I was on the plane to Auckland on Saturday, and instead of reading more of my boring book I flicked back through a series of older newspaper articles that I’ve meant to read for a while. One was this piece from the head of Warren and Mahoney, Peter Marshall. He is talking about housing in the eastern frame, and is pretty boosterish about it. He says that we should be building affordable housing – great!

Christchurch has apartments now on the west side between the central city and Hagley Park but they are fairly high end.

“What was missing was an affordable townhouse which is where that is going to be pitched.”

What is affordable?

“$500,000, $600,000, there might even be some less.”

THIS GUY THINKS THAT $600,000 IS AN AFFORDABLE HOUSE. JUST THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A BIT.

Ok.

Are you still digesting that – I’ll give you another moment.

Right.

To put that in context, here are some other numbers:

Whereas the average house price before the quakes had been around $310,000, an average new home including land would now cost between $450,000 and $550,000.

Those figures – from the Salvation Army – come with this additional, understated comment:

“This difference is likely to be the continuing source of housing stress for many households for many years to come.”

If you take the mid-point of that latter bracket – $500,000 – then the average house price has gone up $190,000 in 5 years. That is pretty much 10% a year, each year since the quakes. If people’s wages had been going up 10% a year, I think we’d know about it. They haven’t. Saying that things aren’t as bad as they are in the Auckland housing market is irrelevant; here we had a major disaster, and the government has a duty of care to ensure that the people of Christchurch suffer as little as possible.

Despite repeated warnings of a housing crisis, National refuses to accept that there is anything wrong. And why would they? They are the party of property prices; they returned a stunning result in Christchurch at the last election, and I reckon that is in large part due to many, many people feeling very good about the increasing value of their property portfolio. That this dude can say that $600,000 – twice what the average house cost just five years ago – is an “affordable” home with a straight face shows how totally broken the market is.

No-one is going to provide affordable housing that is actually affordable for the people who need it. In the short term, this will serve the government and it’s allies; the head of the CCDU Warwick Isaacs is about to leave so he can join Stonewood Homes, a builder of cookie-cutter landfill subdivisions in which half the houses failed their inspections. In the long term, Christchurch will become a city that is only affordable for the homogenous, white middle-class that CERA depicts in their advertising, whilst the poor, the working class, the migrants, the students and the people who generally make cities interesting places to live give up on the White Man’s Dream and head for greener pastures.

And here’s a contrast with the previous post – a story from the Washington Post about the success of parklets – when carparks are converted to mini-parks, touched up with a bit of greenery or some furniture.

Remove parking, the argument goes, and business will wither. The reality, though, is more complicated …

For the last few years, Philadelphia has converted a handful of parking spots in front of neighborhood businesses into temporary “parklets” no bigger than the spac e that might fit one or two cars (these tiny interventions are now popular in a lot of cities). Records from adjacent businesses show sales went up about 20 percent immediately after the parks were installed, relative to right beforehand.

Christchurch is in a slightly different situation; instead of converting parking spots to little parks, we should be having a debate about the number of carparks – on street and off street – we should be embedding in our city plans. But we’re not. Instead, we have business “leaders” insisting that carparks are essential to the rebuild; the only dissent is around how many carparks we are talking about, and who should pay for them.

If you go back to the Share an Idea consultation, one of the ideas that came out of this was that the central city had become too “car-centric”. You don’t need to take my word for it – here’s Bob Parker:

“We recognise that the car-centric city we had become needed some change.”

Big issues around the world, such as climate change, brought additional pressure to the plan, and the city needed to become a leader in sustainability. The plan proposes changing all the inner-city one-way streets into two-way routes. [Parker] outlined some of the key ideas that came from the public during that process, including the need for more green spaces and the desire to become a “more iconic place” and create “a more human-scale environment.”

In 2011, the people who live in Christchurch chose a “City in a Garden”; in 2015, the handful of people who run this town have replaced that with a “City in a Carpark”.

As a white middle class dude who likes to spend too much on clothes, I’m often shopping at Ballantynes. I probably pop in every week or two, just to keep an eye on what’s new, what’s good and most importantly, what’s on sale*. I wander in on my way home, or bike over on a Saturday morning. So I was pretty surprised when their new head said the idea that people would bike to his store – as I do – was “crackers”. Talking about the central city and the insatiable desire for car parking, new Chairman Bill Luff said:

The idea that people are going to use public transport and bikes is crackers.

Ballantynes wanted to appoint a visionary new chair, but instead they plumped for a guy who thinks the idea that people would walk, bike, or use public transport to visit his store is crazy. The store is literally across the road from the current bus exchange, and will be diagonally opposite the new bus exchange. Thousands of people go through there every day – maybe they could try and do something to attract some of that custom, rather than whinging and hoping the council stumps up for millions of dollars of infrastructure for their benefit. They have a privileged position in a pedestrian mall, which thousands of people walk through each and every day. Luff then pretty much issues threats to the council:

I come back to my old hobbyhorse. I’m not going to risk another cent of shareholders’ money unless we have some confidence that we have that infrastructure in place and that comes back to visitor car parking.

I’ll definitely be thinking twice before spending any money with a company who thinks so little of people who don’t drive an environmentally destructive Merivale tractor to get to their store.

* I haven’t bought much from Ballys for a while. The last thing I got was some Yeastie Boys beer that was stupid cheap because it was close to its us-by date. Their range has definitely suffered post-quake, and while I try and support them, it’s harder and harder when there is little that I like.

Last week, I looked up the Live Central Christchurch website, after a giant billboard for it went up opposite the Commons. It is a remarkable piece of propaganda from the CCDU, and the homogeneity of it has caused a few, much deserved, heckles.

A reader who contacted The Press called it “outrageous”.

“Look at how white and middle-class they seem to think the people who will be living in the future Christchurch are. It’s really quite offensive how narrow this demographic is,” he said.

This was followed by some sensible comments from Cr Johanson, and some idiot utterances from Cr Gough:

Cr Jamie Gough, who lived in the central city until recently, took the reader’s point but said the promotion deserved credit for avoiding “social engineering”. It did not offend him.

“This is just real-life people enjoying living in the central city. Sometimes, real isn’t always the most politically correct,” Gough said.

Gough said some even stupider things on his Facebook, which Moata has rightly skewered, and you should all read along. What Gough fails to understand, whilst he bandies about comically-meaningless terms like “PC gone mad” and “social engineering”, is that Live Central’s vision, and his support for it is social engineering. This is someone with a history of bigotry, who famously slagged off a large proportion of the city’s population as bogans just because they went to the beach at the same time as him. Asking him for a nuanced take on socio-political issues is like milking a cow and expecting to get eggs. The people in the picture might be real people who really live in the CBD, and he may not see a problem with that.

He should.

That the people selected for the campaign are uniformly white, middle-class and largely in the same age bracket is the problem. We know that New Zealand has a very diverse – and diversifying – population. We know that there are significant numbers of people with disabilities. We know that we have an ageing population. So to have a subset of people – even if they do really live in the CBD – which doesn’t acknowledge any of these things is ‘social engineering’ in itself.

I disagree with Moata on some things though; I don’t think this is a good campaign. Aside from presenting a white-washed view of living in the CBD, it white-washes the reality of central city living. I’ve lived in the CBD since December 2013, and I’ve got to say, it’s pretty weird. I’m not the only one who thinks that. While you would expect a promotional website to be bullish, some of the claims are closer to bullshit. The purpose of the site is to attract people to live in the CBD; to encourage that, they have listed a bunch of residential developments. None of these projects seem to be at the “affordable” end of the scale, which makes you wonder whether there are enough upper middle-class people who wanted to live in the CBD for them to be able to reach their 20,000 person target.

As a central city resident, I’d love to see more people live here. It would improve my quality of life markedly; more people would mean more shops and cafes. It’d mean that we’d be more likely to be listened to about issues that directly effect us. But this half-hearted, homogenous campaign looks to be a reflection of the CCDU’s commitment to making this happen; a poorly thought-out attempt at making something happen through marketing. If CERA genuinely wanted more people to live in the central city, they could address the main factor preventing this happening – the cost of land. Maybe then we can see a campaign in another 5 or 10 years that more accurately reflects the diversity that makes up 21st century New Zealand.

This is a really good post on Christchurch’s future cycling infrastructure. I don’t have a huge amount to add to it, but would suggest you read it, if you prefer your cycling analysis to be backed up by research rather than based on wild speculation and grudges against bikes:

Even if the costs have blown out to ~$160 million, a quick calculation shows that the Benefit/Cost Ratio of the total cycleway programme in Christchurch is conservatively at 7:1 – a pretty good business case in most people’s eyes … Just for comparison, the much-vaunted Southern Motorway extension ended up costing $140 million for a projected Benefit/Cost Ratio of about 2.4:1

Hear no evil and speak no evil have left the building … will see no evil be on the way soon? One can only hope. i_smell_bacon_wee_wee

I feel like I’ve woken up in the bizarro episode of Sealab 2021. Asked for comment about the financial situation at the City Council, Gerry Brownlee is happy to give his two cents, which, unsurprisingly, are that the CCC should sell more assets and spend less. Of course, Mr Brownlee doesn’t offer to help by say, putting in all the money that the Crown initially promised, or revising some of the vanity projects which he has bestowed upon the council. No, that didn’t cross his mind. Instead, we get this bizarre statement:

Brownlee said rather than putting rates up the council should be looking at its baseline, just as the Government had done when it was faced with the double whammy of the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquake.

“Whenever you are in a tight financial situation you have to look at your own expenditure profile and I don’t see evidence of that happening from the council.

“I think most people would be able to come up with some example of what they would see as fairly unnecessary expenditure,” the minister said.

When the government was faced with the double whammy of the financial crisis and the earthquakes … from memory, they gave $1.8 billion dollars to a failed financial company, slashed taxes, refused to introduce a special quake levy and borrowed money from overseas. Government debt, which was around $10b when National came to office in 2008, is now $100b dollars. That Brownlee would be giving financial advice to the Christchurch City Council, pretending he’s just “a regular ratepayer” is ironic enough; that he would try and site his government’s dismal economic record as some sort of example to follow is positively hilarious.

The council today voted to flog off another $200 million of ratepayer owned assets, bringing the fire sale total to $750m. On top of this, they are talking about rates increases of 33% over the next four years. Less than a year ago, this is what Cr Manji had to say about rates rises:

The Cameron report suggests rate rises could be in order – more income to allow the servicing of more debt. Despite earthquake levies being added by the previous council, Christchurch still has some of the country’s lowest rates.

But Manji says it is clear that further rate hikes are politically unacceptable. “That would be a huge flashpoint. You’ve got to remember what people have been through over the past four years. They’re stretched emotionally more than you could ever imagine.”

However, Manji agrees with Mayor Lianne Dalziel that a sale of council assets – or rather finding strategic partners to take a 25 per cent share in the holding company – makes eminent sense. This alone could knock $400m off that 2019 hump.

A week is a long time in politics. However, I struggle to see how we’ve gone from “rates rises or asset sales to raise $400m” in August 2014 to “rase rises AND even more asset sales to raise $750m” less than a year later. And yet despite the Minister promising a review of the cost sharing event by December during the election campaign, we’ve not heard anything about this, which could ease some of the burden on the council. The ratepayers of Christchurch are being played, both by the council and the government, who are selling off productive assets and running down our social housing stock, whilst refusing to back down over less-than-essential anchor projects such as stadiums, convention centres and sports centres.

4 years on from the biggest quake, and most of the discussion about the rebuild still focuses on the central city. Despite the fact that hardly anyone lives here, and not that many people even work here, the city is still the symbol. I realise it’s a narrow focus, and that me and people like me, who have done things like writing a book about it, have contributed to this obsession. Greg Jackson summed it up well at Public Address:

Along with most of Christchuch the preening, keening, posturing and wrath of the inner city dramas is totally peripheral to our lives. Christchurch devolved to residents living in their villages post-quakes and in many ways it has stayed that way, even with a unifying City Council in place.

While I’d like to spend more time talking about the suburbs, I’m once again going to touch on the centre. Without boring you too much with the back story, I’ve lived in the central city for most of the last decade. I moved back in to the CBD after the quake in December of 2013. Back then, 15 months ago, it felt like the city was making progress. Cafes such as C1 were buzzing, and lots of people – not just from out of town, but from the suburbs of the city – were visiting. But now, it feels like the city is going backwards. Shops are closing, or looking like they’re about to close. Outside of the main tourist area, Re:Start mall, the city feels dead. It’s not just me who’s observed this:

On weekends I drift from street to street in search of company, but all I see are empty car parks, dusty building sites and quiet streets. The few people who do venture into town cluster in a few select spots – New Regent St, the Re:Start and Victoria St at night.

A lot of visitors to the city can’t believe how slow things appear to be going. Sure, there are a lot of flash buildings going up down Victoria St and Cambridge Terrace – but if you look a bit closer, you’ll see that many of them are untenanted, and have been for more than six months now. Beyond the office blocks and monolithic government projects, there is little to see, four years on. The minister insists that housing is something that is best left to the free market, but with almost no residential development being consented within the CBD four years on, it’s clear that the market has made up it’s mind; Central Christchurch is no place to live.

When the council and the CCDU suggested that they would like to see 20,000 or 30,000 people living within the four avenues, I argued that they weren’t being ambitious enough. Now, with fewer than 5,000 people living here, and most of them living on the northern and eastern fringes of the aves, it is clear that 20,000 or 30,000 was far too ambitious a total. Without some significant change in either local or national government’s attitude to proactively intervening in the central city housing market, we have to accept that the utility of the central city will be limited. The area will continue to hollow out, like it was pre-quake, with shoppers increasingly voting with their cars and heading to the malignant suburban malls. Small sections will come alive at night, as younger people coming to drink and vomit at whichever bars are currently on-trend. The retailers in the city will try and compete with the malls by becoming more and more like them.

None of the positive connotations we associate with a metropolis – vibrancy, change, bustle, convenience, choice, innovation – can be found here at the moment. While in the time after the quakes, cities such as Melbourne were frequently mentioned as to what Christchurch could be; those sort of calls aren’t heard any more. Sadly, future Christchurch is more likely to look like a Turbo Timaru or a Hefty Hamilton – a rural service town on steroids. It’s not what the people asked for in Share an Idea, but it’s what we’re getting. While the central city is bogged down with grand government visions (and their nonsensical attempt to prop-up property prices), the suburbs haven’t looked backwards.

A couple of months after the big quake, there was a daft “Love Christchurch” advertising campaign. Four years on and sadly, there is no city to love. Christchurch is a collection of a mega malls and their feeder suburbs, with a better-than-average rugby team. There is no better symbol for the neglect the government has paid to the central city than their treatment of the Cathedral and the Town Hall – buildings of religious and civic togetherness respectively, which the authorities would happily see wiped off the street maps of any future city. I’d love to see a vibrant, bustling, liveable central city – but after 4 years, it has become clear that that won’t be happening in this city under this government.

Here’s the Sleater-Kinney song from which this post takes it’s name:

Andy Zaltzman, one half of the fantastic Bugle podcast, was in Christchurch for a gig (and also to watch some World Cup Cricket games). He recorded his end of the podcast from the city, which he described thusly:

“I’m now in Christchurch, New Zealand … [the] city took the wrong end of a nasty bit of plate tectonics four years ago. It’s gradually rebuilding. Thankfully it’s prioritised its cricket ground which is now up and running for a couple of World Cup games this weekend. Building a cricket ground is not necessarily the top of everyone’s priority list post-earthquake, particularly not those who are waiting for arguably more important things to be rebuilt first; for example – their houses. But it shows that this is my kind of town.”

The other half of the Bugle is John Oliver, who has made fun of both John Key and Steven Joyce on his satirical news show, Last Week Tonight. I know National likes to be seen on the international stage, but I’m not sure that being constantly ridiculed for incompetent governance does much to improve our international reputation.

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