Many people have asked this question or complained about how long it is taking. So for several weeks, I’ve been exploring what the issues are with fixing housing and why it is taking so long. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
There are three main contributors to the length of time it is taking to fix the housing in Christchurch.
1.The scale of the increases in major building repairs and in the number of new houses being built.
2. The complexity of the insurance issues caused by 16 separate earthquake insurance events.
3. Challenges in ramping up the level of construction resources (labour and materials) to meet the big increase in demand.
1. The scale of the problem
There is a massive increase in the demand for home repairs and new home construction, over a relatively short time period.
Pre-earthquake the usual number of house renovations in Christchurch was 3000 per year. Now there are about 110,000 Christchurch houses requiring major repairs, about 30 times more than the usual demand. The recently released ECan report on land use indicates that “91% of the 190,000 dwellings in Christchurch were damaged by the earthquakes”, so there are about another 60,000 houses requiring smaller repairs.
There are also about 10,000 house demolitions which draw upon a similar pool of labour and construction machinery.
2. Insurance complexities
The Christchurch/Canterbury earthquakes are the 4th largest global insurance event ever. The 16 earthquakes that caused enough damage to be rated as separate insurance events have considerably increased the complexity of resolving insurance claims. While householders are mostly insured with the same company right through all the earthquakes, insurance companies have changed their reinsurance partners over the time period of the earthquakes. Reinsurers audit the insurance claims and expect good quality supporting documentation. In other large global events reinsurers have withdrawn from the market, which has not happened in Christchurch.
About 30% of the claims have been paid out, leaving just over 2/3 of claims still to be settled. While homeowners wait for their claims to be settled they are unwilling to progress home repairs, in case that compromises their claims. Since insurance money is likely to be forthcoming eventually, other sources of potential funding for fixing housing are limited.
There are challenges in ramping up a workforce that is sufficiently skilled to conduct the assessments and evaluations.
3. Construction resource constraints
It is a challenge to increase the construction labour force and the availability of construction machinery and building materials quickly enough to meet the sharp increase in demand. The resource requirements to build and repair houses are also competing with the requirements to support commercial construction, repairs, and demolitions and the workforce needed for insurance evaluations and assessments.
New programmes have been added to train more construction workers, but will take some time to deliver enough skilled NZ labour. Recruiters are turning overseas for the necessary workforce which also avoids an oversupply of construction labour once the level of construction returns to lower levels in Canterbury.
The land damage caused in residential areas by the September 2010 earthquake and then again by the February 2011 earthquake created issues for both property owners and the government, which had never been encountered in New Zealand before. Nearly two years after the February earthquake, those issues are on the path to resolution, with some key decisions made and some processes well established. Other processes are still evolving and the important decision about the future uses of the land is not yet made.
The residential red zones (RRZ) face a different set of problems from the central city red zone with many more property owners and insurers as stakeholders and a lot more emotion involved in the decision making. The homes that were here represented hopes and dreams of families as well as being the single largest financial asset of most.
Residential red zoned property in New Brighton Road showing impact of liquefaction.
So how is progress and what’s happening in the residential red zones across the city and in Kaiapoi, Brooklands and Pines Beach?
There are 7207 properties within the RRZ, whose owners have received an offer from the government. Of these, 5479 property owners have settled. 1403 homeowners chose option 1, and sold both the house and the land to the government while 4076 homeowners chose option 2 and sold the land to the government and the house to their insurance company. In some cases, although the land was damaged, the house was deemed repairable from an insurance point of view, so CERA is managing these cases. In cases where the house is either repairable or relocatable, CERA will seek settlement of any land claim with EQC and the house claim with the insurance company.
Just over 2000 property owners have not finalised their arrangements for a variety of reasons. Many will do so in the next month or so. A small number of property owners have decided not to accept the government’s offer and are waiting to see what the government’s next move will be. The number of properties with homeowners or tenants still living in them is a subset of the 2000 homes where the arrangements are not yet finalised. From observation, very few of the RRZ streets are entirely empty.
CERA as property owner
CERA is currently managing the properties purchased by the Crown as settlements occur, with around 5,800 properties with 5,800 lawns to mow, hedges to trim and rates to pay. About 25% of the houses across the RRZ have been demolished with the percentage demolished varying quite markedly in different areas.
The RRZ offer was complex and it took most property owners some months to understand fully the implications of the various choices, decide which option to take and negotiate the final details. The announcements about which properties were categorised as RRZ were made in tranches over a period of nearly a year.
Demolition is managed by the insurance company for the properties which are deemed a total loss. The demolition is of all damaged insurable structures, which may include garages and driveways as well as the house, or may not include the driveway or the garage if they were not insured or deemed undamaged. There are several insurance companies involved, making a variety of arrangements with different demolition contractors, leading to the range of outcomes that are observable in the RRZ.
Taking Kaiapoi as an example, Courtenay Drive is the first sizeable group of properties (23 properties) where enough properties have been settled to allow the land clearance to proceed to the next stage where boundary fences and shrubs are removed. Large trees/shrubs have been recorded on a GIS database and have been left. CERA is looking for ways to make it more cost effective to keep the RRZ land well maintained and free of rubbish and ‘fly tipping’.
Cleared land in Courtenay Drive, Kaiapoi.
In the Golden Grove area of Kaiapoi, the RRZ streets have had many houses demolished. There are sufficient final settlements in large enough groups to commence clearing boundary fences, remaining structures and residual vegetation. The process for dealing with the vegetation is contained in the report developed by Boffa Miskell in November 2012. (http://cera.govt.nz/sites/cera.govt.nz/files/common/residential-red-zone-vegetation-retention-methodology-14-november-2012.pdf)
Future uses of the land
At this stage CERA is focused on helping property owners make their decisions about their preferred options and move into homes elsewhere. In parallel there are consultations happening with stakeholder groups about what will happen to the land. Once decisions are made about the future uses of the land, a number of other decisions will follow such as what will happen to the streets, and to the distribution systems for water, stormwater, sewage, electricity and telecommunications.
New Brighton Road near Locksley Ave, where the road has been diverted onto the gardens of RRZ properties now owned by the government.
The deadline for RRZ property owners to settle under the present offer has been extended from April to June 2013. When that deadline is reached, there will be more streets where all the properties have settled, so the demolitions can occur followed by the land clearances. However, some property owners have decided not to accept the present offer and see what the government’s next move is. Some of those property owners have declared their intention of taking their case to the courts. We can expect it to take many more months for these issues to be resolved, as although the number of property owners in this situation is a relatively small percentage, nearly all the cases are different and will take different paths to resolution.
The issues caused by the scale of land damage to residential homes are complex and challenging to resolve. Firstly it was complex to complete the geotechnical assessments to make the decisions about which properties should be categorised as RRZ. Secondly it was complex to decide what the government offer should be, given the variety of insurance arrangements and the types of damage to houses that had occurred. Thirdly it is complex to manage the 5,800 empty properties and to try to keep the RRZ streets secure and safe. Still to unfold are the complexities of the remaining property owners who have decided not to accept the government offer.
Much of the external focus has been on what is happening in the central city red zone, with New Zealanders from outside of Christchurch and even those who live in the much less damaged western suburbs relatively oblivious to the painful choices facing red zoners. While red zoners would like more awareness and empathy for their situation, they do not want any more attention from taggers, people dumping rubbish in empty sections, criminals and arsonists.
And another story for another day, is the plight of property owners whose homes and/or land is badly damaged, but who are not red zoned, and therefore face a different set of issues.
Three times recently, people posting on CHCH EQ Photos have compared Christchurch to a war zone or to a developing country. There is understandable frustration at the slow progress of recovery in the residential red zones, and sorrow at the number of buildings that are being demolished because they are either so damaged they are deemed unsafe by CERA or they are considered uneconomic to repair by their owners and insurers.
During 2012 I visited Lebanon, a former war zone, and Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The resemblance of Christchurch to either a war zone or a developing country is superficial. War zones and developing countries are untidy and ugly and they share that characteristic with the red zones in Christchurch – both in the central city and outlying suburbs. There the resemblance ends.
The demolition sites of Christchurch are orderly, there are health and safety signs, cordon fences to keep out the unauthorised, friendly army officers at the cordon helping tourists navigate to their destinations. The demolition workers deftly handle very large machines and sort the piles of demolition rubble into different kinds of material for recycling. This is a very different environment from war zones where the bullet holes are still evident, or the developing world where there are few controls on worker safety or how to deal with demolition rubble.
Everywhere construction and demolition workers exhibit skill in the work they do. Our demolition workers have heavy machinery to assist them in their work, whereas in the developing world far more of the work is done manually without the assistance of machinery. We are often mesmerised by the skill of the heavy machinery operators as they deftly sort demolition rubble. The demolition and construction workers that Christchurch needs so much, often work in difficult, noisy and unpleasant environments. Sometimes their work environment is dangerous as well. They deserve our respect for the work they do.
Frustration at the slowness of progress in some areas, disagreement with the direction of the development plans, anger at the decision makers who choose to demolish rather than repair – these are all reasonable responses to the situation. Comparing Christchurch to either a war zone or a developing country is an unfair comparison.
Today, we were back in the red zone after our trip to Vietnam, where Moira was teaching a librarianship course at the Hanoi University of Culture. Spending a few weeks in a completely different environment has given us a fresh perspective on the central city. How long ago it seems that CERA was telling us that they hoped to open up the cordon entirely by April 2012. The centre of the city is still an active demolition zone with the sound of heavy machinery all around.
It seems that the number of buildings still to be demolished stays about the same number, as new buildings are added to the demolition list, as fast as others are demolished. With so much gone, the centre of the city is becoming see through, with surprising vistas right across the city, where there never used to be a line of sight.
Both Moira and Ross attended the National Digital Forum (NDF) in Wellington on November 21st, a conference for practitioners working on digital applications in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums sector. Many of them do very clever things to share digitally the cultural treasures from their collections.
Moira presented a paper entitled “The art of online conversation in a grieving city” about the way the community of the Christchurch Earthquake Photos Facebook page have evolved into an interactive, participative community who enrich the page by contributing photos and extra contextual information. The presentation was well received by the small but enthusiastic audience and triggered conversations with others who can see things that can be done with the BeckerFraserPhotos collection given the quality of the geotags and the metadata attached.
It was another beautiful Christchurch evening when Ross flew over Christchurch on October 31st, courtesy of Peter King, to update our aerial set of photos with the most recent changes to the look of the city. Demolition continues in the central city which gets emptier and emptier. About 250 buildings still have to be demolished, and less than 20 % of the buildings within the central city red zoned cordon will remain.
In the residential red zones the progress of demolitions is slower, with many badly damaged houses still standing. You can view more photos here
While attending the international conference of librarians (IFLA WLIC 2012) the talk that moved everyone who heard it was by a colleague in the Research Service of the Diet Library of Japan, which is both the Parliamentary Library and the National Library. Mr Kunio Yamada co-ordinated the response of the Research Services of the Diet Library to the Great East Japan Earthquake.
There is a connection between Japan and New Zealand because of our shared position on the Pacific Rim of Fire and therefore our shared experience of earthquakes. Especially as the Great East Japan Earthquake was less than 1 month after the Japanese Urban Search and Rescue Crew came to Christchurch, NZ to help with the rescue effort in February 2011 and a few weeks later it was the turn of the NZ Urban Search and Rescue Crew to go to Japan to help with rescue efforts. The Japanese team who worked in Christchurch are remembered for the respect that they showed in their work searching for bodies amongst the rubble.
The scale of the Great East Japan Earthquake was much bigger than in Christchurch because the earthquake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale and the disaster included an earthquake, a tsunami and the closedown of a nuclear power plant. The death toll was nearly 16,000 with nearly 3,000 people still missing, 400,000 buildings destroyed or damaged and 140,000 households evacuated. The estimated economic impact is US$200-300 billion compared to US$20-30 billion for Christchurch.
The task of reconstruction and rebuilding in Japan is huge. Of this task, my colleague, Mr Yamada said “we are bringing our hearts together and combining our hopes”.
The legislation in New Zealand that formed the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was created by the government as one piece of legislation, supported by the other parties through the House. The legislation in response to the Earthquake in Japan was proposed as 70 bills, including 30 bills proposed as members Bills. More than 50 of these Bills passed into law including 20 of the Members Bills.
As I read the annual report of the Diet Library I noted the Japanese Reconstruction Design Council which was formed in June 2011, and is similar to CERA, has this principle “For us, the surviving, there is no other starting point for the path to recovery, than to remember and honour the lives that have been lost. Accordingly, we shall record the disaster for eternity, and we shall the disaster scientifically analyzed by a broad range of scholars to draw lessons that will be shared by the world and passed down to posterity”.
Basic guidelines for Reconstruction stipulate “establish an integrated mechanism of storage and application that enables anyone inside and outside of Japan to have access to the records and other relevant information, and broadly communicates the accumulated information domestically and internationally.” The National Diet Library started to build the Great East Japan Earthquake Archives in cooperation with other Government offices and relevant organisations. In FY 2012 the NDL will develop and publicly launch a system which will archive, preserve and provide the relevant records in digital form, will enable us to make integrated search of holdings of NDL and other organisations and will be universally accessible.” (National Diet Library, Japan, July 2012).
Although the Diet Library in Tokyo is 400 km from the epicentre of the earthquake, 1.8 million collection items fell on the floor. Remarkably, the Diet Library was closed to the public for only one day, and the collection items were all re-shelved within 2 weeks.
The links between Japan and NZ will continue as the work of reconstruction goes on over many years. For now, there are two major policy issues that the Great East Japan Earthquake has brought to the fore, both of which are of interest to New Zealand. The policy issues are constitutional issues about emergency powers granted in the immediate aftermath of large scale disasters and also energy policy. You can read more of Mr Yamada’s presentation here: http://conference.ifla.org/sites/default/files/files/papers/wlic2012/106-yamada-en.pdf