Thursday, 3 March 2016

How 'special' are Special Housing Areas?

Three months ago I went and had a look at a Special Housing Area (SHA) that had been set up not too far away from us in Browns Bay (if you're not au fait with the whole SHA thing and the Housing Accord, you'll find Auckland Council's guide handy).

As I said then, I came away thinking that calling it an "area" was pushing the ordinary meaning of the word: it was actually one site, at 4 Bute Road. I wasn't convinced there was much "special" about it, either. Lots of other mixed retail/residential blocks had already been developed along Bute Road, and giving accelerated planning permission to something that would likely have sailed through in any event didn't seem to me to be much of a nudge towards faster housing supply. In any event, 4 Bute Road didn't seem to have benefitted much: nothing was happening on site.

Over the weekend I went back to have a look and see how things have progressed since then. And the answer is, they haven't. The big tree next door has had a good summer, but that's it.

All of which is a bit odd, as the supposedly fast-tracked SHA site is still sitting there, while further along Bute Road, non-SHA developments are coming along fine. Here's a big new five-storey one, for example, at 1/23 Bute Road.

So I went to have a look at another local SHA, at 586 and 588 East Coast Road. This is an earlier one: it was part of a batch that were designated SHAs in September 2014, whereas 4 Bute Road got the nod in August 2015. Here's what it looks like: it's the bungalow with the grey roof in the centre of the picture, plus the house with the orange roof behind the pine tree.

Again, this is stretching "area" a bit, but I suppose two average-sized sections make an "area" of some sort. Whether it needed or benefitted from "special" designation is anyone's guess. It's true that there aren't other apartment blocks in the immediate vicinity, so maybe the developer would have been attracted by faster-track consent (under the SHA process) for a 39-apartment development, instead of some more protracted bunfight. But on the other hand there's already a 2-storey business park thingie next door (you can see the edge of it in the left hand side of the photo), so putting in a smallish apartment block wouldn't be that much of a planning consent hill to climb.

In any event, nothing's happened on this site, either, though to be fair the original SHA announcement in September 2014 talked of a timeframe of "the next 24 to 36 months", and said "There is an intention to have the residential housing project completed in the early part of 2017".

Where all this leaves me is this. I'd like to believe that "Special Housing Areas" greased the wheels of the housing planning process, and either accelerated or increased new construction, or both. That would  be a great outcome on one of our largest national infrastructural challenges: skyrocketting Auckland house prices, as we know, have had ramifications all over the place.

But how will anyone definitively know? At one level, it's not that hard to create an anecdotal trail (as I've just done) of slow SHA development and as-fast or faster non-SHA development, and to convince yourself that they've had no impact on supply at all, or even held it up. It's possible, for example, that the central quid pro quo of, broadly, faster planning consent in exchange for inclusion of some "affordable" units within the development, never took off enough to make any difference.

But for a policy this important, I'd like to think there'll be some more sophisticated analysis of whether it's working. Granted, MBIE and Auckland Council have, between them, come up with a series of informative monitoring reports: you'll find the latest one, covering the period October 2104 to September 2015, the second year of the Housing Accord, here. It's got lots of useful data, such as this graph (on p15) of what's happened to housing consents since the Housing Accord kicked in.

The problem, for me, is that the data, while useful, don't really answer the question, did the SHAs make a difference? We don't know how much of this recent consenting and development would have happened in any event - in fact, while consenting has picked up substantially in the Housing Accord era, it hasn't yet consistently reached the levels that Auckland managed without Accords and SHAs in 2002-04 (and in a smaller Auckland back then, too). So I'm hoping that someone - an economic consultant with an interest in housing, maybe? - will be asked to turn their minds to a proper 'with and without' exercise: matching a bunch of otherwise similar SHA and non-SHA areas, and checking to see if the SHA ones outperformed in speed or quantity.

Incidentally, the monitoring report mentioned, in passing, a couple of truly appalling facts about the slowness of the normal planning process. It was giving some case study examples (on pp6-9) of where SHA planning processes have got things moving faster: it said, for example (p9) that "Within two years of the start of the Accord, homes are being delivered in SHAs like Weymouth and Northern Tamaki and sections delivered in special housing areas like Whenuapai Village".

Jolly good: but the report also noted that these were "processes that would normally have taken 4 or more years", and earlier (p6) it said that "Under the Resource Management Act 1991...the rezoning of brownfield sites to enable more intensive development can take between 2 and 6 years".The Second World War took six years. I don't think a planning consent needs to.

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