If the admiring New Zealand Herald coverage given to Brandon Lipman’s ascension to his own property investment portfolio is anything to go by, the New Zealand mythology of the right to home ownership, the quarter acre section, has been decisively dethroned. The interregnum, a period of disquiet and uncertainty about the prospects for the middle class in a time of soaring house prices, has been replaced with a mythology of the right of the middle class to be property investors and landlords. The king is dead, long live the king.
I admire the segue: the core mythology of our society, that hard work and sacrifice are key to success, has been carefully uncoupled from home ownership and grafted onto property investment, previously regarded as only for the rich. You are now a good New Zealander if you have a property investment portfolio; conversely, you are not trying hard enough if you have one house and you’re positively subversive if you’ve been in one house longer than five years. If you’re living in someone else’s house or worse, a house owned by the State, you are a failed person, that most awful of personages: the bludger.
Enforcing acceptance of a new mythology that proclaims property investment as good and a rite of passage for New Zealanders is absolutely central to the nation building project of neo-liberal economics. The selling of social housing and positive media coverage of property investment is not coincidental. A government that is run by corporates needs New Zealanders to exchange their belief in egalitarianism in which a home, owned or rented, represents dignity and the right to a fair-go for a belief that success through acquiring assets is what marks the worth and dignity of people.
In our community, roughly twenty percent of the houses are owned by Housing New Zealand Corporation, forty percent by private landlords and forty percent are people in their own homes. The twenty percent owned by the government are up for sale. The government wants to divest itself of ALL of the social housing in Tauranga Moana; 1,256 houses, currently managed by Housing NZ, gone.
One of the fallacies of the current statements about the selling of those homes is that they are to be managed by social housing providers and will not fall into the hands of property investors. I struggle to think of even one Tauranga social housing provider in conversation with the government who could buy houses without a formal working relationship with property investors. Any of those providers that has a sizeable property portfolio has had to work with private money. So of course those houses that are sold to social housing providers will be managed as an asset by property investors.
Then our social housing, like our private housing, will be subject to the great flaw in property investment: the house and property will be regarded as the asset whereas the real assets are the people who live in the houses.
Social housing was built for the needs of people; it was not built as an asset. It is instructive to consider the roots of social housing in our country as detailed in Dr Ben Schrader’s We Call it Home – A History of State Housing in New Zealand.
Concerns about slum landlords and poor living standards led Prime Minister Richard Seddon to introduce the Workers’ Dwellings Act in 1905 to provide well-built suburban houses for workers who earned less than £156 per annum. He argued that these houses would prevent further decline of living standards and increase the money available to workers without increasing the costs to employers, as it would break private landlords’ control over rental housing. He noted that housing costs for everyone would decline as a result.
In the 1930s, following a campaign against slums by the New Zealand Truth, and the realisation that adjustments to mortgage lending was not an effective tool to encourage an increase in housing stock, the Finance Minister Walter Nash announced in the 1936 Budget that 5,000 state houses would be built. The government intended not only to provide housing, but to stimulate jobs and manufacturing with the construction of the houses, which were to be built from New Zealand materials as far as possible. The first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, was tenanted in 1937.
Poor living standards; high rental rates; absentee landlords and property investors; ineffective mortgage lending tools; a need for greater housing stock. If our current situation wasn’t so dire, the inability of our current government to read a bit of history would be funny. The solution now as then to our housing crisis is to create homes, not sell assets.
Aside from our social need to resolve this problem, we have an international obligation to provide adequate housing. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
This is expanded in Article 11 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the legal interpretation provided in 1991, it was explained that this provided for security of tenure, affordability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy. This is not housing as an asset; it’s a home, the “right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” We are signatories who have ratified these and many other international treaties and covenants that affirm a right to adequate housing. Ratification means we should enact the agreements to their fullest extent.
I ask you to think of your home. The table where you laughed with your friends over a meal, perhaps a beer. The bed in which you recovered from a cold under layers of blankets. The ugly keepsake on the mantlepiece given to you by your child, by a niece, by a grandchild. The lounge where you sit with a glass of red or a cup of tea to read a book and watch TV. Walls that have enclosed and embraced your joys, your loves, your disappointments, your hates. Your home. For 1,256 families in Tauranga Moana, the Minister of Finance has declared their homes to be his assets to sell.