How the quarter-acre dream died – Stuff.co.nz

New housing rules supported by both Labour and National will allow up to three homes of up to three storeys to be built on most sites without the need for a costly and frustrating resource consent. It’s a far cry from the quarter acre paradise New Zealand was built on. Virginia Fallon visits the history, and future of, New Zealand’s quarter acre dream.
“There goes the neighbourhood,” they quailed.
It was Tuesday and all around the motu, NIMBYs (not in my backyard) were triggered as the Government announced it was doing away with the country’s backyards. Sort of.
Labour and National announced a deal allowing more housing in urban areas, particularly medium-density townhouses or apartments in suburbs where only standard houses are currently allowed.
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In plain speak: landowners can now build up to three storeys and on up to 50 per cent of their land without resource consent, doubling land supply overnight, and seeing up to 105,000 new homes nationwide over the next eight years. The new rules will apply to “most sites”.
New Zealanders have long been told how to build our houses. According to Te Ara, our first building regulation was passed in 1842 in response to houses built out of wetland grass for immigrants. Called the Raupo Houses Ordinance, it slapped a £20 annual rating on any building constructed of raupō, nīkau and other grasses, or a £100 fine for new buildings made of the materials.
The law first applied to Auckland, but other towns followed suit after a series of fires in Wellington, and controls over things like dimensions of building timber followed.
Back to now. It’s a move politicians hope will go some way to addressing the country’s other epidemic, the housing crisis that’s seen NZers struggle to secure that most basic of human rights: a place to live.
But the announcement hasn’t been without its critics. Concerns include changes to neighbourhoods without the input of those who live in them, and whether an already under-pressure construction sector can deliver the number of homes the Government says the changes allow for.
The quarter acre dream has been embedded in Kiwi psyches since colonial times when it formed part of the settlement process for arrivals from the UK and Ireland, Professor Paul Spoonley says.
“It was part of the dream of coming to NZ to get away from those very dense urban landscapes. You came here and got a parcel of land, even though you weren’t farming.
“A quarter acre was a piece of land on which you could build a house and feed yourself with a garden and possibly a cow. A small piece of land that enabled you to live rather well.”
Colonial soldiers also got their patch of land, and state houses and postwar suburbs followed the trend, as did the aspirations of everyday Kiwis which continued well into the mid 20th century.
“It was bedded into the dreams of New Zealanders they’d own this freestanding house on a large piece of land.”
The quarter acre ideal faded in the late 1980s and 90s when housing costs began to far exceed earning power, and the arrival of migrants used to apartment living began a culture change in the size of the traditional NZ section.
Real Estate agent Shane Brockelbank sees that change every day. The demand for townhouses in Lower Hutt where he’s been selling property for a decade has skyrocketed in the past 18 months as buyers realise not having a backyard is a bonus.
“They see it as a nuisance, a hassle, and generally just something to look after. A first home-buyer traditionally wanted a house on a 800sqm section and spent their weekends doing it up, now they want to go out mountain biking and drinking coffee.”
The only people generally still keen on those massive sections are people who’ve lived in them for the past 40 years, he says.
“They think it’s a disgrace we’re chopping up sections to give people somewhere to live.”
Jen Baird heads the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand and says while the quarter-acre dream definitely still exists for some, the new changes will create more options.
“It’s a great way into the market, you see that in Auckland – a lot of people buying apartments as their first home and banks enabling lending in that space a little bit more.”
The demand for apartments and townhouses has increased in the past decade, driven by both those first-buyers, and downsizers: “People who are sick of moving the lawns, weeding the garden or arranging for someone to come and cut the big long hedge three or four times a year.”
But while the new rules mean more choice for would-be buyers, Heritage NZ boss Andrew Coleman warns there’s a storm brewing on the preservation horizon.
“You presume it’s a decision relating to urban areas, but a lot of the long-held quarter acre sections are still retained in middle parts of NZ, so are they going to be impacted by this decision? How far do large urban areas sprawl?”
The Government can expect reaction from owners of heritage villas worried about what will happen next door, and those who don’t want character areas interrupted: “Inevitably it will be loud.”
While Heritage NZ will likely support those concerns, Coleman says it will also be submitting on the importance of archaeology.
“Places that are pre-1900 have particular significance to them – you might be talking large urban areas like urupa or other sites of significance to Māori. We’ll be interested in how this proposal takes that into account.”
Developers buying sections or owners building on backyards may still be subject to legislation requiring them to get archaeology authority before they dig, Coleman warns.
“It’s like anything. You make a good decision about one thing, and it’s got implications on others.”
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