Why Epsom needs more public housing, not less

This week, it all kicked off in Epsom with the backlash to Housing New Zealand's (HNZ) plan to develop a 25-unit complex on the upmarket suburb's leafy Banff Ave.

In a letter to his constituents, ACT Party leader David Seymour warned against the development, saying it could mean the introduction of mentally ill tenants to the affluent area.

In return, Housing Minister Phil Twyford called Mr Seymour's letter to his constituents "appalling" and accused him of scaremongering.

A lot of this is simply fear of the unknown, says Bill McKay of the University of Auckland's school of architecture and planning. He says many people would be surprised to learn that they're already living next door to HNZ tenants.

"HNZ build their own buildings, but they also purchase apartments or houses in developments as well. I think many people would be surprised to learn that their neighbour was actually a Housing New Zealand tenant and not a private renter as they thought."

He says he's seen this in effect in his suburb of Ponsonby.

"In case people think I'm a bleeding heart liberal, where I live I have two HNZ properties on one side of me and four on the other, and no one is a problem."

Mr McKay says a percentage of HNZ tenants are likely to have problems of one sort or another and that is why HNZ exists. But these issues would not necessarily make someone a bad neighbour.

"I don't know his situation but you could live next door to David Seymour and he might have a dog that barks - that's just as annoying as someone who makes too much noise or parks across the driveway."

Creating the right mix

A policy of mixing social housing amongst private is a long-standing policy in Europe. In London, rich and poor co-exist - council housing is dotted across the city, sharing postcodes with the bankers in the city, the royals in Kensington Palace, and the Hollywood elite of Notting Hill.

Mr McKay says a good community is always going to be made up of a mix of people.

"Housing isn't just roofs over people's heads - it's about building communities," he says. "Obviously if you had a bunch of people with health problems, you wouldn't concentrate them in one place - that goes for wealthy or poor. It's not healthy to have only one type of person."

He says wealthy people tend to put up large walls around their properties, destroying the nature of the community, "and that is just as damaging to a sense of neighbourhood as someone whose forgets to put the rubbish out and it piles up outside".

But for the most part, Mr McKay believes that the residents' opposition to the new HNZ development comes down to "good old nimbyism".

"What we're seeing in Epsom with Mark Richardson's comments for example, is an astounding sense of privilege. People say, 'I've worked hard all my life' - to live in an area with big leafy trees and nice white people who earn a lot of money. And that's pretty repugnant."