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In 2017, when Capital first looked at “stuck home syndrome” (people squeezed out of rentals and home-ownership, and others unable to find a roof over their head thanks to lack of social housing), then deputy mayor Paul Eagle declared that Wellington was “not in an Auckland-style crisis, but we are staring down the barrel of one”.
House prices in Wellington had risen 20%, with the median price around $530,000. The city was short 3,590 houses.
Three years on, what is the housing situation for Wellingtonians now, and what progress has been made?
At the Wellington Women’s House in Mt Victoria, two out of 16 rooms are empty. In each, a magazine, cushions, and a colourful throw add a welcoming touch. The beds are made up, and toiletries provided.
“That’s what you get for $159 a week,” says Margaret, the house’s manager since 2013. “You certainly wouldn’t get a room in Mt Vic for that.” The two rooms won’t be empty for long. The Wellington Women’s House offers low-cost, temporary housing to women experiencing homelessness. Margaret says the need to help people into housing has become absolutely urgent. “I have four referrals sitting here, from today. We can easily be full, and have a waiting list, by the end of the week.”
In the past three years, it’s got “far more difficult” to help women get into social housing, reckons Margaret. She “doesn’t recall” anyone going into social housing this year. “Usually we’d have a few.” Private rentals are often unaffordable. It’s particularly tough for older women who want a one-bedroom place. “But if you’re on the benefit, $350 or $400 is out of your reach.”
Ultimately, the women’s biggest issue is housing. “It’s all about housing. That’s what gives people their stability, their security. It’s that basic need, it’s housing first. Then deal with the other issues. In 2020 Covid-19 overshadows everything, yet the housing crisis is never far from the front pages. “Every month there seems to be a new story of higher rents, record house prices, and demand soaring for Wellington rentals,” notes Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen. “To me, these factors indicate that we haven’t addressed the problem yet.”
WCC says it does not have data available on the current shortage of houses. But, in 2017, it determined that Wellington City faces a shortfall of 4,600 to 12,000 houses from 2017 to 2047 based on the current population. Add in a projected population growth of 50,000 to 80,000 people, and the city needs up to 30,000 new homes by 2043.
In September 2020, the average asking price for a house in Wellington City rose to $818,400. Renters in the Wellington region pay the highest rents in the country – Porirua currently tops the charts with a record $625 a week, while Wellington City costs $600. Auckland’s median weekly rent, meanwhile, is $570. Nationally, there were 18,520 eligible applicants on the Housing Register as at 30 June 2020, an increase of 50.4 percent compared with the same time last year (12,311 in June 2019). Wellington City’s wait list has steadily climbed from 226 in June 2017 to 754, three years on. The entire region is under pressure, as buyers and renters look further afield. As of June, for example, Lower Hutt City’s wait list was at 584, up from 170 in June 2017.
“We have a housing crisis in Wellington, as in the rest of New Zealand, and the situation is clearly getting worse, not better. But we are trying, as a council, to make sure that the future is better,” says Wellington City Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who holds the housing portfolio.
That includes, she says, meeting the existing shortfall and planning for forecast growth, as well as making sure that housing is more affordable, particularly for those who need social housing and key workers.
Changes to rules to allow more housing and higher buildings should help the situation, she adds. They include the Council’s draft Spatial Plan, which will be finalised early next year, and the new Government policy statement on Housing and Urban Development. “But quicker action is needed from both the Council and the Government too.”
Sean Ternent, 20, left Paraparaumu for Wellington “to be close to the city and to friends” while studying for his NCEA level three online. He was forced to move from central Newtown to more distant Wadestown. He swapped his $240-a-week room in a damp, cold flat for a place that’s cheaper ($165) and better maintained.
But living in Wadestown is extremely isolating. His WINZ benefit was recently cut to around $200, leaving him $40 for bills, food, and travel. He’d like to work but “people are unwilling to hire because of Covid. It’s easier to stay home [because] I don’t have to think about spending any more money.” The renting situation in Wellington is “really urgent and the lack of urgency is worrying”, says Renters United spokesperson Zoe Woodfield. The situation is “much the same, if not worse” since the story in 2017. Rents have “skyrocketed” yet “the quality hasn’t got much better.”
People are being “squeezed out” of the CBD, and beyond, as rents get more expensive, she adds. There have been reports of students leaving Victoria University, or forced to give up studying entirely, due to the cost of renting. New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin says it’s difficult to be exact but estimates that “upwards of 100 students are leaving” this year, because of housing.
Students have to work to meet the rising rent costs. But Covid-19 has made finding work for many students “really, really, hard”, says Wellington Youth Council chairperson Ella Flavell. Porirua’s price hikes are partly due to “the Aotea effect” – renters can get bigger houses in new subdivisions. But Trade Me Property spokesperson Logan Mudge says heightened demand, coupled with a slowing market supply, is mainly responsible for pushing rental prices up. It’s the same across the entire Wellington region, he adds. “It’s very pricey if you’re in the market for a Wellington rental at the moment”. The 2018 Census confirmed that Wellington’s houses are significantly mouldier and more damp than in other cities. Some are “atrocious”, says Olsen. “People are paying high rents in Wellington to get access to comparatively poorer housing options than elsewhere in New Zealand.”
In 2017, then-mayor Justin Lester set up a Mayor’s Taskforce on Housing. It recommended the council act urgently on social, affordable and emergency housing. In 2018 WCC developed and adopted a housing strategy and action plan, one of the first in New Zealand, says Fitzsimons.
The current 2020–2022 action plan’s vision is “all Wellingtonians well-housed”. Fitzsimons says both she and Mayor Andy Foster are committed to progress on Wellington social housing. Planning for sustainability is key to ensuring WCC can offer social housing “well into the future”.
As at September 2020 there were 461 tenancy applications on the City Housing waiting list, compared with 369 at the same time in 2017. The current waiting list is 13 months. Demand for social housing in Wellington is growing, she says. One reason is rent levels. “Each [application] represents a family who needs a home and we have to do better for them.”
WCC’s 2017 commitment to building 750 social and affordable homes over a decade is “on track” says Fitzsimons. It involves third-party partnerships, and includes the rebuilding of Mt Cook’s Arlington Apartments, the city’s largest social housing complex, comprising three sites. “Arlington 2” is now “Te Māra”. Its 104 good quality social housing apartments, finished in late 2018, replaced 57 units.
Progress on the other two sites, Arlington 1 and 3, which originally had 213 units, have taken longer, because of funding difficulties. In 2019 Kāinga Ora agreed to lease the two sites for 125 years. It will build 300 units at Arlington, including 67 affordable homes and 40 “supported living” homes for people with complex needs like homelessness and addiction. Another Kāinga Ora development in nearby Rolleston Street will see 80 new homes, including 20 supported-living units. It is expected to be finished in mid-2022.
The Council is also building new social housing in Nairn Street and Harrison Street, replacing earthquake-prone council flats vacated by tenants in 2017. They were finally demolished in 2019. In late 2020, work on the Harrison Street flats is now under way with nine 3- to 4-bedroom houses being built, while planning is “progressing” for the Nairn Street site. This year has, inevitably, seen some delays due to Covid. But Fitzsimons denies progress on housing was faltering before that. “I don’t accept that it’s stalled. What is frustrating is that improving the supply of housing, and its affordability, takes time.
The Council can’t do it alone, and partnerships with Government, community housing providers and the non-governmental sector are all needed. “We’ve maintained that commitment to all Wellingtonians being well-housed, that is the council strategy on housing and we stand by that.” One partnership, Te Kāinga, involves the council and private building owners providing high-quality, family-friendly, long-term rental housing to workers in Wellington. The first apartment conversion, Te Kāinga: Aroha, formerly Freemasons House at 195 Willis Street, was unveiled in early November. Its 52 apartments are aimed at essential workers. It was developed by Ian and Alex Cassels of The Wellington Company and leased by WCC for 15 years.
The sixth-floor showroom apartment is spacious and stylish, with full-length, double-glazed windows overlooking St Peter’s church. Two-bedroom flats similar to this will cost around $600 to rent. Delayed by lockdown, the building will be ready for tenants in February 2021. Three similar projects are close to being finalised.
It’s hoped renters will stay long term, creating a sense of community and stability. Fitzsimons calls it a “groundbreaking approach” to increasing housing in the city, and a first for New Zealand. “Covid brought into sharp relief how important essential workers are. People should be able to live in the city to work in it.”