It is far, far, past time for politicians to mandate the changes that will help Kiwis live in secure, affordable homes. Just do it, pleads Jess Berentson-Shaw.
Imagine that all of us had a home in New Zealand. A home where the pictures on the walls were yours to put up as you please and damn the nail holes. Bedrooms you could paint the colours you wanted, plant a garden you would be there to see grow over the years. A home you could bring a baby home to knowing the room you put them down to sleep in might be the same one they would do their homework in 10 years from now.
A home that was warm, and dry and truly affordable. Each month after paying rent, or the mortgage you had money to put aside for small and big goals in life, a trip away or a new pair of shoes for the kids. A home where you knew your neighbours (even the noisy, annoying ones) and a home that was a retreat if things got bad.
Imagine if all of us had not just a home, but a community, a place to go to work from, to raise children from, a place to ride out global crises, and a place to celebrate the good days in.
A home for all of us is the foundation of a good society, enabling people to thrive and an economy that is resilient to the inevitable challenges to come.
But we don’t have that in New Zealand, and we have not had it for a generation. The ongoing failure of politicians to deal with this, pragmatically, makes me angry. It’s a travesty, a blight on our sense of fairness, and a massive risk to our long term social and economic wellbeing. Those who already own homes and investment houses look mealy mouthed at the idea of paying forward some of the benefits they gained from existing social and economic policy settings and people in politics back away from using the tools that work. Kids and families across our communities suffer.
The failure of people with the agency and power to act in a meaningful way on housing is dividing our communities into those who get an affordable home and the good life that goes with that and those who don’t. Worse, if those same people do not commit to helping out the next generation, frankly, we are all stuffed. This is the most ridiculous and unpragmatic thing.
Why are we still in the position we are, when the facts of the problem are so stark and obvious?
Why so much tinkering around the edges of policy, why so much pussy-footing around those who the policy system has advantaged? Partly, it’s about what we implicitly believe about housing in this country.
We talk about and see housing as a consumer good, something to purchase for the people who have worked hard enough or sacrificed enough to the gods of avocado toast. Something to make money from, by right. Any failures are explained as market ones. It’s a powerful narrative and narratives inform our thinking and willingness to make changes.
People need houses, and people who invest in, build, buy and rent houses for money (aka the market) have a role to play in helping provide those buildings. However, the people who are the providers in the housing market won’t willingly offer up plentiful, warm stable homes for us all.
This is not because they don’t care (some of them care a lot), but because policy makers have not created a system in which this provision is the default, rather it is the exception. Too many of them have believed (and perhaps continue to do so) the market will (mainly) deliver to people who work hard for it (with a few state homes and public private partnerships thrown in for the unfortunate rest).
These beliefs are part of the reason people in politics have walked away from the hard job of taxing wealth, including property-related wealth. In 2020, it is capital that matters. In New Zealand over half of ours sits in property alone. This capital accumulates for the rich, and it is piling up in ridiculously gross amounts for some. Not enough of it is being paid forward to help create a strong set of public services. Services that don’t just catch us when the proverbial hits the fan, but are used to proactively build the wellbeing of future generations so we are resilient to crises, including the provision of homes.
To encourage better decision-making about housing-related policy, we need a different language for housing. It is time for all of us to stop talking about housing primarily as something people earn the right to buy and that people make their money from. It is time for people in government and business to start talking very clearly about how we are going to ensure all people have a home as part of a solid foundation for society.
People in government need a mission for housing
Tax is necessary, but not sufficient. It is going to require all the tools policy makers have available. People in government supporting community housing providers, with a significant focus on iwi and hapū, at the sort of scale they currently put into accommodation supports and supplements ($2 billion a year and rising); more public housing; and solutions like what the Swedish government delivered in the 1950s – the creation of a large scale, not-for-profit rental housing sector. It delivered a number of high quality, mid-rise apartments in urban centres available to most of the population for long-term rental, included policies to keep rents stable, and encouraged community and cooperative ownership.
Reforms to the Resource Management Act are needed, but further, the Building Act needs to be made to work for people who live in houses, not just those who make money from creating them. Legislation and local council processes need to make it far easier for truly community and cooperative housing developments to be built. People need a voice, a choice and ownership over the housing that gets developed in their communities. All this will require working with people interested in investing in housing, but that investment needs to have clear goals to achieve social and environmental benefits as well as financial returns (sometimes called impact investment).
Ultimately, what is needed is people in government to drive these solutions with a clear goal to create a home for all. It is the sort of mission-oriented policy that economist Mariana Mazzucato advocates. It is far, far past the perfect time for people in this government to implement such a mission. Just fix the f**king housing problem. Please. For all our sakes.