Small houses and mobile homes such as caravans are seen by some as a low-cost solution to the lack of affordable homes
By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A petition calling for rules on small houses and mobile homes to be eased was submitted to New Zealand's parliament on Tuesday, as residents piled pressure on the government to address a chronic shortage in affordable housing.
The country has the highest rate of homelessness among the 36 wealthy nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with nearly 1% of its population living without a permanent shelter in 2015.
Tiny houses and mobile homes - including upgraded caravans - can be an "effective, low-cost solution" to the lack of affordable homes, but are regulated as regular homes with high taxes and bureaucratic red tape, said Andrew Crisp, who launched the online petition.
"New Zealand has a serious housing crisis," said Crisp, whose petition was signed by more than 4,000 people and presented to parliament by opposition lawmaker Andrew Bayly.
"Tiny homes are an eco-lifestyle choice for many, and can provide immediate, affordable and dignified housing for families as transitional or permanent residence," Crisp said.
Globally, the United Nations estimates that at least 150 million people, or about 2% of the population, are homeless. More than a fifth of the population lacks adequate housing.
House prices in New Zealand have soared more than 50% over the past decade, with thousands on a waiting list for state housing, and thousands more living in their vehicles or in emergency accommodation provided by the state.
The government last September scrapped the "overly ambitious" KiwiBuild programme, which had aimed to deliver 100,000 new homes within a decade.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has passed laws that restrict many non-resident foreigners from buying homes in New Zealand, and appointed a team of senior officials to tackle the crisis.
Yet the recent Demographia survey of housing affordability showed New Zealand had a "severely unaffordable" housing market.
There are up to 10,000 people living in tiny homes, and a further 70,000 in caravans, estimates Colin Wightman at Eco Cottages, a company that builds small homes.
"We are seeing people who want to downsize, and those who cannot afford to buy a house on their retirement savings," he said.
Tiny homes can be placed in empty backyards or on land that is currently undeveloped. They have a small footprint, and can easily go off-grid with solar and gas power, he said.
The government is "pro-tiny homes," although there is some uncertainty about how local councils interpret the Building Act, said Jenny Salesa, minister for building and construction, referring to the legislation for house construction.
The ministry is seeking to ensure "certainty and consistency" in applying the law to tiny homes, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The changes our government is making to the Building Act will support a greater supply of houses, including tiny homes."
Last week, Wightman led a protest rally of mobile and tiny homes in Wellington to present parliament with a demand for a separate building standard and compliance framework so owners do not face eviction and demolition threats.
"The government has been too slow to understand their use as a crisis solution. They are blocking rather than embracing them," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.