Perception overrides reality of foreign ownership of land

Timothy Brown

RNZ Insight

Otago, July 1, 2018

There is a perception that New Zealanders are being priced out of house and home by wealthy foreigners. A perception the government is moving to address with its foreign buyer ban.

But a historical lack of good data means quantifying the extent of the problem is fraught.

What are the motivations of these foreign ‘one-percenters’?

What brings them to our shores?

“We have now reached the point where you wander down Queen Street in Auckland and wonder if you are still in New Zealand or some other country.”

That is not a quote by some little-known, shadowy figure from some marginal political movement. They are the words of the man (Winston Peters) currently acting as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

And yes, the quote is over a decade old, but the perception that foreign money is somehow shaping New Zealand in a manner detrimental to ‘tried and true Kiwis’ persists.

Causing Affordability crisis

In a poll last year by the Property Institute, New Zealanders ranked foreign buyers as the biggest determinant of housing prices – in other words the cause of the affordability crisis.

But recent data – the first good data of its kind – shows foreign buyers accounted for only 2.7% of buyers of real estate for the year to March.

An escalation in foreign buyers in recent months followed the government’s announcement that they would be shut out of the market.

Only about 50 kilometres from downtown Queenstown, but a world removed from the bustling tourist resort.

The Glenorchy Region

Glenorchy is surrounded by the deep-green of forest and overlooked – at this time of year – by the snow-capped peak of Mount Bonpland.

In almost every direction, you will experience the kind of postcard-perfect panorama which draws foreign tourists to the Queenstown Lakes district.

A district reeling from the housing affordability crisis, and a district heavy in foreign investment.

But Glenorchy stands as an example of how communities can benefit from foreign money.

US couple Paul and Debbi Brainerd bought the derelict camping ground in the town in 2014. Nearby sections were also snatched up by the pair to deliver their dream of New Zealand’s first net zero energy accommodation.

The existing general store and camping ground were replaced with a stunning assortment of low-energy cabins and lush green pastures for tent sites.

Solar Panels

Camp Glenorchy features a garden of solar panels to power the site, composting toilets and heavy use of recycled materials.

The beautiful space is also dotted with gravel and tussock gardens which recycle the facility’s grey water, allowing it to be used again for irrigation.

Millions of dollars have been spent on delivering the Brainerds’ dream and now the couple have gifted the facility – and any profits it produces – to the community.

“All the profits and all the benefits from here actually go back into a community trust,” Camp General Manager (Projects) Steve Hewland said.

“It is run by locals and they [the Brainerds] no longer have any direct ownership in the business itself. They are still involved in the operational side of it, but they no longer own any of the assets even.”

So what would inspire a Seattle-based tech millionaire couple to give so much to a small community on the other side of the world, some 12,000 kilometres away?

Well, Insight couldn’t get that first-hand as the Brainerds are private and turned down an interview.

But Mr Hewland said that the pair simply loved the area and the country, and wanted to show the world what was possible.

Philanthropic Effort

The couple made their fortune, thanks to the IT Revolution and have spent a good sum of it on philanthropic efforts which are revolutionary in their own right.

“Cost wasn’t the main factor in our decision making (when building the camp),” said Mr Hewland, who oversaw construction on behalf of the Brainerds.

“It was about what was the best outcome for the environment, and the community, and our guests. No-one in their right mind would have done all of this for a commercial payback. So, they have gone much further and beyond the intent to get a commercial payback because it is a philanthropic effort to demonstrate to people what can be done.”

The camp’s Guest Services Manager Tracy Kerr said that the community had embraced the project once the initial furore surrounding its foreign backers died down.

“It is a project…that incorporates the whole community rather than something they have been shut out. The Brainerds were the kind of investors New Zealand should be welcoming with open arms. They are just the nicest, humble, simple people,” she said.

Another American’s view

“They are not ostentatious at all. They are almost Kiwi – They have fit in so nicely. I think what they’ve done for the community is fantastic. It’s a wonderful gift.”

While the Brainerds do not wish to speak to Insight, fellow American – and part-time New Zealand resident – Phil Griffith is happy to front over the topic.

The multimillionaire owner of Gibbston Valley Wines, Mr Griffith is the kind of person who will be shut out of buying New Zealand homes if the foreign buyer ban is introduced.

He spoke to Insight from his home in Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which straddle Nevada and California.

“I came there as a tourist. I came there later to visit friends and eventually I feel in love with the country. And I feel in love with the investment opportunities and here I am some 30-odd years later having invested probably $50 million in the country. “So, I think that I am kind of the poster child for what I think New Zealand ought to be looking for”

Mr Griffith and others like him have been spooked by the proposed foreign buyer ban and wonder what it means for their place in the country.

Disappointed people

Other wealthy friends have expressed their disappoint in the move, he said.

“They are frustrated – they have been putting money into New Zealand for years and they kind of feel the game has changed.”

Mr Griffith first came to New Zealand in 1988. He made his first investment into Gibbston Valley Wines in 1992.

“When this [Overseas Investment Amendment Bill] was first introduced this was worldwide news. New Zealand maybe thinks that nobody pays attention to this stuff, but I must have had 10 phone calls from people saying ‘What’s going on in New Zealand? They don’t want anybody there? They don’t want foreigners? They don’t want investors?.”

“When a country puts out the news – and I know this is not correct – but ‘You are not welcome,’ that image is out there now. It is a part of the image of Las Vegas now, people will say are not they the country that does not want anybody down there now. And it is obviously not correct, but everything is perception in the world.”

The introduction of the legislation has already affected Mr Griffith’s appetite for residential investment.

Ground has recently been broken on a $25 million redevelopment of Gibbston Valley Station, but plans for residential development of the area are up in the air as Mr Griffith is unsure if he will be able to secure buyers for homes if the foreign buyer ban passes into law.

It is entirely speculative to suggest foreign capital will dry up in response to the perception New Zealand is closing its doors, but already overseas investors seem to be left with a bad taste in their mouths.

Timothy Brown is Otago-Southland Reporter of Radio New Zealand. Indian Newslink has published the above Report and Pictures under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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Photo Caption:

  1. Development of Shotover Country, Queenstown began in 2012; it is now jam-packed
  2. Steve Hewland says the contribution of the Brainerds has been transformative for Glenorchy
  3. One of the gravel and tussock gardens which recycles Camp Glenorchy’s greywater for irrigation

Pictures for RNZ Insight by Timothy Brown

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