Would the biosphere reserve make living on Waiheke more expensive?

This question has been raised in the Waiheke Radio discussion forum on the biosphere.

The gut reaction apparently goes like this. The biosphere reserve is about living sustainably and in tune with the environment. Cheap developments – build anywhere sprawl, cheap materials, no standards or regulations etc are clearly not sustainable so that implies that the biosphere will make houses more expensive. This is undeniable – if your cost savings are being made at the expense of your children and the environment then taking any steps to improve sustainability will increase those costs.

Lets consider why houses are expensive both to build and to buy.

According to RBNZ the average house price rose from being around two and a half times average household disposable income in 1980 to around six times average household disposable income in 2007. This is a bubble brought about by low inflation and low interest rates. Basically people are investing in property because they think that it will always go up in price.

Land section prices have inflated even faster so although the requirements of the RMA might be bureaucratic, expensive and annoying they actually form a very minor part of the cost of a house. On the other hand the requirements add to the longer term value of a house by causing it to be built according to some useful standards.

This housing bubble has started to burst with a notable fall in prices since 2009. To return to their long term values prices could continue to fall by up to 50%.

Projects in other parts of the world, and some buildings on Waiheke have shown that it is possible to build attractive, economic, environmentally efficient homes complete with insulation, passive heating, water and waste management, etc for no more than the cost of any other type of building. These houses last longer and cost less to live in than their counterparts. One role of the biosphere reserve would be to lead forward in this field of building design.

A more serious goes that as we make Waiheke a nicer place to live with attractive housing, clean beaches and water, local energy independence and so on. Coupled with limits to the number of people who can live here we create a demand that pushes prices up so that only the rich can live here.

In a recent workshop that was reflecting on risks to Waiheke it was determined that loss of population due to the expense of living here was an issue. The key driver for this will be rising fuel prices. A doubling or tripling of fossil fuel costs over the next decade would lead to a significant reduction in the number of people who could afford to live on the island and commute to the city. This would affect young families and lower income worker disproportionately leading to the island moving towards becoming a rich mans playground instead of a well balanced community.

To counter this trend the we would need to see an increase in affordable homes, an increase in education and training opportunities on the island and an increase in jobs and businesses that serve the local community. The biosphere reserve concept with its focus on sustainable communities as well as environment has been shown in other places to be a mechanism that works in this direction.

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