Queenstown’s Joan of Arc is battling for affordable housing

Nov 30, 2018 | News

Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they walk among us and perform their magic without needing to transform into someone different.

It’s the seemingly ordinary-looking jobs that can have a tremendous effect. Meet Julie Scott, the executive officer of the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust. Every day she helps families access affordable housing in the country’s most overheated market.

In 2007, a young Julie was living in Queenstown working as a ski patroller and, like most of her co-workers, living in crowded rented accommodation. It takes a special type of person to work on ski patrol, and it’s not a profession overwhelmed with women. It requires grit, and physical and mental strength. Of average height, with dark hair framing her face and a ready smile, Scott looks unassuming. Her skills belie that.

Life on ski patrol involves moments of sitting and waiting, interspersed with hard, manual labour in freezing conditions (think digging impact pads out of solid ice or building fence lines) and the need to be constantly on the ball with medical assistance (think bones poking through places they’re not supposed to). The pay is minimal and the responsibility huge. Yes, you get to ski all day and occasionally handle explosives for avalanche control, but there’s a lot of hard work in bad conditions too.

The same year Scott was working hard on ski patrol, the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust (QLCHT) was formed. The trustees needed someone to research the extent of the housing problem by talking to rental property managers and real estate agents. Scott is modest about her abilities and downplays her transition from ski bum to powerhouse professional, but it’s testament to her skills that she was chosen. The gig led to a full time job.

Scott was in exactly the same position as the people the trust was trying to help. Happy to be living and working in Queenstown and determined to buy a house, she just didn’t have a spare million. Like most ordinary Queenstown residents she was facing the conundrum of an overheated property market and insufficient supply of affordable housing.

Queenstown is not the first place that springs to mind when you think of affordable housing. It’s Auckland’s southern little sister, but even more expensive. Aucklanders may wail over a median house price of $850k and no doubt that’s out of reach for a lot of people, but Queenstown is worse. Prices are continuing to rise with the median hovering around the magical one million mark. Subdivisions are sold out the day they are released and anything larger or grander is the province of wealthy part-time residents (they come down from Herne Bay for the weekend), overseas owners, or those lucky few who have been here long enough to have bought property before it went totally nuts.

Meanwhile the people keep coming. Schools are a good marker of population growth, and in the Queenstown Lakes district they are growing at an exponential rate. Shotover Primary School opened three years ago and is already at capacity and building again. This year Wakatipu High School moved into a new purpose-built campus, and next year it breaks ground on an expansion – it will be full within two years otherwise.

With this rapid growth comes a need for affordable accommodation, not only for the seasonal workers who are a unique feature of this town but also the teachers, accountants, builders, and other professionals who keep everything running.

The Community Housing Trust formed 11 years ago, and the same thing that kept Scott engaged and passionate about rescuing injured skiers drives her in her latest mission: helping people.

Scott remains as motivated as ever to influence housing policy at a local and national level. “I love the variety the role brings,” she says. “Helping people into affordable and secure housing through either our rental or assisted ownership programmes is very gratifying. Actually seeing them in their new homes is a satisfying moment.”

There was an uproar when the first 10 KiwiBuild houses in Wanaka attracted only 20 ballot applications. Detractors of the scheme argue this demonstrates a lack of demand but Scott says there are currently 568 households on the trust’s waiting list, indicating the need for affordable housing in the area remains high. Part of the problem is that KiwiBuild requires a significant deposit of $65,000, and that’s if a 90% mortgage can be secured. Saving that amount is difficult when the median rent for a three-bedroom house in the district is $750.

The households on the trust’s waiting list have been through its qualification process so their need is not in question. Scott is candid about the challenges and pressure of having so many people waiting and hoping for help. As the resources the trust has available and the amount of subsidised development fluctuates, so too does its ability to help people. “Last year we assisted 17 households, but the year before it was 56,” she says.

The Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust’s Shotover Country subdivision.

Meanwhile the waitlist keeps growing. It’s an ongoing battle. “There are a number of challenges but certainly the biggest currently is how we develop enough housing to bring that waiting list down to a more acceptable number,” Scott says. “QLCHT has set the goal of assisting 1000 more households in the next 10 years, and ultimately we have a vision of having all New Zealanders well housed.”

She has seen the financial and emotional stress people suffer while living in housing that is not only poor quality but completely unaffordable. Theresa and Dean Swain with their three children were prime examples. They had been living in Queenstown since 1992 and 1994 respectively – long term locals, salt of the earth people who volunteer for the community. Dean’s day job is working for the Salvation Army. They had been renting the same house for over ten years when it was put on the market suddenly. Unable to find, or afford, any suitable property, they were at their wits’ end. Scott was able to intervene and put them on a rent-saver programme which offers not only security but the chance of a foot on the property ladder.

Scott finds these experiences the most rewarding. “Visiting new households in their homes and hearing them tell us how much better their quality of life is now they’re in their new home and can see a real future in the district (is heartwarming),” she says. This is the flow-on effect of affordable housing – how people are able to contribute more to a community when they themselves are stable, she says.

It’s not just the households that have endured financial stress. Scott and the trust faced a $6.1m tax bill when the Charities Commission took away the trust’s charitable status. Thankfully, the Minister of Housing stepped in to pay the bill and add a change to the Income Tax Act that allowed it to gain an exemption. Scott is happy that they made it through, but her frustration is evident at the situation. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted which would have been better spent housing more families.”

KiwiBuild has the potential to help, and Queenstown-Lakes is earmarked for some of the next tranches of houses. Scott is cautiously optimistic. “We are certainly interested in working with KiwiBuild if we can make the two sides marry up,” she says. But she’s well aware of the bigger picture, and that KiwiBuild is just one part of the solution to New Zealand’s housing issue. She’s pleased that the government is getting its hands dirty instead of just talking about the problem. “Full credit to the government for getting into this space, as middle income earners have been the missing gap for some time.”

In the midst of the McMansions and overpriced rental accommodation, Julie Scott is working in inventive ways to help people into affordable housing. It’s a diversified model, and it’s having an effect.

Why here? Why did it take a property market of extremes to spur such an initiative on? Perhaps because the inequity is so great, perhaps because we are so far from the main centres, perhaps because sympathy is hard to come by when you live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. All of these play a part.

Scott puts a lot of her success down to the diversity of the model. The trust offers assistance in a variety of ways:

Shared Ownership

The household owns 70% of the home and puts down a five percent deposit on the total price. The trust covers the rest.

Starter Loan

Does what it says on the tin. The household gets a loan fixed at a competitive rate for five years. Helps families get in the game if they’re short on capital.

Rent Saver

Guaranteed rent on a property owned by the trust for five years. If the tenant meets their savings goals each year the trust will match it up to $2,600. After five years they can apply to buy the home.

Affordable Rental

Five year rental term at a fair market rate and an income-based subsidy of up to a 20% discount.

“Our ability to diversify our offerings has absolutely played a key role in our success,” Scott says. She would like to see the government learn from the Queenstown experience and look at making registered community housing providers GST-exempt.

Scott would also like to expand the model. “I’d like to see the government work more closely with community housing providers by bringing back capital grants and suspensory loans to enable more development by our sector. Also more legislation to support inclusionary zoning throughout the country.”

But rather than waiting for Wellington, Scott is at the pointy end of making things happen.

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