoria and the Town Belt. Along that red line below. Unlike say Hawker Street, this is not a well-used visitor corridor, so arguably it doesn’t need the same protection. And as the land incrementally became available it could provide for 300–500 dwellings in high-rise buildings.

As a result, although the density transition over a couple of decades might be difficult for those already living along the boundary —

All those housed in 4–6 storey dwellings along the boundary would have light, sun, views and immediate access to green spaces;

In spite of the density, no-one below them would lose views; and would lose (perhaps) only a little morning light;
Development along this border wouldn’t affect public enjoyment of the Town Belt, because the boundary is on its downward slope;

Any necessary intensive upgrading of services would largely be confined to a single swathe of development and potential development;

The extent of the development would mean that social housing could be mandated within it, so the suburb is more accessible to a greater diversity of the population, who in turn would enrich it;

Protects the rest of Mount Victoria so it can be developed in a more holistic way, to allow for high-aesthetic-value visitor corridors and retention of historic scale and fabric, including — of course! — the Oriental Terrace zigzag in its current form.

More &…&…&…

In my oral submission I also drew attention to the potential for additional ways to address the housing problem. While making larger plans, could the Council also develop, support and incentivise smaller ones?

Home Share Movement
For instance, there’s the Home Share movement, now active in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and in Hastings, where older people share their homes with someone else in return for ten hours a week of company and support. That enhances social connection for older people who want or need that, and provides housing for individuals who want that.

Tiny Homes/Sleepouts
There are also changes to the Building Act that make it easier to build small sleepouts. But these require consents if someone wants to include sanitation/potable water/cooking facilities.

Why not streamline small, self-contained and safe small sleepout consents, so more people will be encouraged to build them? Especially if they plan to include off-the-grid components such as composting toilets, because these dwellings would then also contribute to resilience in a city that –

Is vulnerable to earthquakes;
Is vulnerable to climate change ‘events’;
Is vulnerable to problems with old pipes; and
Has a landfill problem.

The Queenstown model
In Queenstown, the Queenstown Lakes District Council initiated the formation of the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust, in 2007.

An independent, not for profit, community owned organisation, the trust’s housing programmes are designed to assist eligible low to moderate income households, who contribute to the district’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing and are genuinely struggling to commit to the area because housing is unaffordable.

Most recently it is offering — with conditions — 25 apartments for $200,000 each, the price they cost to build.

The trust receives funding through grants from Housing New Zealand and also through ongoing contributions of land, buildings and/or funds from private local developers who have committed support for community housing as part of the upzoning process of their land.

It must be possible for the Wellington City Council to initiate and support a similar trust in central Wellington?

Always more…

And I bet there are some other suggestions out there, too. One I’ve been thinking about lately is the development of land and buildings owned by various faith-based properties in our area. Could some of them be offered incentives to build some social housing units?

Read more about Marian’s submission here.

15 comments:

  1. Jump Rope, 8. February 2021, 10:11

    I see no need to develop the fringe suburbs with apartment blocks when there are numerous sites and derelict buildings in the CBD which are already zoned for this. The Amora hotel and adjacent car park building. The former Reading cinema car park on Tory st. The Reading cinema and rear carpark. The demolished building on molesworth st opposite new world. Even the council could get onboard with this, utilising the land the Oaks complex sits on next to Te Aro Park. Then there’s Kent and Cambridge terrace. If the demand is there and the zoning is there and the sites are there, why isn’t it happening? The council would be better off engaging with these property owners as to how we can develop these sites before we fire up the bulldozers.

     
  2. Harold Rodd, 8. February 2021, 10:26

    Spot-on, Jump Rope. It would be nice to hear Councillors debate your ideas in public rather than having a secret work-shop about it.

     
  3. Claire, 8. February 2021, 10:39

    It’s obviously escaped the WCC and the Govt on how to get together with developers and negotiate to acquire these sites. Kainga Ora has this power. But they are not going to get heaps of sections in Newtown because at the end of this people WILL not sell to developers. Thanks for highlighting Anna and Martin’s efforts. Certainly the commercial strip and surrounding sites
    is the best place for higher buildings. They could even be a bit lower and fewer, as infometrics data is forecasting only 26000 more people for all of Wellington over ten years. The proposal by Anna and Martin was not accepted as meeting the NPS DPS. Of course that was wrong.

     
  4. Ray Chung, 8. February 2021, 11:13

    Hi Marian (and Anna), Bravo! Congratulations and well-done on an extremely well-written and elucidated article. I love your thinking and attitude and would you like to consider coming up to address ORCA (Onslow Residents and Community Association) to talk on this? We also made submissions, both from ORCA and personal submissions as we have very strong concerns about the Khandallah village and many of the character houses in Khandallah. Unfortunately, our local councillor Rebecca Matthews has said that she supports the NPS-UD and the DSP but we feel that this is because she’s following the ideology of the NPS-UD and not listening to local residents. We meet on the second Wednesday of every month at the Khandallah Town Hall in Ganges Road at 7.30pm and I appreciate that it’s short notice but if you’re keen to come up tomorrow night, I’ll ensure we add this as an agenda item. You can write to me at ray@nichecom.co.nz if you prefer. We’re not as optimistic as Felicity and you about this council listening to any dissenting views.

     
  5. Toni, 8. February 2021, 12:23

    All very well to think most of the development should go in the inner city, which is now largest suburb in Wellington, but spare a thought for the infrastructure required to go with this. And where are the essential green spaces to ensure the health and well-being of inner-city residents? The inner-city already has a vital shortage of easily accessible green spaces close by apartment buildings to act as resident “backyards”. And where is the space for community centres, schools, day care centres, medical centres, and other essential services required for the expected increase in the largest “suburb” in terms of population, on the smallest land area?

    Unfortunately, the WCC’s focus on “build, build, build”, without coherent and comprehensive assessments of where and how the inner-city resident services and needs can be realistically accommodated, is more likely to result in overcrowded unsustainable community living with social and health problems.

     
  6. John Rankin, 8. February 2021, 14:50

    As an inner-city resident, I completely agree with @Toni’s comment. I find the notion of “amenity-dense neighbourhoods” helpful. A neighbourhood can be considered amenity-dense when a resident in that neighbourhood can walk to a grocery store, pharmacy, public transit stop and green space within one km; when there is a child-care facility, primary school and library within 1.5 km; and when they can reach a health-care facility within 3 km and a place of employment within 10 km.

    To me, “density done well” means more people have the opportunity (and can afford) to live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods. To identify where housing density should be encouraged (or discouraged), we first need a map of Wellington showing where the amenity-dense neighbourhoods are. What proportion of residents currently live in an amenity-dense neighbourhood? By how much will the Draft Spatial Plan increase that proportion?

    Those who don’t live in an amenity-dense neighbourhood are in effect living in a car-dependent neighbourhood. The definition of “amenity-dense” given above can no doubt be improved, but to me it offers a better framework for decision-making than the sometimes arbitrary-seeming decisions embedded in the Draft Spatial Plan.

     
  7. Marion Leader, 8. February 2021, 16:46

    Toni is right to ask where the green spaces will be in the central city. Can the councillors please make certain that Frank Kitts Park is kept as an open green space and is not made the home of a walled garden which is so dangerous that it will have to be locked at night?

     
  8. Ray Chung, 8. February 2021, 17:35

    Hi again Marian and Anna, sorry, I said our committee meeting is tomorrow night when it’s actually Wednesday night. Another thing is that we’re planning a public seminar on the Draft Spatial Plan on the 23rd of March where we have Liam Hodgetts, WCC Chief Planning Officer as guest speaker together with Structural Engineers, Architects, Builders and other experts so perhaps you’d consider speaking at this too? Cheers.

     
  9. K, 9. February 2021, 12:01

    Interesting post, though I’m having trouble understanding the call for more affordable housing and then the criticism of apartments being built in Mt Victoria. Apartments ARE the most affordable category of housing.

     
  10. Ray Chung, 9. February 2021, 13:31

    Hi K, I lived in apartments when overseas and lived in a town house in Elizabeth Street in Mt. Vic for a while but my preference is for a standalone house and garden. So as the expression goes, there are horses for courses. I think that we should have a mixture of all types and just let people choose. Apartments, like houses, have a wide range of prices too.

     
  11. Dave B, 9. February 2021, 22:26

    The suburb of Ngaio, where I live, has every one of the attributes mentioned by John Rankin (above) to qualify as an “amenity-dense neighbourhood”. This makes it a great place to live. Unfortunately right now it is far from “affordable”. So should we densify places like Ngaio with lots more housing? Or should we build more suburbs like Ngaio on greenfield land? Or should we convert suburbs that are not like Ngaio to be more like Ngaio? Perhaps the answer is some of all three?

    Should we avoid building further “amenity-lacking” suburbs (the extremities of Grenada Village and Grenada North spring to mind), and should we be seeking to retrofit amenities to suburbs that currently lack them?

    Churton Park is an interesting example of a suburb that started off as raw and lacking amenities in the 1980s, but has since come to flourish as amenities developed. This did not happen overnight. The supermarket, schools and bus-routes all took time to establish. But like Grenada, the further out Churton Park pushes, the greater the likelihood that its extremities will also become too far from basic amenities to remain convenient and walkable. Should new amenities be planned and built with the expansion? Or should they be allowed to develop over time as with the original suburb? Should the public transport go in first and front-foot the development (as the railway did in Naenae and Taita in the 1950s, and even Ngaio in the 1880s), or should the houses be built first and the public transport squeezed in later (as with Churton Park)?

    This is all quite different from densifying places like Mt Vic and Newtown, but the need to consider amenities and walkability is the same.

     
  12. Marian Evans, 9. February 2021, 22:30

    Gosh. Lovely to read all these! Thank you all!

    @John Rankin, I love the ‘amenity-dense’ idea: it seems like a sensible addition to the & & &… list, another factor to take seriously.

    @K my criticism is not criticism of apartments, I’d love one myself. But I’m concerned about where and how they may be placed, because the Draft Spatial Plan isn’t sufficiently nuanced. As I wrote, I think they’d be great running along the green belt boundary. Or provided in central Newtown’s commercial strip as Anna and John suggest.

    @Jump Rope, totally agree re the CBD!

    @Ray Chung I’m sorry I’m not free to come tomorrow night, but will certainly come and listen on 23 March if I can.

     
  13. John Rankin, 10. February 2021, 13:59

    Good questions, @DaveB. I think the answers need to start with data about the amenity-density of current neighbourhoods. If we discover that, say, 50% of Wellingtonians live in an amenity-dense neighbourhood today, we might set a goal that in 10 years we want that number to increase to, say, 60%. We would then set out to (a) increase the number of people living in neighbourhoods that are already amenity-dense; and (b) increase the number of neighbourhoods that offer amenity-dense living.

    Canada has good data about amenity density. In only 3 cities do more than 50% of the population live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods: Vancouver (72%), Toronto (56%) and Montreal (55%). Next comes Quebec City, at 28%. How does Wellington compare?

     
  14. Conor, 11. February 2021, 7:40

    “The Queenstown model” – Is this a joke? Are we seriously looking at the single most unaffordable community in the country for answers? I guess for some, ever increasing house prices are a good thing.

     
  15. Marian Evans, 12. February 2021, 22:58

    @Conor, if you check out the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust and how it was started, you might be pleasantly surprised? I know I was! All strength to those involved for making a difference in that otherwise hideously expensive town. Something similar could happen elsewhere, if people wanted it to, I reckon.