Puriri Park is a quiet spot in the Maunu neighbourhood of Whangarei, but it has turned into a microcosm of the battle New Zealand now faces trying to improve housing affordability after a chasm has opened up between increasingly wealthy home owners and increasingly poor tenants.
It is a battle pitting property owners armed with the RMA against a Government’s hopes to solve a crisis of homelessness and unaffordability by building new state houses and apartments. Suburb by suburb, street by street, communities all over provincial and urban New Zealand face these battles as Housing New Zealand looks to ramp up its house build.
On a Tuesday evening, families play fetch with their dogs, teenagers gather to vape and ride bikes, and a kererū coos quietly from the nearby bush.
It’s an idyllic place, a slice of suburbia, but over the past year and a half, it has transformed into the focus of a battle between angry Maunu residents and Housing New Zealand, which wants to build a 37-unit housing development on part of the site. The suburb’s median house price of $661,500 is nearly 30 percent above that of the Whangarei District. The collection of mostly new homes and lifestyle blocks is home to a population where just 7 percent are Maori, whereas 24 percent of the Whangarei District’s population are Maori.
The controversy has raised questions of NIMBYism on the part of locals and an accusation Housing NZ has an ideological drive to increase housing density. Local MPs have become involved and the issues came to a head at a three-day hearing in Whangarei this week.
The park was, technically, never a park. Officially, the eastern portion of the park that HNZ wants to build on had been owned by the Ministry of Education for decades and zoned for residential living. In the absence of a school or other building on the site, residents have used it as a natural extension of the official district park.
“It has the appearance, currently, of being part of the park to the west,” HNZ’s resource management lawyer Douglas Allan admitted at the hearing.
The land was taken by the Ministry of Education from the original owners in the 1960s under the Public Works Act. It was originally designated for a school but has also been zoned for residential development since 1983.
In 2013, the Ministry began to go through the process of disposing of the land, said Whangarei MP Shane Reti. When Labour came into Government, that process was halted. Instead, the Ministry sold the land to Housing New Zealand, which had previously declined to buy it in 2013.
The details of the sale are a scandal in their own right, National MP Reti insists. The property was purchased for far below market rates, but HNZ’s expected return on investment is still significantly lower than the usual baselines for such purchases.
Although the final purchase price was $1.35 million plus GST, HNZ estimated the property’s current market value (CMV) as $1.45 million and the Ministry of Education thought it was closer to $1.6 million, according to emails obtained by Reti under the Official Information Act.
Written parliamentary questions submitted by Reti since April 2018 have revealed that the Puriri Park purchase had the single lowest incremental return on investment (IROI) of any land acquisition made by HNZ in the 2018-2019 financial year. HNZ’s usual benchmark IROI is 2.89 percent and only two purchases fell below that figure.
One, on Helensville Road in Dunedin, had an IROI of 2.7 percent. The exact IROI of Puriri Park is unknown, but was 2.61 percent when the purchase price was expected to be $1.2 million. With the addition of $150,000 to the final price, that figure would have dropped even more, Reti says.
Density a concern
Jules Wilson has lived in the Puriri Park neighbourhood for more than 20 years. He works at a veterinary clinic four minutes from his house and raised his kids here, playing regularly in the park. These days, he and his wife still visit the park to walk their greyhound.
Wilson has two main concerns with the proposed HNZ development. First, he’s worried about the loss of green space.
“I think the biggest thing that we’re struggling to bear is the loss of the green space. Cause here it is, this is the centre of our community,” he says. “This is where the kids meet at night to play their soccer, this is where everyone walks their dogs, you meet with your friends, you do all of those things. It’s a very warm community, very in contact with each other.”
The proposed development will take up more than half of the green space currently used by residents as a park – even though that space was already zoned for residential development.
His second concern is with the density of the development. The entire area, including the HNZ site, is zoned as Living 1 Environment in Whangarei’s District Plan. This means that houses are meant to be built on lots that are at least 500 m2. The building coverage for such neighbourhoods is supposed to be just 35 percent.
Moreover, the vast majority of homes in Maunu are single-storey homes, although this isn’t a requirement of Living 1 standards.
By contrast, HNZ plans to build 37 units on the site. Some of these, such as the three proposed five-bedroom standalone homes or four eight-bedroom duplex buildings, could well meet the Living 1 Environment Zone rules. Others, such as three duplexes and three triplexes where each unit is a one-bedroom home, would fall sort of the requirements.
Residents say the average proposed lot size is 238 m2. Overall, there are more than 100 non-compliance issues with HNZ’s application, they allege.
Residents also say the development’s largely double-storey plan will clash with the single-storey aesthetic of the neighbourhood and interfere with natural sunlight.
The diagram below, provided by HNZ, compares the proposed lot sizes of the development with those of surrounding homes.
Residents also worry about the pressure on ancillary infrastructure that the development would have. The addition of about 100 residents would increase traffic and lead to more on-street parked cars, they say.
Wilson says he has no problem with state housing in general and pointed out a handful of existing HNZ properties in the neighbourhood. “We have, already, Housing New Zealand houses in the area,” he says as he walks me around Puriri Park one evening. “There’s one,” he adds, pointing to single-storey beige house.
“They are pepper-potted within the community. We have no problem with that. What we have a problem with is the implantation of a whole new community of people concentrated in one area in a very unsympathetic fit,” he says.
Higher-density development on the cards
HNZ disputes the characterisation by residents of the development as high-density housing, arguing instead that it would be medium-density. Jeremy Brabant, an Auckland lawyer representing the Puriri Park & Maunu Residents Society, said at the hearing “that might perhaps be correct in an Auckland context”.
“I remind you that this proposal goes so far as to create a 96 m2 lot with 74 percent site coverage. That is supercharged density in anyone’s language.”
HNZ insists that the incorporation of smaller units into individual, larger duplex or triplex houses alleviates the issue of neighbourhood character.
“Those structures are similar in size overall to the houses in the surrounding environment and accordingly complement that environment rather than contrasting with it,” Allan said.
Moreover, HNZ says that it’s no longer possible to build housing in New Zealand that conforms to standards like Whangarei’s Living 1 Environment rules. Housing density has increased over the past two decades and it would be surprising if a 2019 development “did not involve an increase in intensity in comparison with the surrounding area (which appears to have been subdivided and developed over 40 years ago),” Allan said.
This is problematic because the vast majority of residential land in Whangarei is Living 1 Environment. A smaller proportion is Living 2, which mandates a minimum lot size of 350 m2 and 45 percent building coverage.
HNZ says this “only applies to a very small area of the city” and also notes that some of the proposed units wouldn’t fit this standard either. The final set of rules, Living 3 Environment, “provides for low density development on the periphery of the urban area”. It has a minimum lot size of 2,000 m2.
In other words, none of Whangarei’s residential zoning standards fit the need for medium- and high-density housing.
Reti says this attitude is representative of an ideological commitment on HNZ’s part to turn New Zealand into a high-density country. He said OIA requests had forced HNZ to turn over documents in which the agency claimed it wanted to “redefine the landscape of Whangarei”.
An email released to Reti under the Official Information Act and viewed by Newsroom showed HNZ development strategist Owen Davis saying that the higher-density development at Puriri Park would help set a precedent for the future.
“This site is seen as a strategic opportunity to provide the required housing typologies in Whangarei. The project works on the basis of current rules and with the expectation of support from [Whangarei District Council] the project will probably set a precedent for Whangarei for density,” Davies writes in the March 2018 email.
“This will help with other projects we are considering.”
Need for housing evident
However, the need for housing is clear to all involved.
The waitlist for state housing has reached 14,000 across the country, with 257 individuals and families on the list in Whangarei. That represents around 700 people who need housing in Whangarei, according to HNZ.
HNZ already operates 1,350 units in Whangarei, so the 257 additional people represents an increase of almost a fifth on the existing state housing population.
Many of the new Puriri Park residents could well come from the suburb of Otangarei, just 15 minutes and a world away. Almost half of Otangarei’s residents live in state-owned houses and, of these, 80 percent are beneficiaries, according to Martin Kaipo, CEO of Te Hau Āwhiowhio ō Otangarei Trust.
The Trust is a community group which helps Otangarei residents get back on their feet after struggling with drugs, alcohol, or domestic violence. It helps people find employment, housing and other resources they may need.
“This community has always had a stigma,” Kaipo says, but he thinks that isn’t deserved. When the Trust received better resourcing five years ago and began liaising with police, its initiatives saw a 50 percent reduction in crime in just two weeks, Kaipo says.
Nonetheless, people in Otangarei are struggling. “At night, you can go to some of the beaches here and you’ll see, cars will pull up, families will pull up, and they’ll line the beachfront. I thought they were having picnics, till my son was saying, no, they stay here,” Kaipo says.
He sees something wrong with the notion that Otangarei would struggle with high poverty rates while, just minutes away, the people of Puriri Park would refuse to house people in need.
“This ‘us and you’ talk now, it’s racism. It’s stuff from segregated countries,” he says. “You’ve got a community that doesn’t want people who have the right to exist, have the right to housing, have the right to good health, they say, ‘Not here, sorry.’”
Accusations of NIMBYism
The community’s resistance to the new development has left it open to accusations of NIMBYism. Residents reject this framing.
“We’re ordinary people, living in ordinary houses,” Wilson says. “They aren’t posh, they aren’t mansions by any means. I’m a great supporter of social housing. I’m a great supporter of Housing New Zealand putting their houses in between other houses, you know, interspersing them in the community.”
“That’s what they talk about, seamlessly merging Housing New Zealand properties within the community. And we have Housing New Zealand houses here and that’s not a problem,” he says.
Reti agrees. “I would contest NIMBYism because the community came forward with options that would help make it work and fit it in, and help deal with the housing crisis and Housing New Zealand did not move off their position,” he says.
He’s referring to a hui attended by residents and HNZ staff in which, according to Reti, community members offered a compromise to the agency: instead of social housing tenants, they would accept pensioners or first-home buyers.
But Reti is unable to explain why the community would accept some tenants and not others, if the loss of green space and damage to the character of the neighbourhood were the primary concerns.
“What the community says was that first-home buyers have skin in the game. It’s their home, they would look after it because they’ve got an interest in it,” he says. This subtly indicates, housing advocates say, that the community felt state housing tenants would not “look after it”.
In fact, some current residents are willing to say so explicitly.
“If my experience with HNZ tenants is anything to go by you are so right to fight this proposed development. I [bought] into my street but these trash tenants get placed into streets they could never afford and blue collar people like us are lumbered with their anti-social ways,” one resident wrote in a Facebook post on the issue.
“We all know of the results of these type of tenants,” another wrote. “Safety and peacefull [sic] living will be lost if the type of residents that HNZ put into there [sic] houses move into the area.”
Jenny Edwards has lived in Puriri Park for four years. She says she’s a planner and ecologist who sees a number of issues with the proposed development. One of her primary concerns, however, is the type of tenant who would move in to the development.
“Who wants state housing in their backyard anyways?” she says. “I grew up in waterfront Auckland and there was state housing in the next door suburb. Now, I own a rental property in that part of the suburb and state houses are right there basically. They don’t look any different to when I was at school 40 or 50 years ago.”
“They’re no different, the tenants are no different, the Housing Corp is no different at looking after the land. There’s rubbish everywhere, loud parties, bad language and bad behaviour. Robbing and things like that,” she says.
By contrast, Edwards says, Puriri Park is “a safe, crime-free area”. She says police attended one of the HNZ hui because “they know that if state housing comes up there, they’ll be up there a lot because of the sort of people that come with that”.
Hearing to decide development’s fate
After considerable and public opposition from local residents, including a fundraising campaign and the mounting of several billboards, HNZ voluntarily submitted the plan to a public notification process. This entails an independent hearing of the agency’s resource consent applications, which were required to be filed because of the non-compliance with the Living 1 Environment standards.
More than 300 public submissions were received by the independent commissioners, the vast majority of which were opposed to the development. The commissioners will make their decision based solely on factors that can be considered under the RMA – this excludes concerns about the loss of property values, “any perceived anti-social / crime issues”, or the availability of alternate locations.
Under National in 2017, the RMA was amended so that decisions on residential activity cannot be appealed to the Environment Court, in order to streamline the housing construction process. That means that any decision by the independent commissioners, which will be due three weeks after the end of the hearing on Friday, will be final.
None of the parties that Newsroom spoke with were willing to make predictions on whether the hearing would decide in their favour. Independent contractors hired by the Whangarei District Council to weigh in on the issue made a cautious recommendation in favour of the development.
However, in its submission to the commissioners, HNZ asked that “if you are inclined to decline the Application, HNZC asks that you issue an interim decision identifying any factors that contribute to that view so that HNZC can determine whether any mitigation or other steps can be taken that would enable consent to be granted”.