Meet the young YIMBYS fighting for Auckland's affordable housing future

It's the classic Kiwi dream - a single-family house on a quarter-acre section in a leafy suburb. But those who have achieved it seldom seem keen to share their slice of paradise. That means no new street developments, no townhouses, and definitely no apartments.

They're known as NIMBYS - which stands for 'Not In My Backyard' - mostly wealthy homeowners who vote for anti-development politicians, oppose consents and have the time to submit on plans.

As a result, they've strangled the number of new constructions and sent house prices soaring.

But rising housing rents and substandard accommodation are pushing some from the younger generation towards political activism.

They're the opposition known as YIMBYS - or Yes In My Backyard - and they're fighting for an affordable future.

Two of the most active are Scott Caldwell, who writes at the Greater Auckland blog on housing and transportation issues, and former Wellington affordable housing advocate and current Auckland resident Isla Stewart.

Newshub sat down with the pair to discuss what drives their campaign. Do they think they're winning? Or are things bound to get worse?

Both became interested in the YIMBY movement after feeling firsthand the negative impacts of the housing crisis.

"I saw the cost of housing in Auckland and I was like 'why is that' and I started reading about how urban planning affects our urban neighbourhoods and how it often excludes people," Caldwell says.

"A lot of people my age are still living with their parents at mid-20s, often maybe into their 30s and then when they move out they're living with six or seven other people in a single-family house. We're experiencing both overcrowding and living in fairly substandard arrangements."

A report in February found Auckland house prices, relative to local incomes, are among the most unaffordable in the world, with the average place costing about 10 times the average household income. This has had a flow-on effect on rents, which have consistently risen faster than inflation and wage growth for years - making it even harder to save for a house of your own.

"My peers and I have lived in less than stellar accommodation and when we do live in livable places, we spend a lot of money on rent. I think it's probably for all of us our biggest expense taking up, you know, 30, 40 or 50 percent of that income," Stewart says.

"Nationwide rents are 66 percent higher over the last seven years and worse in major cities. And not only do these high rents put incredible financial strain on my peers, they force us out of the cities away from job opportunities and to long commutes and into substandard accommodation."

Caldwell says the solution is to build more high-density developments around rapid transit, mass transit and cycling routes.

"They look denser than we're used to," he says, pointing to European cities as an example.

"A lot of it will be mixing commercial shops with residences so people have amenities in their neighbourhood so they can walk to the cafes, so they can walk to the shops."

Stewart would like to see more houses that are warm, affordable, dry and accessible.

"Broadly, any development that replaces fewer houses with more houses is what we need," she adds.

"Ideally near public transport locations as this allows for less space to be used for car parking and more space to be used for housing."

But like many in their generation, Caldwell and Stewart face a challenge - the NIMBY. They are known to complain that proposed buildings are "ugly" or "over-intensified" or "characterless". Or "cheap". They have concerns about traffic. And crime. And youths.

And all too often they get their own way.

"The Government has promised to provide a ton of affordable housing whereas the people who vote in local governments tend to be perhaps older and in these concentrated suburbs where they are particularly affected by new development," Caldwell explains.

"Our current consenting issue [is the] consenting environment favours the status quo and favours people who live within the status quo and gives them rights to object to new developments in their area without really listening to people who would benefit from living in that area."

Stewart calls this a "critical problem with local democracy". Only the people who live within a specific council ward can vote - not the people who may need to go to and through that ward for travel, work or school who would benefit from better transit or closer accommodation.

This means there's a large incentive for residents to vote for councillors who promise to set rules in place to make development very difficult.

"The biggest thing that we need to do is get councils out of the way. Councils are given broad powers on land use and they use it to set height limits, setbacks, things that prevent new houses being built," Stewart says.

"Councils are some of the biggest drivers of housing unaffordability in New Zealand and the situation right now is so dire that nothing less than quick scaling up a public house building programmes and widespread relaxation of rules preventing the construction of new houses, whether that's private or public, need to be removed."

Both say the best way to overcome the current system is for younger generations to speak up. They urge them to contact their residents association, write to their local councillors, and write to their local MPs.

"If they're submitting on a new plan, definitely make your voice heard and most importantly vote in local elections. Disproportionately young people are underrepresented in these elections and as a result, counsellors have less incentive to listen to you," Stewart says.

It's an ongoing process, but Caldwell feels like the Auckland YIMBY movement is winning - albeit slowly.

"Auckland is experiencing a massive housing boom at the moment," he tells Newshub.

"We haven't seen construction like this since the 1970s and this is partially due to the unitary plan that was passed by the council in 2016 - which was maybe not the scale we'd like but is certainly in the direction we'd like."

Stewart thinks there's been a shift in the narrative around housing and what needs to be done to solve the housing crisis.

"Auckland might be the only outlier in New Zealand where quality-adjusted rents have not increased and have gone down slightly in real terms. Which is fantastic - densification is working," she says.

"But... house prices are still going up and government policy has been improving but just hasn't gone far enough when it comes to affordable housing. Are we winning? It's hard to say."

But if Caldwell and Stewart do win and implement their pro-growth policies, what does the future hold for Auckland in 20 or 30 years? Caldwell says it actually wouldn't look terribly different.

"It would have more rapid transit, you'd be able to get from one part of the city to another without facing traffic congestion and it would be slightly denser," he says.

"There's 1 million houses in Auckland right so just 10 percent more density doesn't actually look that much different from now. Even 20 percent wouldn't be a massive change in our quality of life but would make a massive difference for people like me."

Stewart says she's "really optimistic" for what Auckland could become.

"I envision a city where everyone has access to affordable dry accessible housing close to where they live and work. Lots of green spaces, access to transit links going in, out and across the city," she says.

"I think it's very exciting and I think we just need to keep building on up, and building more great public spaces."