Jacinda Ardern not convinced by 'ghost home' concerns despite data showing 40,000 vacant in Auckland

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is not convinced by "ghost home" concerns despite Census data from 2018 showing nearly 40,000 vacant houses in Auckland. 

At the 2018 census, there were nearly 1.9 million dwellings in New Zealand. Nearly 200,000 of those were unoccupied. The vast majority, 33,360, were in Auckland. The number of vacant homes rose from 6.6 percent in 2013 to 7.3 percent. 

It led Auckland Mayor Phil Goff to explore the idea of filling vacant houses with homeless tenants, or with nurses, police and other essential workers. But nothing concrete came of it. The Māori Party meanwhile campaigned on slapping owners of empty homes with taxes

But Ardern, with the ultimate decision-making power, doesn't seem too concerned about it, telling The AM Show on Monday she's spoken with local councils to get an idea of whether these "ghost homes" are contributing to the housing crisis. 

"I've gone to local government and said, 'Can you quantify how many vacant homes we have, do you see this as the issue?' And from the councils' perspective, their view wasn't that we had a large-scale problem with vacant housing." 

Duncan Garner, host of The AM Show, told Ardern the local councils she spoke to are "dreamers", because the data came from the official Census. 

"The Census isn't able to then quantify whether or not, for instance, that's someone who's genuinely not consistently using the home," Ardern responded. "We have asked that question of those who are most able to tell us."

Ardern said councils aren't the only ones looking into the issue. She said consultancy business The People Place has also looked into whether ghost homes are contributing to the housing crisis in Hamilton. 

"From their perspectives, they haven't viewed that as being a major contributing factor. However, we've continued to ask those who would know."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

It comes as new data shows the number of houses available to purchase in New Zealand is the lowest it has been in 14 years. And the homes that are available are too expensive for many Kiwis, with prices across the country up nearly 29 percent from $637,000 in June 2020 to $820,000 in June 2021, according to the Real Estate Institute. 

However, consents are at record highs, with 44,299 new homes consented in the year to June. The Government has also built 3716 new public houses since 2017, which is part of a total 7934 new public housing spaces.

"The second question becomes, OK, if people have got vacant houses, what do you then do? So Duncan, what are you proposing, that we tell people they can't own a second home and then not use it?" Ardern said. 

Garner said as Prime Minister, she should have the solutions, not him. 

"It is a fair question to say, if we think we identify that someone holds a second property that they are not utilising regularly, what do you then do?" Ardern said. 

"At that point, the only solutions you see in other countries is that they put in tax disincentives. I want to know that that is genuinely a contributing factor before we would consider some of those options, and at the moment, when we've gone to those who may know, they've said that they don't believe that that's been the largest factor for them.

"In fact, I remember when I asked that question of local government, they said, 'Actually, we think issues like covenants are more of an issue for us locally than people sitting on vacant properties'."

A property covenant is an agreement between two or more parties regarding certain use of a property. It's written in the contract or the mortgage deeds to a property and is essentially a promise which restricts the use of the land. 

Solving the housing crisis 

The Government earlier this year launched a set of housing policies to try and bring house prices down. Income and price caps were tweaked for Government deposit assistance, and a $3.8 billion fund was set up for councils to dip into for housing infrastructure. 

The Government also controversially removed tax deductions on interest costs for rental properties, with the intention of discouraging property investment, because investors make up more than 40 percent of the market.

The Government further cracked down on property investors by increasing the bright-line test - the tax on property investment - from five to 10 years, however it will be kept at five years for new-build investment properties to help incentivise supply. 

National leader Judith Collins described the bright-line test extension as a "capital gains tax by stealth", and believes the Government should focus on increasing housing supply by rezoning council land. 

"Tinkering with who can buy a house, giving grants to some buyers, and putting barriers up for others - as Labour has done - is again about the symptoms, not the cause," she said earlier this year. 

"It is too hard to build a house in New Zealand, it's as simple as that. We need to make it drastically easier."