1492133886375 - Auckland eyesore a symbol of Housing NZ’s failure

Auckland eyesore a symbol of Housing NZ’s failure

This story was originally published in Newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.  

OPINION: As city rat runs go, Mt Albert’s Asquith Ave does a pretty good trade. The calming influence of bumper bars makes it less attractive than it used to be as a cut-through from the village to near the North Western Motorway on-ramps, but that gives time to take in the vista of Auckland’s second-oldest suburb.

It’s a pleasant suburban street, stacked with old bungalows that have been around longer than the grandparents of most of us – where the young need a $200,000-plus deposit to stake a claim for a modest dwelling and older citizens on fixed incomes work out how they’re going to pay the $4000 rate bill.

In the heart of this kilometre or so straight stretch barely 10 minutes’ drive to Queen St sits what most passing motorists on their short-cut probably think is a park. A nice park, too – 8094 square metres of more-or-less flat land with mature trees. Ideal for walking the dog or flying a kite.

Except it’s not a park. Number 33 Asquith Ave is owned by the taxpayer (with a 2014 council capital value of $9.2 million costing $24,000pa in rates, and probably worth $15m or more on the open market today). It has become a local symbol of Housing New Zealand’s dawdling response to the city’s housing crisis.

READ MORE: * Housing New Zealand reveals plans for Asquith Ave Special Housing Area

How can the country’s biggest landlord take so long to start to deliver new homes on a prime site that’s been empty for four years?

The corporation (under different state guises) has owned the land since around 1970 when Mt Albert Grammar School shifted boarders to within the school grounds, about a kilometre away to the east.

Some locals may not have been entirely impressed to learn state housing was to rise on land where boys once played cricket and their carers grew vegetables to help feed them at the adjacent old school house. But the end result was agreeable enough: 30 one and two-bedroom units to accommodate pensioners displaced by the motorway construction from Pt Chevalier to the city.

The units were formed in three blocks, with parking behind, along two edges of the land – effectively creating a large park out the front, leaving half the site as green open space. Today’s eyes may not have looked especially kindly on the building aesthetics, but it was obviously an interesting development for its time, winning a New Zealand Institute of Architects award in the 1970s.

The architects’ website notes: “The units feature structural block walls and a rather aggressively geometric plan, but the current colour scheme, the addition of roofing over the pergolas, and a generally ramshackle air gives the complex a casual, Mediterranean village vibe.”

Well, perhaps. But by very early in the new millennium that vibe had disappeared. The Asquith units had become squalid and rundown – damp and decaying.

Until around 2012 it seemed to be used as a place of last resort for state tenants before decent accommodation could be found and locals soon noticed that vacated units were being left empty. Before long, no one was living there, and the barricades went up.

The question was endlessly asked, “What are Housing NZ going to do with the property?” The only answer was the bureaucrat-speak: “We are considering our options”.

Corporation executives spent the best part of two years considering those options – and then, in May 2014, finally showed their hand. Asquith Ave was in one of the early tranches of Special Housing Areas (SHAs) declared by Auckland Council and the Government under their joint Housing Accord.

SHAs are all about building houses quickly in a city straining for more roofs – fast-tracking developments past the concerns and potential roadblocks of neighbours. But this SHA has become mired in the desk trays of HNZ executives with too many projects to consider and without the public pressure of shareholder demands. So much for the need for new houses quickly.

It’s fashionable to blame the not-in-my-backyard instincts of locals as a key factor in the endless delays on a project that the original SHA documents suggested would bring up to 70 new homes. But the Nimby voice has been muted, though there was natural early concern at the scale of the development and how it would fit into a neighbourhood of predominantly character bungalows.

When the corporation finally unveiled its plans in March, 2016 (more than a year after the old buildings were demolished), the community was generally happy: 40 new units, 20 of them four-bedroom homes to be sold privately and 20 one-bedroom apartments in a two-storey block for state tenants.

The development was seen locally as a reasonable compromise – stylish modern homes mixed with small “social” units likely, because of their size, to be tenanted by elderly folk, solo parents or handicapped people. With some of the parkland retained.

It had taken an age to get this far, but most locals seemed to feel it was worth waiting for.

A public unveiling of the plan suggested an October start to the development to take advantage of the summer construction season, with a likely project completion in the winter of 2018.

The resource consent application was expected to be filed quickly, but this is a steamroller corporation without the urgency of private enterprise. Auckland Council received the consent request in mid-June and it was not until the end of August that approval was granted and the timeline given more certainty.

The steamroller inched on, exploring the special conditions imposed by the council, and it was later in November before tenders were finally called, with a shut-off date at the end of February.

Now locals have learnt Housing New Zealand is “still evaluating the returns from interested parties”. An executive reports: “Once this work is completed and, if HNZ is not satisfied with these proposals, then HNZ reserves the right to re-advertise. We are hoping this will not be the case.”

What does this mean? It’s uncertain, but perhaps it may come down to a lack of competitive tenders in a market where building contractors have all the work they can handle and – like hoteliers whose eyes are lighting up over the Lions rugby tour – are holding out for juicy margins on a difficult project.

Now, at the very earliest it seems work won’t begin until June or July – when the weather is least kind to construction schedules. Perhaps even much later. On that optimistic timetable, houses will be ready for sale or occupation at the end of summer of early autumn in 2019 – six or seven years since the last tenants moved out and almost five years since the land was declared a Special Housing Area.

Just last week, the Government disclosed it is funding 350 households to stay in Auckland motels at the moment – on top of the 265 emergency units it’s paying for through social service providers in the city, and the 650 that will need accommodating before winter.

With that background, the Asquith project seems an odd, leisurely response to a housing crisis by a state agency that is under pressure from its political masters to get cracking.

Bruce Morris is an executive member of the Mt Albert Residents’ Association and is a former deputy editor of the New Zealand Herald and editor of the Bay of Plenty Times.

This story was originally published in Newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.