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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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What’s so Special about Special Housing Areas?

Cities are ripe with the promise of equality and inclusion. As the postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy puts it, they have the potential to become places “in which cultures, histories, and structures of feeling previously separated by enormous distances could be found in the same place, the same time: school, bus, café, cell, waiting room, or traffic jam.” This proximity may be messy and fraught but in it lies the potential for a mutual awareness and recognition that erodes prejudice. However, too often this promise of equality and inclusion is sold short, and a wealthy elite are able to shape the spaces we live in to the detriment of others. Sometimes a city’s promise of equality and inclusion evaporates the moment it is founded. Cities throughout the world, including many in New Zealand, were established through the violent eviction of indigenous peoples from their hubs and villages and the confiscation of their land. The promise then continues to be broken through practises of segregation, gentrification, and speculation which seek to make our cities the haven of a select few.


Subdivision housing development, Auckland. 1980. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. National Library.

Subdivision housing development, Auckland. 1980. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. National Library.


Today in New Zealand, the promise of our cities is turning sour. In Auckland alone over 23,000 people are homeless. The government is perhaps the only entity with the resources and capacity to turn this situation around. However, a number of policies devised by local and central government in recent years look set to accelerate the rise of urban inequality and exclusion. One such exclusionary urban policy which has already had significant effects is Special Housing Areas (SHAs).

SHAs are areas of rural and urban land rezoned by local government for the fast-tracked construction of housing. They are “special” because the normal rules of development don’t apply to them. Rather than applying for standard resource consent under the Resource Management Act, developers working in SHAs can go through a fast-track consenting process with limited notification of the public and reduced scope for appeals. Since they were introduced in 2013, at least 70 SHAs have been established in Auckland alone. Smaller, but still significant, numbers of SHAs have been established throughout the rest of the country. While the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act of 2013 was initially introduced as a short-term measure, it has recently been extended until 2021. The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment argues that SHAs will increase housing supply as they open up new land for housing development and let builders get to work as quickly as possible.

This promised housing supply conceals the dark underside of SHAs. To see this side, you only need to travel a few minutes from the Auckland Airport to Ihumātao, South Auckland. In 2012, Fletcher Building purchased the Oruarangi Block, which runs alongside the village of Ihumātao, for a rumoured $19 million. Fletcher bought the rural land from its Pākehā owners on the condition that local and central government would accept the block as a SHA and rezone it for residential development. Auckland City Council and central government complied, and in May 2014 the Oruarangi Block was made a SHA and Fletcher’s plans to build 480 houses on the it were underway. The process occurred so quickly and quietly that most in Ihumātao had no idea it was taking place. Even the councillors responsible for making the block a SHA have since admitted they had little idea about what they were signing off on in the rush of it all.

The rub is that the Oruarangi Block sits on land confiscated from tangata whenua Te Wai-o-Hua. From the 12th century, Te Wai-o-Hua lived on the Ihumātao peninsula, which the Oruarangi Block is a part of, and cultivated its rich volcanic soils. The peninsula was criss-crossed with wharenui and fertile gardens which fed thousands. However, in the run up to the Waikato Wars of the 1860s, Te Wai-o-Hua was forced out of Ihumātao by the Crown to punish them for their support of the Kīngitanga, a movement formed to stop the loss of land to colonists. Te Wai-o-Hua fled south, and when they returned after the wars they found that almost all of their land, including what is now the Oruarangi Block, had been sold to Pākehā settlers. Once Pākehā were established on the peninsula, the forceful eviction of Te Wai-o-Hua and the confiscation of their land was promptly erased from the history books. Even today, the government’s New Zealand History website ignores the event entirely, claiming that the gardens around the peninsula “fell into disuse after the early 19th century inter-tribal Musket Wars and were swallowed up by urban sprawl.”

For tangata whenua, this history cannot be erased so easily. When I went up to visit Ihumātao early this year, one of the kaumatua there told me how her mother would sit on their veranda every night overlooking what was once their whenua and cry for the pain it was in. The descendants of those evicted, many of whom live in the township of Ihumātao, cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables for their kids to eat in what was once a land of plenty.


Mr K K Montgomerie's farm at Ihumatao, Mangere, Auckland. 1960. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. National Library.

Mr K K Montgomerie’s farm at Ihumatao, Mangere, Auckland. 1960. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. National Library.


Only in 2001 was some redress achieved when the Manukau City Council bought land on the Ihumātao peninsula and made it into the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. The Reserve did not include the Oruarangi Block, but the Manukau City Council promised it would eventually be included. However, when the Manukau City Council was absorbed into the Auckland “Super City” Council in 2010, this promise got lost. Instead of making the Oruarangi Block part of the Historic Reserve, the Auckland City Council helped turn it into a Special Housing Area.

When locals eventually got a whiff of Fletcher’s plans to build on the Oruarangi block, they launched the Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) campaign in 2015. A number of those leading the campaign are direct descendants of Te Wai-o-Hua, and they have been reminded once again of the menacing side of urban development. First the government confiscates their land, now they are helping multinationals build high-cost houses on it. Through a mixture of direct action and legal appeal, the SOUL campaign has prevented Fletcher Building from building a single home, and those involved won’t rest until SHA is disestablished and the block is made part of the reserve.

Yet the question remains: why are tangata whenua having to undertake such a campaign in the first place? Why should the kaitiaki of this land have to struggle so hard to make their voice heard? SOUL argue that it is the SHA legislation which places Māori in this position. SHA designation removes any obligation to consult with tangata whenua about proposed development, as such violating the tino rangatiratanga of Māori over their whenua, kāinga, and taonga as affirmed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. SOUL has filed a Waitangi Tribunal Claim to this effect, and the UN has recently recommended that the New Zealand government re-evaluate whether the SHA at Ihumātao breaches the Treaty.

The failure of SHAs to honour the Treaty is enough to compromise their legitimacy by itself, but the problems do not stop there. For one, SHAs will not, and cannot, produce genuinely affordable housing for the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who desperately need it. This is because the vast majority of houses in SHAs are being built by corporate developers who are allowed to sell them at market price. This is such an astonishing policy that it bears repeating. In the face of widespread homelessness and overcrowding among New Zealanders on low incomes, SHAs are simply being used to churn out more million dollar homes. Presumably drawing on an old ECON 101 textbook, Nick Smith argues that the construction of more high cost homes will increase supply and bring demand, and market prices, down. However, this equation ignores the fact that most low income New Zealanders can’t pay anything near market price for a home. Building more market price homes might make buying a new home slightly more affordable for landlords, property speculators, and young professionals, but the pressing demand of low income New Zealanders will never be met under this scheme.

The news is not any better for the environment either. A study of Auckland SHAs, conducted by Nick Preval and colleagues in 2016, found that the areas will do little to curb the city’s urban sprawl or reduce carbon emissions. This is because a number of the SHAs, including the Oruarangi Block, are being built far from the city centre, disconnected from public transport, and on top of what were green spaces. Residents in these new SHAs will have no option but to hop in their cars and undertake the same long commutes that are driving emissions upwards. If we want to address climate change then smart, coordinated urban planning is crucial. SHAs are anything but that.

What is particularly worrying is that SHAs seem to be setting the tone for urban development in New Zealand for decades to come. What were zones of exception could soon become the norm. The Auckland Unitary Plan, which became operational in 2016, follows a similar logic to the SHAs but on a much larger scale. Like the SHAs, the Plan looks to free up land for developers, often in low income areas, and lacks any requirements around housing affordability. The Plan also limits the voice of tangata whenua in urban development by removing the cultural impact assessments previously required for development around Māori sites of significance under the Resource Management Act. Some companies have walked away from projects involving SHAs in the belief that development under the Auckland Unitary Plan will be even more permissive and profitable.

So, what’s the alternative? How can New Zealand’s housing crisis be addressed without side lining Māori rights or excluding the urban poor? The most obvious solution is a mass construction of universally accessible state houses lead by central government and tangata whenua. Unlike corporate developers, the state can construct housing on a large scale without needing to make a profit, and they have a proven track record of doing so. Between 1938–1950, for example, over 35,000 state homes were built. Unfortunately, many previous state housing schemes have excluded Māori, or looked to assimilate them, and bulldozed over wāhi tapu in the process. Any new mass construction of housing, therefore, would have to give tangata whenua a leading role in the scheme and be based around principles of kaitiakitanga (guardianship of people and land). According to Vanessa Cole, an advocate for Auckland Action Against Poverty, the mass construction of universally accessible state housing would create “a strong alternative to the exploitative private [housing] market” and in doing so drive down private housing prices and undermine landlords’ ability to charge exorbitant rents. As it stands however, no party in New Zealand is willing to undertake such a large-scale development of state housing in partnership with tangata whenua.

If we want to address the growing division in our cities, and realise their potential as spaces of equality and inclusion, then we need to fight back against SHAs and their ilk. This means joining groups like SOUL in their struggle against specific instances of urban injustice. It also means building these specific struggles into broader coalitions which can force the state to put its resources and power to better use. Only through claiming ownership over the future of our cities can we hope to gain the ability to determine the kind of society we want to be. These spaces literally lay the foundations and set the boundaries for what kind of lives we can lead. As David Harvey puts it in his book Rebel Cities, “the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold.”  

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