Michelle Marshall and her husband, Zane, returned to New Zealand after living in London, ready to settle down, buy a house, have a child and live “the Kiwi dream”.
But the young couple quickly realised the Kiwi dream was becoming elusive in Auckland, the country’s largest city. No matter how hard they worked and saved there, their goal of buying a home and starting a family was slipping away.
“We thought it was never going to be possible to buy a home in Auckland,” says Michelle. “We just got so fed up.
“It becomes the topic of every conversation at the BBQ, and between the two of us we became sick of talking about it – we just wanted to do it. So we thought: ‘If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen for yourself.’”
So the Marshalls quit their well-paid but exhausting jobs in HR and brewing respectively and travelled 1,233km to the rural South Island town of Timaru, population 47,000. They found new jobs in their industries and within months had moved into their first family home, with a baby on the way. They now pay half as much in mortgage as they previously did in rent.
“It’s the best decision we ever made,” says Michelle, who now has a commute of less than five minutes. “I honestly wish we’d done it sooner.”
Auckland is the seventh most expensive city in the world to buy a home, and all three of New Zealand’s major cities are considered “severely unaffordable” by the latest Demographia international housing affordability survey. As homeownership becomes an ever more distant prospect for young families, small towns in regional areas are undergoing an unexpected revival.
Following decades of steady population and industry decline, places such as Timaru, Dunedin, Kerikeri and Oamaru are beginning to grow, and property prices are following suit – in Dunedin, where the population has grown by roughly 2,000 people a year since the council launched an “aggressive” marketing drive to lure Aucklanders in 2016, the median house price has grown by more than 14% in the past year.
Timaru has been a particular beneficiary of this trend thanks to its 2.4% unemployment rate (the national average is 4.3%), affordable housing and humble, no-nonsense vibe.
Last month a cheeky billboard advertisement for the town popped up beside the Sky Tower in Auckland, appealing to commuters stuck in traffic. “We love our first homes,” the billboard read, showing an image of a classic weatherboard New Zealand villa. “NZ$350,000, median house price.” The median house price in Auckland is more than $800,000.
One-third of Timaru residents are predicted to be 65 or older within 15 years, meaning the little town not only wants younger workers – it badly needs them for its survival.
“Every night we look at the 6 o’clock news and we see that Auckland is bursting at the seams,” says Damon Odey, mayor of Timaru. “They need 30,000 more houses every year, more motorways, more tunnels.”
In Timaru, Odey says school enrolments are up, and the ageing population is slowly being joined by younger workers and families, especially those who have long been priced out of homeownership markets, such as many Māori and Pasifika families.
In addition, “We are seeing people from all over the globe,” Odey says. “The diversity has shifted away from predominantly Australian and British.”
Prof Paul Spoonley, a demographer at Massey University, says that instead of targeting Aucklanders with expensive marketing campaigns, the regions would be better off wooing new international migrants, as by far the largest demographic growth in those areas was from this group.
He points to Canada as a model, where new migrants get half of their immigration points in one hit if they apply to live in a regional area, which has helped spread populations more evenly outside of the major cities.
“What frustrates me,” he says, “is the regions don’t have explicit immigration policies. Two-thirds of the [population] growth in New Zealand is accounted for by migration.”
The Labour-led government has taken a keen interest in revitalising the regions, spearheaded by its coalition deal with the New Zealand First party, whose voting support resides in rural Northland.
As part of the coalition deal, PM Jacinda Ardern earmarked $3bn over three years for the Provincial Growth Fund, aimed at boosting regional economies by investing heavily in forestry projects, cultural centres and infrastructure.
NZ First’s Shane Jones, minister for regional development, oversees the fund. He says the regions have been neglected and ignored for decades and now face entrenched unemployment and social welfare issues as a result.
Jones is holding talks with the Labour immigration minister about fast-tracking applications for immigrants willing to live and work in the regions. Relocation grants, which are used in Australia, are also a possibility.
Spoonley, however, worries the Provincial Growth Fund has chosen to sink money into conservative “old-economy” investments, such as forestry, rather than diversifying regional economies to attract young workers – people who don’t want to feel cut off from the rest of the country, or the world.
“Regions need to focus on what will make their towns most attractive in the 21st century: services, IT, connectivity and creativity,” he says. “Planting trees has some environmental impacts, but it doesn’t create that many modern-day jobs.”
Blair Hingston, 23, moved to Timaru last year after being offered a promotion too good to refuse, not long after graduating from university. He says the worst thing about the change is how expensive and time-consuming it now is to travel internationally, but that Timaru has everything the big cities do – just with fewer people. He was able to buy his first home two months after arriving.
“I bought my first house, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, double garage sort of a home,” says Hingston.
“I was getting paid more, the house prices were cheaper, and to be honest I had more time to find the one I wanted to buy as well.”
Every month there are more people his age turning up in Timaru, Hingston says, and he believes the community has welcomed its increasingly diverse population with open arms.
“Down here, when they ask how you are, they really mean it,” he says. “The people just care about you down here, I guess – they want to see you succeed.”