What can we do in the interim, given the very real world constraints of:
- Very limited Council capacity;
- Very real infrastructure constraints that can put limits on extensive brownfield densification;
- Time to build even if we moved right now to whatever the perfect zoning rules might be?
John Fountain, my colleague here at Canterbury, has been trying to help square the circle. How? John has a house in Governor's Bay that's larger than he needs. He wants to build a flat into the house. But it is against Council regulations to put in a flat. Christchurch Council has made it illegal for John, and people like him, to help to make more housing available quickly. Yes I am shouting. More people should be shouting. I'm surprised we haven't seen bricks going through planner windows. I'd certainly never condone such behaviour, but I'd understand.
Here's John, who's more typically Canadian in tone:
John then slowly walks through how it's unlikely to be in any property owner's financial interest to build a flat into their existing property if it has to be pulled out four years later.
And, worse, the regulations require that the units accommodate specific persons who are earthquake-displaced. The thing about housing is that even if you accommodate somebody who isn't specifically earthquake-displaced, you're still making room for the displaced person to go where that newly accommodated person otherwise would have been. The first big tick-box on the Council consenting check-list requires you to indicate whether your flat would accommodate somebody whose house was destroyed, who's displaced because of reconstruction, who's displaced because of land remediation, or who's displaced because of risks posed by adjacent structures. You can't use it to accommodate somebody who's moved into town to run a big construction crane even though building something to accommodate that guy frees up a space for an earthquake-affected person elsewhere.
So John reckons he could, for about $110k of his own money, put in a 70 square meter 2-bedroom unit at his place that would rent out for about $300 per week. That makes sense if he can pay off the investment over a term longer than 4 years, and if he doesn't have to pre-specify, before he even builds the freaking thing, who'd live there and guarantee it would be an earthquake-affected person.
It would be very easy for Council to ease up on the current draconian regulations to let people permanently build self-contained flats into their existing properties. These would be dispersed around the city; you wouldn't expect to have large effects on trunk infrastructure. Council wouldn't have to spend anything - just get out of the way. Here's John again:
Here's John on how this kind of solution works in Vancouver. Here's more from John on secondary suites. Here's where John hit the kitchen "stumbling block" for developing a flat on his property.
Is there any plausible negative effect of allowing this kind of subdividing that outweighs the benefits? Why does Christchurch Council make it illegal for my colleague to help ease Christchurch's very real housing shortage? We have an earthquake-Czar who's supposed to be able to ride roughshod over Council stupidity to get things done. This is worth getting done. It would open up a pile of new rental properties that are currently in scarce supply, and it would do it faster than building new.
Every other city in the country should be looking hard at its existing set of regulations and weighing up just how much fragility they've built into their systems in case of sudden and devastating reductions in housing supply.
Update: See also John's post here that points to a City of Vancouver study on secondary suites.