National’s housing spokeswoman Nicola Willis has been going toe to toe with the Government over its response to the housing crisis. Willis spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the drivers of dysfunction in the market, her party’s own battle to keep prices under control while in power, and whether meaningful change is possible.

Before taking on the National Party’s leadership, Judith Collins’ high point during the last term of Parliament was almost certainly skewering Housing Minister Phil Twyford at every turn over the Government’s failure to live up to its promises on housing.

Collins’ rise to the top job, and Twyford’s demotion down the ranks, put an end to the battle, but there was a sense of déjà vu when their respective replacements Nicola Willis and Megan Woods did battle during Question Time last week over whether or not the Government’s progressive home ownership scheme could be claimed as a success.

It was not as one-sided as some of Collins’ exchanges with Twyford, but Willis has so far shown herself to be an able replacement in holding the Government’s feet to the fire over the issue that arguably propelled it to power in 2017.

Willis first took on the shadow housing portfolio when Todd Muller ousted Simon Bridges as National leader, only to drop the role when Muller himself stepped down and Collins asked her to replace the retiring Nikki Kaye in education.

In the wake of the party’s devastating election loss, the opportunity to resume the position arose, and it wasn’t a chance she could turn down given the importance of housing to most of New Zealand’s social challenges.

“When you think about education, one of the indicators of a lack of educational achievement is transience, and why are people transient? Well they’re having to move from house to house because they can’t afford the rent on offer,” she tells Newsroom.

Based in Wellington, where median house prices have risen nearly 28 percent in the last year, the MP has also had a front-row seat to the effect of the overheated market on local residents.

Young Wellingtonians feel “completely locked out of the idea of homeownership” and are moving elsewhere as a result, while students and others in the rental market are crushed by the high prices there.

But what exactly is driving that dysfunction? Willis argues the country’s overly restrictive planning and land release regime is primarily to blame, giving local councils the ability to block land from development and intensification while leaving efforts to open up supply subject to lengthy legal challenges.

“There’s no doubt our housing challenges have built up over successive governments: this is not actually a blue-red thing, and I think people are a bit over Labour blaming National, National blaming Labour.”

The Government’s efforts to deal with the demand side of the problem through measures like the foreign buyers ban and efforts to rein in speculators haven’t had a meaningful impact on the market to date, she says it is the supply side where real change is needed.

While Labour has since had its “come to Jesus” moment – as she puts it – on reforming the much-maligned Resource Management Act, the changes will take several years to come into effect, meaning urgent measures are needed now.

Of course, National’s track record on housing during its years in power could give some New Zealanders pause for thought about whether the party can be trusted now: median house prices rose by 46 percent between 2008 and 2017, while the public housing waitlist roughly doubled over the same period.

Having only entered Parliament after the 2017 election, Willis herself is relatively untainted by the last government’s failures but says she tries to be upfront about the problems predating the current administration.

“There’s no doubt our housing challenges have built up over successive governments: this is not actually a blue-red thing, and I think people are a bit over Labour blaming National, National blaming Labour … I see my role as saying, ‘Okay, if we were genuinely here to solve the problem, which we are, what would we do?’ Not, ‘How can we ascribe blame to either political team?’”

She understands the frustrations of Kiwis who feel all politicians have failed them when it comes to housing but says National is trying to be constructive, pointing to its offer of bipartisan support for measures that would allow councils to more urgently release space for development, even though any action in that area could lead to “political fire”.

In that spirit of bipartisanship, she offers praise for the Government’s RMA reforms and its national policy statement on urban development – albeit with the qualification both have taken too long to develop and will take too long to make a meaningful effect – but argues much of its other work in the area has been too piecemeal, such as its progressive home ownership scheme.

“Progressive homeownership as a concept is wonderful, but it has only resulted in 12 people getting a home, so I think the Government has focused a lot on the stories and the PR and less on what are the really substantive levers that will shift our housing challenges in a meaningful, enduring way.”

Intensification of existing neighbourhoods can be a challenge for residents, Nicola Willis says, but is a necessary concession for the national good. Photo: John Sefton

The issue of whether politicians have a vested interest in the housing market, given the disproportionately high number of properties many own, is another critique often raised but not one that Willis believes holds water.

“I think people are overly cynical about politicians: you simply don’t come to Parliament unless you want to make your country better, and you would have to be very foolish right now to not see that our housing shortage is driving so many of our social and economic problems.”

(In the register of pecuniary interests, Willis declares four houses; she tells Newsroom she only owns one of those, with a mortgage, while the other three are owned by her parents through a trust in which she and her siblings are discretionary beneficiaries in the event of the former’s deaths.)

More broadly, she believes talk of a generational war between property-owning boomers and younger Kiwis locked out of the housing market is off the mark, citing a recent presentation she gave at a meeting of Super Blues (National supporters aged 65 and over).

“A lot of them have children … who have struggled to own a home, and many of them are deeply worried that their grandchildren will never own a home, and that to them changes their idea of the way our society should operate…

“They aspire to a New Zealand where people buy their little piece of our paradise, they invest in it, they put down roots with the family and the community, and they’re part of growing the fortunes of our country – not feeling like they’re sitting to the side and watching others do that.”

There can still be resistance on issues like intensification in existing neighbourhoods, and Willis believes authorities need to do a better job of improving infrastructure as density increases, but she is unmoved in her belief that cities can’t become “museums” of heritage buildings unfit for use.

“I am absolutely robust about the fact that if we don’t all give a little in terms of changing the way our neighbourhoods look, then we all stand to lose an awful lot, and I think that people are smarter than they’re often given credit for.”

“For a lot of New Zealanders right now, they would look at the value of their house on paper, and that would not feel very real to them, so you do have to ask yourself whether people really feel like they’re benefiting from that growth.”

In part due to the fear of alienating those who already own their own home, politicians often struggle to answer what seems a simple question with an obvious answer: do house prices need to drop in order for them to become affordable?

Willis hedges at first, saying only that “certainly the price of building a new house needs to drop” and arguing it isn’t for politicians to decide where house prices should sit, only to set the framework for the market and see how things move.

But pressed again, she offers a diplomatically-worded response which suggests – only faintly – a moderate fall in prices would not necessarily be the worst outcome.

“For a lot of New Zealanders right now, they would look at the value of their house on paper, and that would not feel very real to them, so you do have to ask yourself whether people really feel like they’re benefitting from that growth … I reject the idea that house price rises are a universally good thing for those who are already in the market [and] I don’t think that’s the way people see it.”

She is also optimistic that meaningful political change to fix the housing crisis is possible – not least because there is no other alternative.

“I don’t think anyone in New Zealand wants to tolerate a situation where there are 6000 people being subsidised by the Government to live in a motel, where we are spending billions of dollars subsidising private rents through the accommodation supplement, where we have a generation of people who feel that no matter how hard they work or save, they’re not going to be able to own a home.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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