OPINION: There’s a mad race going on in the beach city of Tauranga. And everybody’s doing it.
Tim’s doing it. Josh is doing it too. A whole bunch of absentee Aucklanders and overseas Kiwis are doing it. Carmen quit her job as a teacher to do it in numerous places. Jennifer’s hired someone to do it for her in her houses on the beach. And Kristin’s started a company to do it for as many Auckland-based and overseas Kiwis as she can.
The goal? Buy as much property as you possibly can, as fast as you can. If you win, you make a massive amount of money off of someone else’s need for a home or a holiday. If you lose, well, you may not be able to find a home, let alone go on vacation.
When my Kiwi husband got a venture investment job in Tauranga, I was thrilled about the idea of moving to New Zealand. I love the egalitarian history of this country, the progressive politics, and the beautiful outdoorsy culture. I couldn’t wait for our kids to experience life here.
I was completely unprepared for the shock of the housing culture. And I’m coming from San Francisco, so that’s saying something.
When applying for rentals in Tauranga ahead of moving here, we were directly turned down by three property managers and never heard back from countless others. “Why should I rent to someone with kids and a dog,” one property manager asked my husband, “when I’ve got 15 other applicants who have neither?”
Much of the housing, however, is bought and reserved for the lucrative short-term rental market e.g. Airbnb. At one point, we were interested in a four-bedroom on the beach. The landlady owns multiple properties and (yes) quit her teaching job to manage their listings on Airbnb. She would have rented to us if we’d been willing to move out for the six-week Christmas holiday, the most profitable time of year for short-term rentals, or accept a significant increase in rent. Neither option worked for us.
In his 2015 book, What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, Thomas Slee describes Paris, Barcelona and Rome’s struggle to pass policy that addresses the effects of Airbnb. When investors buy entire swathes of neighborhoods to turn the housing into short-term rentals, the result is higher property prices, traffic snarls, increased crime, and other problems related to transience.
If it was a matter of only a few people buying multiple properties to rent, or if people were simply renting their primary residence here and there, it would be different. But it’s about scale. As Slee puts it, if two people have a yard sale every weekend, it doesn’t have a huge impact on your block, but if every home on your block has a yard sale every weekend, it will disrupt the major patterns of the neighbourhood.
I am not naïve. I understand property is an investment. But it’s also a home. Which means it’s a transaction that involves a family’s beating heart.
In my experience of buying, selling and renting homes across the US, from New York, to Wisconsin, to California, the people involved respected the importance of the beating heart in the transaction. Which changed the entire nature of the deal. It made the sale or rental feel caring and humane, like something larger was at stake than simply making money.
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We bought our brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn from a woman who had raised her son in it. The competition for the apartment was fierce but she wanted us to have it. She had no desire to lose financially, but it was a cherished home and she loved that we were a couple starting a new family. When we sold our house in Wisconsin, I didn’t want to miss out on revenue, but it mattered that our beloved home would continue to provide a nest to someone who needed it.
In California, our landlady travelled the world on our monthly payments, yet still cared very much about the family that lived in her childhood home.
This has not been my experience in Tauranga, where the heart seems to have seeped out of the housing market. Homes feel like commodities, often flipping overnight from elderly long-term owners to absentee landlords. The house we ended up renting was on the market less than a month before getting snatched up by our Auckland landlord (who we’ve never spoken with) and flicked on to the rental market within a week.
As renters in a hot market like ours, we are a dime-a-dozen. Every three months our property manager emails me a time and date for property inspection. We are then expected to frantically weed, clean and polish our home and garden for her approval. At the appointed time she appears at our door and strolls through our home, taking pictures of our lives for our absentee landlord and the insurance company, as evidence of intact property. Our lives don’t matter. We’re simply a means to an end for the huge industry that is real estate, Airbnb, and property management in Tauranga.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. On a certain level, flicking properties and conducting quarterly home inspections makes logical sense. But on another level, a heart level, it doesn’t make sense at all. And it certainly doesn’t make one feel at home. As Curbed writer Megan Barker puts it, “…thanks to companies like Airbnb, communities are losing their most important asset: neighbours.”
Over the past week, it has emerged that in the global ranking of unaffordable cities for housing, Tauranga tops not only Auckland, but also London. Clearly something is not right with the Tauranga property market.
Tauranga has been slow to wake up to the challenges of the short-term rental market. In the US and Europe, city officials are already grappling with regulation policies that limit short-term rentals to a 30-day minimum, or restrict landlords from holding multiple listings. Miami Beach, for example, levies large fines for renting out a property for less than six months at a time, while New York bans short-term apartment listings entirely.
Nearing the end of our first year in Tauranga, we’ve been back on the market.
Looking for something that will fit our family’s lifestyle better, we contemplated buying, but weren’t quite ready to make the outsized $1.4 million commitment the market requires. Recently, we signed a rental agreement for a beautiful home, walking distance from our sons’ school. The home has been the primary residence of our landlords, a family moving a few blocks away. They’ve generously encouraged us to start moving in, while they finish their final projects on the house.
Locking up after our last box run, I walked around the house to say goodbye to Aaron, the husband, where he was painting tiles on the deck. Standing, wiping sweat from our faces, we commiserated a few minutes on the pain of moving. Then he turned reflective, “This house has been good to us,” he said, “full of kids, full of laughter. I hope it will be the same for you. That’s what it should be.”
“I do too,” I said. And at that moment, I felt the energy and light of the home surround us. Which is as it should be.
Kristen Joiner is a producer, writer and activist with a background in community development and human rights.