Solving the Housing Crisis: What if Architects were the Rulers of the Universe?

Sensationalist title? Maybe, but let me explain.

Housing crises and housing affordability. It’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t feature daily in newspapers. There’s emotion and complexity around the topic. Solutions seemingly aren’t being offered, yet the airtime gives solace; some small comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

Auckland – a victim of its own success – has become too attractive. Accelerated urbanisation has forced a housing crisis and affordability issues. And its spreading to the rest of the country. Cities and towns that are ‘attractive’ pull people to live in and visit them, to set up businesses and to invest capital. We see it all over the world: Vancouver, Copenhagen, London, Sydney and Melbourne.

Population boom and economy can have profound effect on the development of a city. It’s like giving fertiliser to a plant in a pot that’s far too small. You can grow outwards or you can grow upwards. But at some point, you’ll run out of space and nutrients. Melbourne’s a prime example of this. The city has areas which are textbook perfect and operating like a healthy city should. And yet now are suffering from well-documented problems associated with too much density in some areas. Largely a result of side-lining their well-considered urban planning strategy, Melbourne 2030.

So how can we get it right?

As part of an architecture industry speaker series, Jasmax invited housing specialists and urban designers to talk about the subject. Welcoming Jeremy McLeod, Melbourne-based co-founder of the game-changing Nightingale Housing model, Leonie Freeman, a Housing Strategist with an incomparable CV in the NZ housing system, and Urban Designer Tim Robinson (Jasmax); an urban designer and architect with experience in both the UK and NZ.

Housing models, funding structures, density done well. The conversation was topical, decisive and practical. So I decided to summarise and share; with some of my wider consideration for good measure.

Here’s the top 5 points from the night:

[I’ll apologise now – the points are fairly Auckland-centric; it’s where the our most pressing issues reside, as do I…]

1. No New Wheels

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel with new developments. There are plenty of good examples overseas. We just need to decide what’s right for us.” Talking about the finer grain detail, site-by-site, Tim Robinson set the context. The critical obstacles to the housing solution are funding structures and delivery models. He says much of the battle can be resolved by some innovation around funding. We’re already starting to see different solutions, for example co-housing schemes and large funds able to leverage their long term lower yield model for housing projects. . And in models of ownership. Again, new models are creeping in, such as the NZ Housing Foundation’s shared equity and rent-to-buy products.

How do we make it happen in NZ? Just by doing it. Having a crack, trying things out, getting it 90% right, then fine tuning it.

2. The Usual Suspects

Who is doing density right? As ever the cities of Paris, Barcelona, Copenhagen, and the southern part of Manhattan were mentioned. Why? They’ve nailed density. The sweet spot for perfect density seems to lie between four to seven storeys. Dense enough to foster sufficient population numbers to support retail and business at the street level. Meaning shops, cafes and parks are busy and active. Yet low rise enough to keep people connected, forming communities.

Clearly the whole of Auckland is not going to become a six storey paradise anytime soon, and indeed the models described will not necessarily suit our population, topography or culture. However, the Auckland Unitary Plan, with its emphasis of increased density, around activity centres and key arterials is heading in the right direction.

3. The new battleground: NIMBY vs YIMBY

NIMBYs = Not In My Back Yard

YIMBYs = Yes In My Back Yard

YIMBY’s a phrase I borrowed from a Sunday Herald article*. It’s something new that I’d never heard before. Now this a huge generalisation and there are plenty of exceptions, but it does make a simple case for explaining the cultural shift in thinking between NIMBYs (largely baby boomers) resisting change and intensification, and YIMBYs (largely millennials). I see it in our own office, with the millennials particularly driving for change. They place social and environmental outcomes firmly alongside the right to a decent place to live. They’re driving hard for an alternative to the current models around the provision of housing.

Each generation rules a different time, is the NIMBY to YIMBY shift going to be the defining rule for the millienials?

4. Making the Model Triple Bottom Line

Nightingale Housing has produced a new development model that focuses on the triple bottom line. A housing model that equally considers dollars, environment and social factors. The group’s co-founder Jeremy McLeod reflected their surprise at the investor appetite for this model. Reminiscing that initially, these investors were friends, or friends of friends, of the Nightingale Housing group. This has inflated and now ethical investors are taking serious interest in the model; even when the return is capped.

A living example of ‘innovation around funding’. This model gives a healthy return on investment at significantly lower rate than typical development funders would require. In reality, the model appeals to groups of people who are interested in the same outcomes as each other. Everyone accepts a lower return (which is still a good market return), with any additional profit pumped back into making a better building. In these projects the architect is the prime decision maker. And that’s where I came to my belief that architects should be rulers of the universe. The point of difference is that the architect works directly with the development manager to stich the deal together. Preserving the triple bottom line.

There is demonstrable demand for the product in Melbourne and now Perth. Nightingale have a database of over a thousand people ‘wanting in’. While the number of built examples is still very small (one completed, one under construction, seven in the pipeline, more on the drawing boards), their challenge now is how to scale the idea.

5. NZ needs a Strategy & Vision

Leonie Freeman is a force to be reckoned with. She knows her stuff and has operated on various sides of the fence (public vs private sector) for many years. Her opening statement: “to solve the housing problem in Auckland and New Zealand, we need a wider view and a coordinating body to collectively set some kind of target, vision or strategy around that.”

I agree that there has been no long-term vision or strategy set around housing. Without having something to aim for, how are we going to get there? To cite an overseas example of setting a vision and sticking to it, let’s look at Singapore. In 1980, they had one of the lowest home ownership rates in the world (58.8%). In 2016, they became almost the highest at around 90.9%. That was purely about setting a goal and putting steps in place to get there. A little bit of dictatorship obviously helps too. New Zealand has a different political cycle, so our solution will be different. It may be a pipe-dream, but bipartisan political agreement around a long-term housing strategy would dramatically improve our chance for success.

In summary, the noise around this subject confirms the appetite for change. There’s a willingness in the design community to contribute. And it spans baby boomers, millenials, and a few in-between. Viable solutions exist in the world already. Nightingale’s one solution that proves housing models and funding can be social, equitable and democratic.

There’s real opportunity here for kiwi ingenuity. Let’s have a crack, the kiwi way.

This article is borrowed from James' LinkedIn profile. View and Comment here.

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