That Anna Rawhiti-Connell is able to make the rash decision to buy a house in the suburb of Beach Haven – somewhere she’d never been – makes her wonder if she’s now a villain of the housing crisis
I was a bit drunk when I decided to move to the Auckland seaside village of Devonport.
Six years on, sober as a judge but with what felt like the same sense of random abandonment, I have moved to Beach Haven. As we left our rental in Devonport for the last time the other week – dog, ladder, lawn mower and us packed into the car, the swiftest of farewells yelled at the house – I thought about how abrupt moving out is and how that is perhaps only matched by how rash our decision to move somewhere else felt.
I knew nothing about Devonport when I met a friend for dinner on the main street of the village so she could sell me on the merits of moving to the Shore. After a bottle of wine, we went to look at the flat that would become my sanctum and ground zero for some of the best and worst times of my life.
It was the first time I’d lived by myself and I embraced all that meant as a single woman in her mid-thirties with a good bank job and a Tinder account. The goddesses of freedom and the algorithms smiled upon me. A nasty neighbour left me a note in my letter box. In response, I played ‘Roxanne’ at loud volume and laughed with my one gentleman caller – the inspiration for the note, and my now husband.
So much happens in the places we live. Love was found and lost, declared and unrequited and then found again in that flat of mine in Devonport. Wedding photos were taken and dogs were farewelled and welcomed into our lives on Cheltenham Beach, just across the road from the house that became our home for four years. Life changed, things moved on and then we moved out.
Home ownership in New Zealand is so out of reach for so many people that only the most hardened proponents of pulling yourself by your bootstraps, devoid of compassion and reason, would try and argue otherwise.
Now I live in Beach Haven. We came to look at a house here because it had an asking price. After months of open homes, attempts to buy at auction and failed attempts to subvert the market by sending passive aggressive text messages to real estate agents, we decided to boycott the auction process. At first glance this house met our criteria: it was a house, with an asking price, on the North Shore. A viewing confirmed it met our other criteria: me saying “Well, I don’t hate it”, and a backyard so the dog would be able to poo freely and safely outside. I knew nothing about Beach Haven when we decided to put an offer in on a house here, 10 minutes after seeing it and me visiting the suburb for the first time.
We bought the house, so this serves as the coda to an earlier piece about the frustrations of trying to do that. It is done, it is good, and I will find a place to lodge my guilt about crossing the divide. A friend has wisely advised that no one is interested in hearing about this guilt from someone who should be making offerings at the altar of gratitude instead of flagellating themselves about their good fortune. And so my greasy mitts grip onto the first rung of the property ladder as I spin out on a daily basis about the rapid decision to live somewhere I hadn’t been to until seeing this house I now own.
I do not talk about good fortune glibly.
In a recent interview in New York magazine, Stephen Fry debunks the existence of free will. He believes he has most philosophers on his side. He doesn’t doubt the existence of agency and responsibility but he does question how much choice we really have: ‘We can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents.’
To be able to afford a house in Auckland now is to be the beneficiary of a random collection of attributes and good fortune that have nothing to do with how hard you work or the choices you make. I have said it before and I will say it again: the social contract is dead. Home ownership in New Zealand is so out of reach for so many people that only the most hardened proponents of pulling yourself by your bootstraps, devoid of compassion and reason, would try and argue otherwise.
You can debate the variety of measures being taken to moderate, sustain or decrease house prices, but the hard, cold reality is that in this country, home to two of the most liveable cities in the world, the most essential of workers are not paid enough to afford the essentials of life.
” … unless a concerted effort is made to correct and control a rampantly uncontrolled social experiment by those in power, they also ensure a guaranteed lock-out for the people whose parents and grandparents might have called Beach Haven and other suburbs like it home.”
That I can afford to buy a house and that the staff at the Wairau Valley PAK’nSAVE who kept us fed during lockdown probably can’t has nothing to do with choice or hard work or free will. Instead, it is the upshot of the uncontrolled social experiment we like to call the free market where certain skills inexplicably have a higher value than others and houses have been allowed to become vessels of wealth and prosperity.
The suburb in which my vessel is located is currently being described in real estate publications as “more affordable” but also regenerating. Wikipedia notes that it is “gentrifying”. Regeneration is not a bad thing. There is a new park. A new wharf is being built. Kāinga Ora has almost finished a development of 70 new houses on Beach Haven Road.
At the same time, we are told the North Shore property market is booming. It is now the most expensive place in New Zealand to buy a house with the median property price on the North Shore hitting $1.308 million compared to $1.055 million at the same time last year. In five years, the median property price in Beach Haven has increased by 22 percent. ‘”More affordable” still equals a median house price of $1.01 million.
So who is the regeneration and the gentrification for? These terms are often applied in a setting that suggests they’re code for something. Sustained house price increases, a solid choice, a return on investment. They are flashing red light to the gentrifiers, which due to the housing crisis, are not speculators or developers, but people like me, in possession of a random collection of attributes that have afforded me a socio economic position that means I can buy a house in “an affordable suburb”.
They seem to be terms applied from the outside, looking in. A soothing assurance to alleviate the whiplash of abrupt departures and rash decisions. They bring benefits but unless a concerted effort is made to correct and control a rampantly uncontrolled social experiment by those in power, they also ensure a guaranteed lock-out for the people whose parents and grandparents might have called Beach Haven and other suburbs like it home.
We know nothing about these places we are moving to and yet here we are. First we were ‘victims’ of the housing crisis but, perhaps now, we’re also the villains.