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The hare-brained MDRS

Medium Density Residential Standard

Labour and National have promised new homes to a generation by burying their normal political differences. Unfortunately, their secretive plan is so hare-brained it won’t deliver, just divide.

That’s not to say there’s no need for a circuit breaker. It’s hard to exaggerate how bad New Zealand housing policy has got in the past 20 years. The country’s practically uninhabited, but has the most expensive housing in the world.
The consequences are deep. Kids without a secure home get sick in motels and go to a different school each term. A generation wonders whether the whole system is rigged, and should they just leave or start a revolution.
I personally have lived this from all angles. As someone who bought their first home at 37, $1.2 million for a two-bedroom unit, I don’t just know we’ve got a problem. I feel it acutely once a fortnight. In case you think I’ve switched sides, I’d still like my next house to be cheaper.
As an MP, I talk to councillors, developers, planning experts, homeowners, and want-to-be homeowners almost daily. Council zoning does restrict home building but, since the Auckland Unitary Plan zoned in 420,000-one million extra dwellings, it’s not the biggest problem we face.
Developers and builders usually say something like; “Sure, there’s enough zoned land, the problem is delays. The council messes us around for months and we pay interest every day. When we need infrastructure connected it’s not there, even though we pay eye-watering development contributions. Don’t even ask about council building inspections.”
That’s usually before they get on to shortages of builders and materials.
Council figures say; “Honestly, we don’t wake up trying to dash the dreams of a generation every morning. The problem is everyone wants everything connected yesterday. The infrastructure we already have leaks. We can’t just tax a third of everyone’s income, we have to send a rates bill and people go nuts if we raise it even a few percent.”
Then, in wade Labour and National with an unconventional political manoeuvre. Both parties’ housing credibility is on empty. Like tired boxers, they have gone into a clinch. Boring for the fans, but much safer for them.
They have agreed to rush a law through Parliament by Christmas. It will allow three three-storey homes on any residential section in the five largest cities. There will be almost no exceptions. They call it the Medium Density Residential Standard, or MDRS.
The report they commissioned to justify the policy basically says; “when Auckland introduced the Auckland Unitary Plan, people built more houses in the areas zoned Mixed Housing Suburban and Mixed Housing Urban. If all of Auckland, and every other city too, was zoned MDRS there would be even more houses.”
The Government said the Housing Supply Bill will allow up to three homes of up to three storeys built on most sites without the need for resource consent.
It’s amateur hour stuff. Most land in the new Auckland zones has not been developed yet. Partly, it’s a matter of time, and partly the infrastructure and delay problems outlined above.
Adding even more zoned land to solve an infrastructure shortage is like buying more cars to solve a petrol shortage.
I have written to Labour and National with suggestions on how to get more homes built with less irritation. They should then fund the infrastructure with GST sharing, then use Auckland’s Suburban zone instead of the MDRS.
Last year, central Government got about $2 billion in GST off people building homes. We say the central Government should give half to the local council for pipes, sewage treatment plants, and other things they need to build.
Auckland, for example, would get about $400 million per year for infrastructure, boosting its capital budget by 20 per cent.
The MDRS is far more radical than current suburban zones. It allows a one metre boundary setback, up to 7.73 metres high. That’s a three-storey wall, one metre from the boundary. It could have floor to ceiling windows looking over the neighbour’s property, and there is nothing anyone can do about it because design standards are out.
None of that is necessary to achieve the modelled outcomes of more homes. Labour and National could deliver on their policy (infrastructure notwithstanding) without a new, radical, and unfamiliar zone. They should change the policy to make all residential areas the same as Auckland’s Suburban zone unless they’re already zoned denser.
Then there’s the process. The unconventional deal had to be secret. Senior Auckland council figures were refused even a pre-announcement briefing. Labour and National worked secretly at the expense of good policy.
Now the law will be rushed through select committee (something Labour and National would both go berserk about if the other did). Councils under Alert Level Three will have had almost no time to contribute. They should delay the timeframe and do real consultation, even if it means their policy gets rolled out in election year.
By taking those steps we might get homes built and keep the community united. The alternative is to push ahead and divide the community for little gain. People will conclude that National fouled up housing, Labour fouled up on housing, but when they combined, they fouled it up beyond all recognition.

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