NZ housing market: Broken and desperate

“Our housing system is broken and desperately needs fixing”, says Dr Kay Saville-Smith, a sociologist and the director of the Center for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment.

She has undertaken extensive research into housing markets, retirement villages, sustainable and accessible housing, and neighborhood built environments. 

“Housing is a critical sector of NZ that’s been neglected and sidelined for far too long. If the system works it will work for most people. But currently it works for very few. For older people in particular there’s a growing divide between a majority that are ok and an increasing minority that are finding themselves in very difficult circumstances.”

Dr Saville-Smith sees herself as an activist in relation to housing, and that’s led her to standing up for a whole lot of vulnerable people, older people included.

“Although they have a whole lot of knowledge and skills that they bring to our community they can be very stigmatized. Where Europe has looked at the way older and younger people can mutually support each other, we’ve separated the needs of our population. That is not a good way to deal with society, let alone develop good policy.”

Dr Saville-Smith is currently leading the Life When Renting research programme funded by the Ageing Well National Science Challenge.

“As our population ages more people are going to have to work well into their retirement years and the proportion of renters will rapidly increase. The rental market is very fragile and dynamic and although older people have traditionally been seen as good tenants, many older tenants have limited means and can’t afford to have their rents raised. So if you’re a landlord in an under supplied market you’re going to be asking yourself: ‘Do I want to keep this person in this tenancy at this rent or shall I push them out?’. We need to work out how we can better support landlords to support tenants and vice versa.”

Housing is a critical sector of NZ and has been ignored for too long

And she says there are challenges for older homeowners too.

“It might look easy but it’s not. They might seem incredibly asset rich, but then they have rates increases and limited choices when trying to downsize. Often older people feel so overwhelmed by their dwellings that they can’t cope anymore. They also get pressure from other people, often well-meaning, that forces them to find solutions before they’ve had a chance to think about the problem and look at the variety of choices they have.”

Dr Saville-Smith is also leading a research programme about the tools and logics used by different parts of the sector when making housing and planning decisions.

“We need to stop this situation where the current building code absolutely excludes any requirement for residential houses to have Lifetime (or Universal) design.[1] We have a thermal code, fire requirements, a whole lot of stuff, but no requirements for making it accessible. So here we are with an ageing population and new housing stock that never improves. I can’t understand it, it’s absolute madness.”

She is hopeful that our current government will lead the rehabilitation of our housing system.

“We’ve had an addiction to high house prices and we’ve never been able to deal with the fallout of that and what that means. Like any addiction, the first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem and at least the current government has done that.”

But she wonders whether they will be “brave enough to pick the scab off”.

“In the 90s the old housing system was dismantled and since then no government has really stood back and looked at how the whole system works. I’m interested to see whether the current government will do that, or whether they will just deal with the symptomatic issues, like homelessness for example.”

Lifetime or universal housing designs need to become more prevalent

[1] Lifetime or Universal design is about creating homes that are safe, convenient and accessible regardless of physical ability or life stage. Homes are designed in such a way that they are accessible to everyone – from young children to older adults.

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