Housing in New Zealand/Aotearoa: Rhetoric .v. Action

This article looks at the gap between government announcements and lack of action to address housing issues in New Zealand/Aotearoa.

Submitted by LAMA on April 26, 2018

With much fanfare the Labour-led government announced in its first budget major changes to supposedly assist beneficiaries who are struggling with housing costs. On April 1st, 2018, the changes, especially to the Accommodation Supplement, took effect but it quickly became apparent the government had given with one hand and taken away with the other.

While the maximum payments in the various Accommodation Supplement zones increased by an average of $15 a week (more in some areas as they were moved to other Accommodation Supplement zones) the majority of those people who had an Accommodation Supplement increase lost their Temporary Additionary Supplement. In effect their payments only increased by the annual cost of living adjustment. For many people that meant less than $5 a week extra in the hand. $5 a week is hardly the major increase in assistance that the government hinted at. Indeed, the actions of the Labour-led government to address the problem of housing have been less than stellar.

When TVNZ revealed on April 12th, 2018, that the Department of Work and Income had issued Advances of Benefit for tents for twenty families the Housing Minister Phil Twyford stated, “It’s not ok for the government to be supplying tents. It might have been acceptable under the past government it’s not under ours … We’re pulling out all the stops with emergency and transitional housing, building thousands of extra state houses, and if people are homeless and don’t have anywhere to live we will do our absolute best to find somewhere for them.” That was a response that was full of the sort of bombastic nonsense and rhetoric that would’ve made U.S President Donald Trump proud.

While the government has announced lofty plans to address the housing shortage, including the announcement that 53 new state houses are planned for the Castor Crescent area in Porirua (Stuff website, March 6th, 2018), nothing has been built up to now.
Housing shortages in most parts of New Zealand have become critical. The NZ Herald stated in an article on November 3rd, 2017, that there was a nationwide shortage of 71,194 houses (44,738 in Auckland alone) according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. That’s disgusting in a country that once prided itself on its virtual lack of homelessness.

What is even more disgraceful is that it’s the most vulnerable groups in our society who have found themselves unable to put a roof over their heads. Maori. Pacific Islanders, youth and the mentally ill have been the most heavily impacted by the lack of housing.
With the median rent in Auckland and Wellington being $550 a week and $385 a week nationwide (excluding Auckland) according to Nigel Jeffries, the head of Trade Me Property (NZ Herald, February 26th, 2018), it’s obvious why homelessness has become such a major problem. Even if rental properties were available the rents are simply unaffordable.

The problem regarding housing isn’t just because of the law of supply and demand. Successive governments and local councils have been selling houses either to speculators or to so-called “social housing providers” since the 1980s. This has created a critical shortage of council and state housing to meet the growing need for housing nationwide. Even though the current government has committed itself to building 10,000 state houses a year to meet growing demand there has been no indication that any state houses have been built or that the sale of existing state or council housing has been stopped. Instead, all we are hearing are plans for new state housing developments.

The area of housing is one where we see the ugly face of the ruling elite, the state and Capital. While the state pays lip service to helping those in need of a roof over their head little is done about it. The private sector assures everyone it can provide affordable housing but there is no incentive to build such housing and private landlords openly state they will not rent to people they view as lazy, drug addicted boozers on welfare – if comments on Facebook and Newstalk ZB are any indicator. The property-owning classes oppose any attempts to construct housing intended for working class or low income people if there is any likelihood it would lower their property values. This situation is highlighted by for example, the opposition to a proposed low cost housing project in Awatea Ave in Paraparaumu in which property owners opposed a proposal to build affordable housing because it would create a “ghetto” though no explanation was offered as to how this would be the case. (Paraparaumu ‘ghetto’ plan opposed, Kapiti Observer, November 20th, 2014)

Having a place to live is not, and must not, be a luxury reserved for those deemed to be ‘deserving’. It is a fundamental human right. By “housing”, that doesn’t mean an overcrowded converted garage or a tent in a camping ground.

Anarchist architect and town planner Colin Ward once stated in his book The Hidden History of Housing (London: History and Policy, September 2004), “In the post-war decades popular mythology held that every acre of Britain was precious in the interests of agriculture. Farmers were free to destroy woodlands and hedges, drain wetlands and pollute rivers and water supplies in the interests of increased production. Now that the bubble of over-production has burst, the same people are subsidised for not growing and for returning habitats to what is seen as nature. This results in golf courses and publicly-financed set-aside.

“Unofficial settlements are seen as a threat to wildlife, which is sacrosanct. The planning system is the vehicle that supports four-wheel-drive Range Rovers, but not the local economy, and certainly not those travellers and settlers seeking their own modest place in the sun. These people have bypassed the sacred rights of tenure, but still find their modest aspirations frustrated by the operations of planning legislation. Nobody actually planned such a situation. No professional planner would claim that his or her task was to grind unofficial housing out of existence, and nor would any of the local enforcers of the Building Regulations.

“But all these unhappy confrontations are the direct result of public policy. Something has to be done to change it, and the hidden history of twentieth-century housing offers some currently unconventional models.”

The housing models that have got Aotearoa to this dire point need to be abandoned. It is time to start introducing some of those unconventional models of which Colin Ward spoke, including squatting and collective ownership, into this country. If the homeless wait for private charity or the government of the day to house them they will be waiting a very long time. As of the December 2017 quarter there were 7725 people on the Housing New Zealand waiting list – and they were just the most urgent cases. (Stuff website, February 1st, 2018.) Rather than waiting patiently for the government or the private sector to provide the most basic of human needs, the homeless, those in sub-standard housing and their allies in the community can co-operate together and undertake direct action to achieve their modest goals.