Serious concerns expressed over inner city housing

The “central city” area of Christchurch was particularly badly affected by the earthquakes of 2011. On Monday 28 April 2014, Tony Milne facilitated a meeting with local residents and some other interested parties.

Although most of those involved in the meeting, were happy to be photographed or recorded, I was unable to get permission from everyone before the meeting started. Therefore no recordings were made by me, or by any others.

That was unfortunate as a more complete record of the evening would have served better, the interests of those members of the public who were unable to attend on the night. This report therefore is taken from my written notes.

Held at the Oxford Terrace Baptist church (now in a refurbished hall, since their main church collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake), the pouring rain from earlier in the day, had stopped, although it was still a bleak and wet evening.

The turnout was about 35 people in all, many walking from their homes nearby. Included in the audience was Megan Woods the current Labour Party MP for Wigram and Phil Clearwater, a councillor with the Christchurch City Council. Starting a few minutes after 7pm, Tony Milne gave a brief introduction.

The first speaker I shall refer to as “Ms S.” She’s lived in the local area for 10 years but expressed concerns over how the government would achieve their stated aim of getting 20,000 people to live in the central city. (Before the earthquakes, the inner city population was about 7,500, it is currently about 4,500).

Where are they going to live, she asked, especially when some of the current residential zoned land is being re-purposed for commercial interests. Ms S. has had meetings with Mike Greer (a well known name in house construction in Christchurch). One thing that had improved, since the earthquakes though, was the sense of community amongst local residents.

David Thornley was next up and he spoke about the population of the Inner City West area. The population there, he said, had dropped by some 46% after the earthquakes (far worse than the 27% loss of housing in the Northern and Eastern CBD areas).

Going by CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) figures, of some 15,000 homes lost city-wide, Mr Thornley heavily criticised the CERA/Brownlow policy of having opened up so much new land in greenfields developments (greenfields = previous farmland on the outskirts of the city, being rezoned for big new luxury housing developments). He said that that policy had further hamstrung rebuilding of housing in the inner city and closer-in suburbs.

“We need 8,000 to 10,000 new homes” Mr Thornley said, and that CBD land currently designated residential must remain as residential ONLY and NOT be taken over for commercial use and development. We need to have LESS central government control and MORE community involvement.

Di Lucas was next up and used a range of powerpoint slides on the big screen to illustrate her points.

She reckons we should be making far more use of wood especially “engineered timbers” in the rebuild. She’s been heavily involved in the proposed Peterborough Village redevelopment. They had also done studies on using timber products for earthquake resistant foundations, and that information was available for all, on their website.

One powerpoint slide did give concern though. It was the Tonkin and Taylor diagram from November 2013 showing likely flooding if there was a one metre rise in sea-level.The Peterborough Village would be at risk of flooding. (This is the second time I’ve seen that slide recently. It was part of the presentation at Canterbury University just a few weeks ago, that public lecture was covered elsewhere on this blog).

Marjorie Manthei from the Victoria Neighbourhood Association described the area she was from as being bounded by Bealey Ave, Victoria Street and Colombo. She expressed concern at how many houses had been temporarily permitted to be used as business premises in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes.

Temporary permits had been issued by the council, valid for 5 years. She was concerned though that there was no central database. Would it therefore require a door-knock of ever house in the area to ensure that, after the 5 years was up, the house was returned to residential purposes ?

She echoed earlier concerns that previously residential zoned land was being re-purposed. The Cranmer Courts land has been bought by the Majestic Church group. (One assumes, for a new church building, they were originally based at the old Majestic Cinema building on Manchester Street). However it suffered earthquake damage and the government has seized the land and intends to demolish the building as part of their “frame” blueprint.

Since shortly after the earthquakes, Majestic Church have operated from a converted car sales lot on Moorhouse Avenue. It has been reported elsewhere that it would cost just $ 15 million to repair the Majestic House building in Manchester Street and bring it up to modern standards. However to build an equivalent replacement would cost about $ 60 million. (If those figures are right, it would seem to me to be a ‘no-brainer’ that the building should be repaired instead of demolished).

Marjorie Manthei also brought up two other subjects in her talk. One was the effect of late night liquor licences on the residentsof the Victoria neighbourhood, and the other thing she mentioned was that local residents were VERY HEAVY users of the free yellow bus service.

(EXPLANATION: Prior to the earthquakes a free bus service called The SHUTTLE, did a closed circuit loop covering a large part of the inner city area. As well as stopping right in the middle, Cathedral Square, the bus stopped at several major shopping and ‘high foot-traffic’ locations including the South City Mall, Pak n Save supermarket and outside the CPIT polytech. This service has not run at all since the earthquakes. Melbourne had a somewhat similar free tram service running in a loop around their inner city area and Perth had 4 free coloured “Clipper” bus routes, that later evolved into the Urban CAT free service (Central Area Transit). As an inner city resident, I can say that I sorely miss the free Shuttle bus service. It now costs $2.50 to ride just a few stops, ie walking distance, down the road using regular bus routes.)

Phil Twyford MP for Te Atatu (Auckland), was the final speaker. He is the (opposition) Labour Party’s housing spokesman.

He claimed that some failings in the earthquake rebuild and repair strategies could be left soundly at the feet of the current government it’s “just too damn slow… it’s shocking” he said, about people who were “now facing their fourth Winter since the earthquakes.”

“60% of the over threshold repairs, are still not done.”

(EXPLANATION: Many houses suffered comparatively minor damage in the earthquakes. Minor items of a cosmetic nature such as some cracks in wall plaster. To fix those places, they basically just get some polyfiller over the cracks, a coat of fresh paint on the ceiling and some new wallpaper. Job done, and the insurance companies can crow about how they have fixed up 80% (or whatever % figure) of all the damaged houses. However many houses suffered major damage, in some cases shifting off foundations, or foundations slumping, or whole large sections of walls separating. Those houses suffering such “major damage”, or requiring a full rebuild, can be described as being “over threshold”.)

The government wasn’t entirely to blame though, as “most of the delays can be attributed to the insurers” he said. But he criticised the National Party government’s paradigm that “we’ll let the market fix itself”.

“The Government has left people out of the equation” Phil Twyford said, there was “not nearly enough emphasis on building homes for people.” He referred to the “human toll” of “people living in substandard and overcrowded conditions, for their fourth Winter.”

There was no coherent plan for a rebuild of the city that its residents wanted, he said. Some potential investors in CBD redevelopments, had simply walked away because it was just too hard to work with the government.

He claimed that a Labour led government would do things differently. He said they would be using “the levers of government” and would be building 10,000 houses per year for the first few years. He claimed that, there had been very little affordable housing in the rebuilding efforts so far.

Phil Twyford criticised the government for not mandating a percentage of affordable housing in new developments. This has led to large developments of new land for housing, but all at the premium, pricey end of the spectrum.

What was needed, to “unlock the rebuild” was for government to put the infrastructure in place and take a lead in overall design. This would reduce the risk for those private developers who would build the actual housing.

Some time was then allowed for questions from the audience.

One man who said that there had been 5 sawmills closed down recently, because they couldn’t get enough logs to mill. Yet raw logs were being shipped ‘not value added’, to China. “Is the free market, causing the high cost of housing?”

Phil Twyford responded. He said there were several problems that made New Zealand housing more expensive (than in overseas countries). Lack of scale and lack of competition. He went on to say that In California, treated “4×2” Radiata pine timber can be purchased for one quarter the price that Kiwis have to pay for it. (Known as “Four by Two” in NZ, from it’s old measurement in inches, this is a common size of timber used in constructing structural framing for houses, garages and small commercial premises of 1 and 2 storeys height.)

In response to a woman’s question, it was said that the government, Bill English in particular, had turned down at least 6 applications for development funding, regarding engineered timber construction systems, which could greatly benefit the Christchurch rebuild.

Another woman spoke about her difficulties in trying to get her small inner city home rebuilt. She specifically wanted a “7 star” Homestar economy rating.

Another woman spoke about the government selling unremediated TC3 land for $ 750 per square metre. She said that would mean that newly constructed residences would therefore work out to be about $ 800,000 each, which is an awful long way from “affordable housing”.

Phil Twyford replied “the (free) market will NEVER EVER deliver affordable housing!”

That’s probably a good point to finish on, and indeed that was the end of the public question time. Tea and bikkies were served and many people remained afterwards and spoke to the panellists.

Later that night, after the meeting had finished, the rain started pouring down again. Local residents were not surprised to wake the following morning to flooding (especially in the Flockton Basin area) and with shops busily sandbagging and police closing roads.

Tony Milne is a candidate for the Labour Party, for the Christchurch Central electorate. The next election is due in late 2014. This ‘blog is not related to any political party and will gladly cover other public meetings arranged by others involved in local issues, whichever political party they may be from.

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