Saturday, 21 November 2020

Meeting The Overwhelming Quantum Of Need: A Modest Proposal For Ending New Zealand’s Housing Crisis.

Deja Vu: Architectural drawing of the mass housing development planned for Auckland by the Ministry of Works in the mid-1940s. Had the First Labour Government not been defeated in 1949, virtually all of the housing and transport problems now besetting Auckland could have been avoided.

IT COULD BE DONE. This government could make a serious attempt to house the 20,000 people waiting for social housing before the next election. It would, however, require them to do something they have, so far, showed no willingness to do: think outside the neoliberal box – like socialists.

Part of the present problem – quite a large part – is the sheer logistical difficulty in gearing up New Zealand’s already over-extended construction industry to meet the overwhelming quantum of need. This isn’t 1936, there aren’t tens-of-thousands of carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians and other construction workers desperate for employment. That’s the challenge. Finding the human and other resources needed to house the homeless.

To make any impression on this problem it will be necessary to import workers from abroad. This was key to the successful Christchurch re-build, and it will likely be the key to solving the housing crisis. The question is: where are we to find the expertise and labour force required to accommodate 20,000+ people in less than three years?

There is only one place to go looking for this sort of assistance – the Peoples Republic of China. Few nations on earth have a construction workforce large enough to take on such a massive job, but China does. The Chinese have been building infrastructure all over Africa for more than 20 years. They are used to deploying hundreds – sometimes thousands – of workers to foreign lands and then bringing them home when these country-to-country joint ventures are completed. They have even more experience in constructing accommodation for the hundreds-of-thousands of Chinese citizens who every year abandon the rural interior of China for its burgeoning coastal cities. In the space of just a few years whole new cities have risen out of the ground.

This is what New Zealand’s government needs to do: enter into a joint-venture with the Chinese Government to construct massive, multi-storied, housing complexes in which all those New Zealanders in urgent need of warm, dry, affordable and secure accommodation can find it.

Interestingly enough, the designs for precisely this sort of mass accommodation, along with the social infrastructure necessary to ensure that it is translated into viable and vibrant communities, already exist. They were drawn up nearly three-quarters-of- a-century ago, by the Department of Housing Construction of the Ministry of Works. Had Labour won the 1949 general election, Auckland, in particular, would have been a very different city. Not so much a poor man’s version of Los Angeles, as a lucky man’s version of Copenhagen or Stockholm. (One more disaster to blame on the National Party!)

Of course every China-hating xenophobe and red-baiter will throw up their hands in horror at such an out-there suggestion. Their problem, however, is not being able to come up with any viable suggestions of their own. Where, for example, would they lay their hands on the skilled workforce necessary to erect ten, twenty, thirty housing complexes? As things now stand, New Zealand would be hard-pressed to erect the accommodation for the workers needed to build the accommodation!

The only way to get ahead of the ever-lengthening state house waiting-list is to build big and build fast. We simply don’t have time to recruit and train the people necessary to do the job ourselves. No sooner had we assembled a workforce large enough to tackle the problem, than we would be faced with assembling another, even bigger, one!

Maybe, if we could outbid the wage rates of Australia’s construction industry, or America’s, availing ourselves of China’s could be avoided. But, you know how it goes: a few extra billion here, and few extra billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money! Besides, how keen would the government of either of those countries be to involve themselves in such an openly socialistic programme? Nowhere near as keen as the comrades in Beijing!

The other objection which is certain to be raised is that why on earth would New Zealanders consent to living like the citizens of Singapore or Shanghai? How long would it take for these huge, rapidly-constructed apartment buildings to turn into high-rise slums?

The answer to that question would be ours to frame. There are ways to ensure that even large, high-rise apartment complexes are embedded in the sort of social and economic matrices that make the slide into slum status impossible. By building schools, medical facilities, shopping-centres, police stations and youth centres into the plans, the feelings of isolation and abandonment that have historically contributed to the development of slums can be avoided. Similarly, by ensuring that these apartments are situated in employment-, transport- and recreational-rich zones, the complex networks making for vibrant communities can be hard-wired into the project.

The proof of this concept can be found in the tragic history of “Red Vienna”. So successful was the post-World War I construction of worker housing in the Austrian capital, and so vibrant the socialist working-class culture it created, that the right-wing Austrian government ordered the Austrian Army to destroy the workers’ quarter of Vienna with shellfire in the bitter class conflicts of 1934. The enormous danger embodied in Vienna’s example of what the progressive imagination could produce, if given the chance, had to be eliminated – no matter at what human cost.

And this is the reason why this present government, barring a change of heart of truly Damascene proportions, will not dare to go down this path. Not only would such a truly transformational joint-venture between Wellington and Beijing produce something very close to panic in Washington and Canberra, but it would also cause near-fatal conniptions at Treasury and in just about every other neoliberal institution across the country.

Socialism doesn’t grow out of thin air: it emerges from an infrastructure in which collectivism – not individualism – has been encoded in our institutions’ standard operating procedures. The creation of carefully-planned, well-resourced, state-owned apartment complexes: the result of co-operation between the Labour Party Government of New Zealand and the Communist Party Government of China; marking the end of homelessness for 20,000 of the country’s poorest citizens; would not only be a red flag to the Right’s most vicious bulls, but also the best thing that happened to the New Zealand working-class in three-quarters-of-a-century.

At last, the Politics of Kindness could take on the indisputable solidity of bricks-and-mortar, and, at last, the Prime Minister’s promised “transformation” could begin.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 November 2020.

12 comments:

oneblokesview said...

Thinking outside the box can also produce differents scenarios?

Kitset homes!
These either be churned out in NZ factories(NZ exports such things)
or imported from USA? or other countries.

They come complete with electrics and plumbing do need for skilled labour is minimal
Plus they can be erected fast and in quantity.
It just needs the allocation of land, provision of resources(ie no more RMA)

The biggest problem in housing has been identified many times by many researchers, commissions etc.
Available land!

And no upset with China. :-)


Unknown said...

Chris, is not the "communist/socialist" government of China just totalitarian, having so far saved itself from the fate of the Soviet Union (and Mao's economic disasters) by allowing profits seeking and generating capitalism to flourish ?
It would be instructive to know under what conditions China builds infrastructure in Africa, but there is no doubt that there are limits to what even an all-powerful totalitarian govt. is able to do unprofitably without increasingly ration consumption potential of the masses.
So - should we expect the Chinese to build our (economically low- or non- profitable?) social housing at their own cost for us to repay, or for their own ownership, to reap a profit from it, if possible, or to subsidize our poverty relief through unprofitable (low) rental social housing ?

Or would we expect

Odysseus said...

The inspissated regulatory framework governing housing development is a major contributor to poverty and inequality. A government truly interested in reform would use its majority in Parliament urgently to push through legislation to force Councils to rezone land for housing and to suspend the RMA while new fit-for-purpose legislation is readied. But I read they have decided to go on holiday until mid February instead, and have allowed for only five sitting days before Christmas!

In the absence of a Ministry of Works, large scale housing projects should be put out to tender overseas. I am confident there are construction companies in for example Singapore, Korea or Germany who could do an excellent job using innovative low cost techniques and providing their own highly trained labour force in "turn-key" deals with the government.

Glenn Webster said...

I live in a granny flat built by imported Chinese contractors.
Every part of it was built below spec with inferior materials.
Sorry, Chris. This is a bad idea.

greywarbler said...

Available land...repeat...chant. What this is likely to result in is Councils' ceding recreational/green space and lungs land to developers who put in place little boxes painted beige or dark grey. The desire for land that finite treasure, has come down through the centuries. To hear it invoked all the time now is sickening. Wrest suitable pieces off developers and stop this land banking that they do. Limit what land can be owned, zone it back to farm land. Allow small pockets of tiny houses and clusters of 3 storey places - all near transport and amenities. Let's have some planning from citizen-oriented officials. Has anyone noticed how the transport people are trying to stop children from getting cheap or free transport to schools. What about the children!! And what about people who pay a large proportion of their income in taxes; the poorer people with families, who aren't able to evade and get few concessions.

The constant dirge about needing more land, evades the question of why we invite too many people here; so that government and Treasury can use them in their statistics that they organise to give the impression that we are a successful, feisty little country that punches above our weight. That is not a fist in the air that's an arm signalling for help as we sink under our weight of introduced people who are invited to elbow us out of the way and help themselves to what resources we have left. (And I say this because that is how it is, and I really enjoy meeting and talking to the foreigners that I meet who aren't the ones that helicopter in and out.) But there are too many coming here. Covid has slowed them down, yes. The housing greed however is still on a roll. and needs more than more supply, it needs a burning firework up it's rear.

Unknown said...

Without profitable capitalism there can only be poverty.
Who can argue against the physical fact, that you cannot eat cake or bread (potential capital) if there isn't any ?
Therefore the best sustainable future without poverty is in the "Third Way" UPWARDS for all - through direct, systematic participation in capital ownership individually by all - towards the straightforward, uncomplicated and easily measurable goal of a 100% mixed capitalist Social Democratic Ownership Society.

Cheers - Jens.

sumsuch said...

Jens, we've belted our waists for 36 years -- I think you should be persuading business. And is capitalism really possible with finite resources and climate change from its side-effects? If it's any comfort you can call the socialism necessary now a 'war govt'. Yep, Galbraith ran the American economy with his left little finger during WW 2, hence his life-long contempt for the free-market. He thought it only pertained to agriculture, and I can report from Gisborne it certainly does -- the planters to the peons suffer.

greywarbler said...

Capitalism is based on a pocketful of promises backed by some legal obligation that can be invoked? You can eat cake or bread (real) if you and others commit to all the work required to produce it - self-sustainability. However that is very limiting, and if you can produce enough to swop for other things you want from outside your own group (barter) then you can widen your production or enjoyment of life. Then you develop tokens with agreed value, and if you don't have anything to barter you can use tokens instead. If you don't have enough tokens for the item you want, you can sign an IOU for more, or make a deal to pay in part tokens and something else that has value to the system. (Say Flybuys offer in part accumulated points and part cash - universal tokens.)

Unknown said...

Yes greywarbler - ever since humans left the Garden of Eden where they lived 100% hand-to-mouth from the "free gifts" of Nature - and had to work and practice saving and investment (capitalism) in order not to starve, enforceable law and order rules were introduced for the better and smoother operation of capitalism, as you so well describe its growth.
Collectively, we cannot survive as cave dwelling hunters and gatherers without capitalism anymore.
Therefore greywarbler - is not the economically and socially most promising and fair future for humans in direct individual participation in capitalism (i.e. wealth ownership and management) by all ?

Cheers - Jens.

sumsuch said...

How about war govt, Jens. Or, socialism.

Mike said...

Former Reserve Bank econonomist Michael Reddell put forward a radical reform package to address housing. Essentially, remove restrictions on city limits and land supply, reduce annual non-citizen immigration back to 1980's levels of around 15,000 a year rather than 50,000. And possibly arrange compensation for those whose properties will decline in value. Labour have shown little inclination to take up these measures so far.
https://croakingcassandra.com/2017/08/03/a-fresher-approach-for-ordinary-new-zealanders/

Unknown said...

sumsuch - if socialism means "socially concerned" practically all of us, including National governments - are socialists or at least socialistic, but if socialism means the social (i.e. govt) ownership of ALL the means of production, it is nothing but totalitarian state monopoly capitalism as I have pointed out repeatedly - and everyone apparently agreeing by not challenging it - including you with your hint of a strong (war) govt similar(?) to socialism ?

But is it not true, that during WW2 and thereafter the democratic overwhelmingly private
capitalism based mixed capitalist countries outproduced the socialist countries by so much that the biggest of them the Soviet Union and China - gave up on true socialism or state monopoly capitalism for the prospect of reaping from the creative energy of widespread private capitalism ?

Just imagine what all our people individually and collectively could reap by 100% of us participating in the effort and responsibilities of their own wealth ownership creation ?

Cheers - Jens.