New Zealand needs to change its approach to housing completely, and treat it as a public right, like health and education, property developer Mark Todd tells Eleanor Black

Mark Todd doesn’t want to talk about the housing crisis, although that’s ostensibly what we met to discuss. Topics of greater interest include wages, the failure of trickle-down economics, and the custom-made, double-glazed green bricks which will clad his new Ponsonby apartment building.

To be fair, the co-founder of Ockham Residential has spent years talking about the housing crisis, particularly as it relates to Auckland, where the median house price is now $1.1 million. Sitting with a coffee at Mt Albert’s Taco Loco, he gestures towards Ockham’s Modal building across the road – 32 thoughtfully-designed rental apartments on just 680 square metres, with a shared residents’ lounge and balcony, indoor bike storage, easy access to public transport, efficient hot water system and a music room.

It is black and sleek, shaped like a ship’s prow, and is a prime example of the vision Todd and his business partner Benjamin Preston have for sustainable, affordable and comfortable housing.

It’s a few days after the Government announced measures to cool down the property market, and Todd is lukewarm on the subject. Not about the changes – he thinks removing tax incentives for landlords with multiple properties, for example, is a good move. But the whole notion of trying to dampen property prices almost seems to bore him. Sure, let’s do what we can right now to halt house price escalation. But as far as he’s concerned there is a far better solution to the yawning gap between what people earn and the cost of housing: set policy to double incomes (and the minimum wage) over the next decade.

“The housing crisis is by the by – it’s the canary in the coal mine, the lens through which you see macroeconomic policy failure,” he says. “It’s not land supply or the failure of the RMA that is the principal problem. “It’s the fact that wages are in the fucking toilet. They’ve become decoupled from house prices.”

With wage increases typically tied to the consumers price index (CPI), and ignoring the surging increase in asset prices, notably housing, a chasm has opened up. “It would be easier to double wages than to halve the price of housing. We have plenty of wealth: it’s just not being distributed equitably, and everyone’s scared to call a spade a spade because we’ve had 40 years of being scared of talking about the public good.”

He pulls up an opinion piece from the New Zealand Herald on his phone, “Why the Government’s housing policy is shambolic”, by Dr Bryce Wilkinson of the New Zealand Initiative. It begins: “Suppose you have an apple orchard.”

Todd’s reaction is physical. He sort of snorts and leans over his phone, before returning it to the table with a sigh. By his reckoning there are three pillars of a working society: health, education and housing. In New Zealand we treat education and health as necessities to which everyone is entitled to decent access, but housing is treated like a commodity.

Mark Todd has big issues on his mind. Photo: Adrian Malloch

“In any functioning society, you would hope the population has access to decent housing at an affordable cost,” he says. “I don’t think that’s socialism, that’s just sensible. When house prices go up 20 percent as they have in the past six months, that affects probably the bottom 70 percent of families in this country, so I’m not interested in any analogy that housing is like any other business – it’s claptrap.”

He doesn’t accept that rents are about to spiral crazily upwards to reflect higher costs for landlords who bank on tax deductions. Nor does he have sympathy for property investors whose holdings are suddenly less profitable. “All those wankers you see in the paper that are 32 years old and ‘I bought my first house at 22 and now I own 12 houses’ have just been lucky enough to be in this 10-year period where [house prices have soared] and they just keep re-leveraging. Well, those guys will be fucked, which is good. If you want to invest in property, do something useful like build a house or buy a new one.”

But Todd has bigger issues on his mind. He says the whole global political system is broken, that we live in an era of severe political decay. As best he can tell via online searches, he paid more in New Zealand tax last year than Google, Uber and Facebook combined, which is obviously ludicrous. There is vast wealth being created around the world, but it stays in the hands of a tiny few.

He leads a tour of the nearly completed Kōkihi development in Waterview, with its spacious community lounge and kitchen leading to a sunny deck and shared swimming pool. This is a partnership build, in conjunction with Marutūāhu Iwi, and 47 of the 95 apartments are KiwiBuild homes. Todd is rightfully proud of the quality of the finish, from the soft-close kitchen drawers to the raised brick patterns on the exterior walls, which are based on the tukutuku panels of the Hotunui meeting house.

Another joint project, Aroha, is underway at Avondale. These two developments are representative of the power of the collective, the benefits of living together in a community. In contrast, Todd is also working on a “highly unaffordable” build in Ponsonby, which will be clad in the aforementioned double-glazed green bricks, chosen to represent the natural colours of the Waitakere Ranges, “The jewel of Tāmaki Makaurau,” Todd says.

The green will deepen and lighten as the sun moves throughout the day – Todd can’t wait to see how it looks. This project is unapologetically high-end, a chance to work with colour and impart a design legacy. “Our goal is to distil our view of what the Aotearoa aesthetic might be,” he says.

Todd at the bike storage area at the Modal apartments, Mt Albert. Photo: Adrian Malloch

Similarly, Todd is thinking about his purpose. For 12 years he has been working to transform the face of urban housing in Auckland. His small, socially minded company has made a big impact (and not just in housing: think Ockham NZ Book Awards) and there is more on the horizon.

“I don’t want to be involved in politics. I realise that our national discourse is rarely enriched by wealthy white guys holding forth. But I feel I’ve got an obligation to speak out on the housing issue. Being vertically integrated, we know a bucket-load more than most commentators and economists about the challenges of affordable housing. And I’m sick of the solution space to housing unaffordability being arbitrarily straightjacketed by urban sprawlers and RMA reform fetishists. It’s dim-witted and intellectually dishonest. It’s just wrong.

“What we really have is a serious, systemic wealth distribution issue to deal with – housing is the prism through which you see this inequality of wealth most clearly.”

* Ockham Residential made a donation to Newsroom in 2020 to support local journalism through the pandemic. 

Eleanor Black is an Auckland freelance journalist and former senior writer at Stuff and the New Zealand Herald

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