Like the giant cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, our housing ‘market’ has become stuck in a bad place, creating misery and stress. The Government may have only bought out a little digger to shift it, but a little digging in the right spot is a good place to start

Home. It’s a place we all want. It’s a place we all need. Some of us have one. Increasingly most don’t.

Warm, easy to live in for every stage or phase of life, ours for the long term. When all of us have a home we build our society’s health, stability, ability to progress and thrive.

Ownership doesn’t make a home. Homes can be rented, shared, owned communally, lent, built, moved.

What makes a home is that it is a place we are treated with dignity, allowed to be our full selves in. A home is made when we have the opportunity to feel at home in a place we live.

An economy built on housing misery
We have fewer and fewer homes being made in New Zealand though. Instead what we have are buildings that families, children, elderly parents, young people, disabled people, are allowed to live in, barely tolerated often, while people make money and the part of our economy built on property investment grows.

This particular part of our economy is creating misery for many people.

Small miseries such as being belittled, shamed and made to feel unwelcome in the home you pay for by landlords who insist on doing multiple inspections to see if you have cleaned “their” oven, or patio, to a sufficient standard.

Bigger miseries, like being told for the fourth time in 18 months to move because the owner wants to renovate, or sell. Telling your children that again they have to move schools, leave their friends and try and resettle.

And really big miseries, like watching your kids with asthma struggle to breath every winter in cold, damp, mouldy rooms. Like rental standards so shockingly low that children die from illnesses related to the cold and damp that flourishes.  

People with the power to shape housing into our homes have failed to do so
In New Zealand well over half of our wealth comes from property. That is comparable with some other countries, though it is a drag on society and progression to have so much wealth tied up in property, an unproductive asset. Regardless of the productivity arguments, what is a problem is the harm that making money from property, in the way people currently do, is causing.

It’s a long list of policies, regulations, behaviours that people in government and business have created (in some cases ignored), that make it easy to make money from housing and at the same exploit and harm people and the environment in order to do so. Economists would call these the externalities I guess. Regardless of the specifics of the policy ingredients (from tax through to building, rental, local government and banking legislation issues), at the heart of it all is a failure of people in government across decades to take the lead, shape the system of housing and ensure all people have a good home.

As people who do economic analysis for the banks, and people who invest in property were at pains to point out last week, our current economy is reliant on money continuing to be extracted from housing in the way people currently do. Which is exactly why we need to change the situation.

New Zealanders don’t want an economy built on the misery of others. Especially when it’s our childrens’, friends’, siblings’ misery, Anyone who blithely argues for this economy of misery to continue is valuing the wrong things, truly.

Changing the boat’s course
Changing the things that will make the biggest difference to this deeply unjust housing situation requires pulling our economy away from unprofessional housing investment based on overblown returns and the exploitation of people. It requires people with the levers and tools to push our people towards healthier and better housing investment processes and behaviours, as well as something other than bloody housing!

This means encouraging and shaping activities that actually build people’s health, happiness and opportunities across generations instead of extracting from it (wellbeing economics anyone?).

Investing in housing should  remain an important part of people’s activities, but in a totally different, professionalised and, yes, much kinder form. The way activity happens needs to be shaped by all communities’ (including Iwi and hāpu) goals for ourselves, not just some communities’ financial goals. Activities in property development need to centre proven social and environmental benefits. To make this happen is going to require people in power to do all the things.  

It’s a bit like the Ever Given being stuck in the Suez Canal. That behemoth needed the little digger in the right place, it needed dredging machines, it needed tug boats, and it needed the high tide to move it. Last week, with some changes to tax rules, people in government got out the little digger.  It was necessary but not sufficient. More and bigger action needs to come next. I hope that is the plan.

Overcoming a sense of fatalism

We will need to shift mindsets about housing to build support for these bigger bolder shifts. Policy-makers are currently relatively limited in how they think about solutions in this space.

We hear little about the Government seriously investigating proven solutions such as low-cost universally-available long-term rental housing, mixed and local community housing ownership models, proven long-term low-energy building techniques at scale.

There is not nearly enough focus at scale on Māori led solutions that would address major issues of equity, for example Papakainga housing.  

These limitations in part happen because all of us, people in policy-making included, have become fatalistic about being able to change the housing situation. It’s the market fix or nothing according to most of the narratives we hear.

Watching for decades people in power drive the economy further towards private unprofessional housing investment that harms people, while waiting for ‘the market’ to sort it out, does tend to limit people’s belief in things changing, including policy makers themselves. Yet things can be changed. This week people in Labour showed us a little glimpse of what shifting advantages away from problematic investments can look like.

With a clear focus from people in government, with their action at sufficient scale and over a long enough time period, we can move the economy away from investment that harms us all over the long term. A little bit of digging in the right area is a good start.

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