Voters hold the key to New Zealand’s housing problems
|A 1905 Liberal Government|
worker's house near Wellington
|A 1930's Labour Government state housing street|
It's time for New Zealanders to get over their attitude to social housing. New Zealand has had a housing crisis since colonial days. Homelessness and housing deprivation is not new. It has been increasing for at least 150 years.
Numerous governments from the 1890's onward have attempted to overcome housing problems, but with limited success. First there was worker housing early in the twentieth century, followed by state and council housing.
But Kiwis are obsessed with home ownership and refuse to accept that not everyone is able (or wants) to be a home owner. In many developed countries, particularly in Europe, the attitude is different. Social housing is acceptable and carries no stigma, the way it does in New Zealand. In some countries social housing amounts to 25-50% of all housing stock. In New Zealand that figure is less than 5%.
People at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder have always struggled with housing in New Zealand. They struggle basically because the average Kiwi believes that they should own their own home, or go without. The state shouldn't have to help them. Alternately, Kiwis will say that a state house should be okay only for the very poorest and only until they get established. Then they should make way for someone else.
When New Zealand had state owned banking, insurance, coal-mines, and airlines, why was it okay to use these services, but not okay to use a government house? Doesn't that show a flaw in our thinking?
Successive governments have known about the true state of New Zealand housing for generations, but have been powerless to fix the problem. In the end government can only do what the voters will allow them to do, and the majority of Kiwi voters do not believe in social housing. A few here and there, yes, but 20% of houses throughout the country? A definite no to that. A program to build the required number of houses started by one government would be abandoned by the next government three years later, and before any real benefits were evident.
Housing in New Zealand will change when Kiwis change their thinking.
Like most countries, New Zealand goes through economic cycles and the cycles contribute to the growing numbers of homeless. When the economy booms, people are homeless because they can't afford the high cost of renting or buying. When the economy slumps, they can't afford to buy or rent because they don't enough income.
Typically, in a downturn, people stop building houses because of reduced demand and trades people leave the country or go into other industries. House prices fall, businesses and jobs disappear. But the downturn is always only temporary. Recovery is just around the corner. During these downturns the government has an excellent opportunity to increase the housing stock ready for the next boom, and to keep the tradesmen in the country and working. But most important, it should be houses waiting for people, not people waiting for houses.
Finally, why does the average Kiwi think that state tenants should have to move on when they can afford to buy a house? What is the point? Did the same Kiwis think that people doing business with the old Bank of New Zealand, or State Insurance, or National Airways Corporation, should be restricted to being customers only for a specific time? They didn't, and it makes no sense to limit tenants in social housing. In fact, I believe they should be encouraged to stay for the rest of their days and to treat the house as though it were their own.
But none of this can happen until New Zealanders re-invent their social housing attitudes. Meanwhile, it won't matter who is Minister of Social Housing. That minister will always be unpopular. Can anyone remember a Minister of Housing who was popular? Like the people Paula Bennett would like to help, she is stuck between a rock and a hard place. In New Zealand it will always be a brave minister who takes on housing, until Kiwis change.