Friday 29 January 2016

What is seen and what is unseen: Kitchen costs edition

Christchurch planners failed, post-quake, by not removing the restriction on secondary units in houses. Adding a few walls into a relatively undamaged house with spare rooms and turning one of those rooms into a kitchen would have been the simplest way of adding new dwellings post-quake, when insurance was hard to come by and new builds during aftershocks were ... difficult.

But rules against secondary suites have costs even outside of emergencies. Those costs are often unseen. If your family situation requires a home with secondary units in it, and those don't exist, the harms you experience are unseen by the planners.

Gary Sturgess's not knowing the house he purchased was not properly consented made visible some of these unseen costs. He bought a house with secondary suites built into it because it was important for his family to have them. Then Council told him those units were not consented and he would have to tear them out.
Palmerston North resident Gary Sturgess cannot believe how much red tape there is over a kitchen sink.
The particular sink is part of downstairs rooms at his Ruahine St home where 21-year-old granddaughter Georgia Garrett, who has Down syndrome, is learning independent living skills while under the same roof as mother Tania, aunt Jacqui and granddad Gary.
The family bought the house 2½ years ago, having chosen to live together after a difficult year when Sturgess' wife Valerie had died. 
The home had everything to enable three adults and a teenager to live together for support, while each had private space, a bathroom and somewhere to prepare a cup of tea or basic meal.
But a few months after purchase, a letter from the city council told them the two downstairs units did not have planning consent.
Sturgess was taken by surprise, and appalled by the initial estimates of the cost of putting things right.
Council head of planning services Simon Mori said the presence of a kitchen sink was used as the yardstick to decide whether a unit or sleepout was self-contained.
"The building would then have everything it needs for a person to live there."
And if kitchen sinks were installed legally, it required a building consent, which triggered a review of whether the building work also met planning rules.
The council is in the process of reviewing residential zone rules to give people more choices about building homes and make it easier to have just one dependent living unit on their property, but the changes were unlikely to go far enough to cover Georgia's sink.
In Christchurch's case, I think the real why was that rich folks in Ilam didn't want neighbours to be able to accommodate students, and Council cared more about rich west-side NIMBYs than about poor people in the east who lived in sheds. In Palmerston, I don't know.

If the house had never been built as it was, the harms of Council's policy would be unseen. Sturgess would never have bought the house and would have been forced into accommodations less well suited to their needs. Council cannot anticipate the needs of different families, much as they might like to believe they can fully anticipate such needs and issue detailed directives so that housing matches what they think needs might be.

But Sturgess bought the house. And unseen costs are now visible. The costs of removing the sink?
And it leaves Georgia with a problem about washing her dishes.
"I make sandwiches for lunch, I make my breakfast – where am I going to put my dishes?"
The choices would be to use her bathroom, or the laundry sink, or the upstairs dishwasher – nothing like the conventional habits of independent living.
These kinds of rules should change.

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