Last Sunday, Wellington mayor Andy Foster joined a protest at a housing development at Shelly Bay.
Wearing suit and tie, he pitched tents to support the occupation but then later told media he thought it was merely a “community gathering.”
Regardless, Foster’s attendance at the protest was inescapably seen as going against his own council, which days earlier voted to support the $500 million project.
Foster, who launched his political campaign on opposing the development at Shelly Bay, was on the losing side of that 9-6 vote. Shortly after, he declared it was “democracy in action.” Clearly, he has since reconsidered that position.
The mayor could not have picked a worse time for his stunt.
For years, councils across New Zealand have made it hard to build a house. Now prices are rocketing. Wellington house prices have doubled since 2014, up 20% in the last year alone, to sit at $785,000. In Auckland, the median house now costs $1M, more than ten times the median household income. Only Sydney, Vancouver and Hong Kong are less affordable. At current rates, Wellington houses will reach $1M in early 2022. Auckland will pass $2M in 2025.
These shameful statistics are the predictable result of poor policies and practices in councils, particularly their practices around resource consents. A 2015 study by Motu found the median time for councils to issue a resource consent is 18 months. Some developments waited more than eight years for a consent.
These delays are long enough to consume a significant part of the housing cycle. Apart from piling up costs on developers (and therefore buyers), delays worsen housing market volatility. Spikes in housing demand take years to turn into new homes, which leaves house prices to absorb the shock.
Foster’s support for protestors only signals further erosion of council processes. Developers already burdened by plan changes, community consultations and consents can now look forward to land occupations as well.
Future opponents of development will simply skip council processes if councils are unwilling to stand behind their decisions. And developers will not turn up at all.
Bigger protests may lie ahead. Increasing numbers of young people feel locked out of an asset class that has provided security and wealth for generations. Should hopelessness among Millennials turn to anger, pitched tents may be replaced by pitched battles.