Housing as a human right has been a cornerstone of progressive politics, but people on the left are some of those most opposed to building more of it
(Update: Former Auckland councillor Mike Lee has taken issue with how he was characterised in the below story. His response and Newsroom’s acknowledgment is here)
Labour Party Prime Minister Norman Kirk may have said all Kiwis wanted was somewhere to live, but he never said it had to be right next door to his place.
Wellington City Labour Party councillor Rebecca Matthews is one of many on the progressive-end of politics calling out local body politicians of all stripes – including those on the left – who say they want more housing, but who push back at plans for higher density homes in their own ward or when it comes at the expense of ‘heritage’.
“People are quite clearly saying things like they’re okay with people who can’t afford a million-dollar home not living in Wellington – and I’m not okay with that.”
Wellington is just one of many city councils having these debates as they grapple with changes to their District Plan.
Many are trying to squeeze more housing into their cities by allowing developers to build more dense housing in traditionally low-rise inner city suburbs.
All councils will have to join them in this process thanks to a National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) which requires councils to redo their District Plans and remove many barriers to the construction of more housing.
However, all around the country some of the strongest voices pushing back against these changes are “progressive” left-wing politicians.
They’re unhappy with density or moves to replace heritage homes with concrete structures. Or simply with the idea of private developers potentially buying up land and making a fortune.
“I think that for progressive people to oppose housing densification is actively denying people homes and it is driving up the price of housing. Often for their own benefit as property owners.”
Auckland-based urban geographer Ben Ross described it as “Mike Lee syndrome” – a reference to an ex-Auckland City councillor who opposed parts of the city’s Unitary Plan.
“Mike Lee was a progressive of his time. Staunch unionist. Progressive ideals, but when it came to the intensification – especially his ward Waitematā – he just couldn’t get his head around it.
“Now I don’t know why progressives like that have a mind block. I just don’t know.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ex-Chief of Staff Neale Jones has been having similar issues with progressive opposition as he’s taken to social media in defence of plans for more intense housing in Wellington suburbs like Newtown.
“I think that for progressive people to oppose housing densification is actively denying people homes and it is driving up the price of housing. Often for their own benefit as property owners,” Jones told Newsroom.
As Matthews discovered it’s not just so-called “conservative” politicians around the council table who own multiple homes.
She inadvertently highlighted Green Party-aligned Deputy Mayor Sarah Free’s ownership of multiple properties when she captured a screenshot of declared property interests during her online pushback against NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard – people who don’t want more development in their area).
“That wasn’t my intention actually to highlight. I just cropped the photo to show my own. I’m not really trying to expose others.
“There is a generational thing here. I’ve met maybe one person under 35 who is against this stuff….people have got in this position because they managed to buy these houses cheaply many many years ago.
“And to be honest many of the people leading this debate are also multiple homeowners.”
So, is progressive opposition to density simply a case of people pulling up the property ladder after they’ve gotten themselves onto it?
‘Old white people’ aren’t stopping you
Former Auckland councillor Lee said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest councillors were protecting their place on the property ladder by opposing densification.
He argued many in the camp who wanted density had wrongly convinced themselves “old white people who control the council” were the only thing standing between them and an affordable home.
“[They] think that by deregulating everything in sight and building over open space and park land and tearing down historic or heritage buildings it will enable them to get onto the property ladder.
“For some reason these people don’t like me at all.
“The gang is against me. Greater Auckland. The Spinoff. Simon Wilson. Everything I say in terms of trying to argue for a sustainable policy for Auckland which conflicts with the Property Council and endless growth – they hate.”
Sue Kedgley, an ex-Green Party MP and former Greater Wellington Regional Councillor. has been making similar points online in response to the capital’s version of the unitary plan.
“Is that somehow now right-wing or something to have a single-storey dwelling?
“You can go all over the world and find these ugly high-rise cities which a lot of people want to move out of because they’re so alien, unattractive.
“To suggest that it’s somehow progressive to want to demolish inner city suburbs and put up a whole lot of high-rises is utter nonsense.”
Kedgley said she wasn’t opposed to density, but didn’t see why it couldn’t be restricted to the CBD area of Wellington.
Consider this a warning
The arguments are familiar to Women in Urbanism co-founder Emma McInnes.
“If we only built more housing in the city centre we’re just not going to fit everyone,” she said.
“Where are you going to fit all the high schools and the primary schools? You’re just not going to have enough room.
“We can’t just put everyone into the city centre it does need to be spread out a little bit more.”
Not all those in favour of density are displeased with the opposition. University of Waikato Environmental Planning professor Iain White said people who fought back against density often ended up stopping bad examples of it going ahead.
“Consider this an early warning for the kind of issues that the incoming government will need to address and that is around the quality of the places that we’re building.
“You can grow the ratepayer base of the council bigger by enabling density, but it doesn’t necessarily get you re-elected unless you can do it and take the community with you.”
Eleanor West of Generation Zero agreed cities like Wellington needed to “co-design” their future and seek to not make it a divisive left-right political issue.
However, she was also concerned at the direction the debate over density was taking in the capital.
“It’s important to preserve heritage, but it’s not necessarily more important than people’s health and wellbeing and I definitely believe we can do density well.”
“At the moment all they’re doing is protecting crumbling old villas that are not being upgraded and the people who are bearing the cost of living in these are people who can’t afford to live in a warm, dry home.
“When it comes down to it what they’re calling to protect here is the colonial heritage of Wellington.
“They say that that’s what makes Wellington, Wellington…I would disagree with that.”