Little Edens: These new houses bear testimony to the success of the Waimahia Inlet Special Housing Area in Weymouth, Auckland. At between $350,000 and $540,000 each, however, these houses are still far beyond the resources of those in the most urgent need of accommodation. Houses for the poorest New Zealanders are still in critically short supply. Tackling homelessness now will reap significant social benefits in the years to come.
WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT so reluctant to get its hands on the
housing crisis? Reviewing its performance over the past seven years, it is
clear that John Key is prepared to do just about anything to reduce
homelessness – except build the houses that people so desperately need.
In Auckland, where the crisis is most acute, Dr Nick Smith
keeps announcing the creation of Special Housing Areas (SHAs) to streamline the
building consent process. Nine more of these were promulgated by the Minister
for Building and Housing on Monday, bringing the tally to 106 SHAs – space for
upwards of 48,000 new homes!
Dr Smith is inordinately proud of his creation. But, having
made space for all these mini-Edens, the Minister, like the Creator God of the
Book of Genesis, has simply blessed the property developers, instructed them to
“be fruitful and multiply”, and withdrawn from the scene.
Actually building houses, in numbers sufficient to significantly
reduce homelessness, is not something this government believes the state should
be doing. It is the National Party’s firm belief that the actual process of house
construction should be left to the market’s “invisible hand”. (Presumably, the
one wielding the invisible hammer!)
Unfortunately for Dr Smith, the Market has so far displayed
minimal interest in constructing homes for poor people. (Or even, it must be
said, for tolerably well off people.) According to the Labour Party’s Housing Spokesperson,
Phil Twyford, the Auckland City Council has been able to account for only 102
houses completed in Dr Smith’s SHA’s since 2013.
“We now officially have more Special Housing Areas than
actual houses built in them”, quips Mr Twyford. “The consenting rate still
languishes at 4300 below the 13,000 new homes Auckland needs every year just to
keep up with population.”
It’s important to understand that this exchange between Dr
Smith and Mr Twyford is not about homes constructed for the poorest New
Zealanders. These two politicians are merely debating the building of homes per se. In some parts of Auckland, the
average price of one of these per se
homes is fast approaching (or long ago exceeded) $1 million dollars. Hardly the
sort of small change your average, poverty-stricken Kiwi family is likely to
find down the back of the sofa!
Labour’s housing policy (assuming it remains Labour’s policy) is called Kiwibuild. It envisions the
construction (by private developers) of 100,000 “modern affordable homes” over
ten years for first-home-buyers.
Just how the very poorest New Zealanders are supposed to pay
for a “modest entry-level home” priced at around $300,000 Labour does not
explain. (And that $300,000 figure, cited when the policy was first released
back in 2012, has likely inflated to around $500,000 in the current Auckland
Kiwibuild would, however, assist a great many young,
middle-class couples into their first home – which is, unquestionably, a good
thing. But, it would do little to address the acute shortage of low- and
no-cost emergency accommodation which is presently forcing Maori, Pasifika and
immigrant families into doubling- or tripling-up with relatives and friends.
That’s when they’re not driven to sleep in caravan parks, under bridges, or in
The Finance Minister, Bill English, has, for some time, been
arguing for a whole new approach to managing the burgeoning cost of New
Zealand’s welfare state. By intervening early, says English, the State can save
millions – quite possibly billions – of taxpayer dollars. Children raised in
poverty, whose lack of a stable home environment often requires a host of
extremely costly state interventions in later life, could, if targeted early
for state assistance, end up becoming net contributors to society.
The rapid construction by Housing New Zealand of thousands
of units of emergency accommodation would not only contribute to the well-being
of thousands of New Zealand’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but would also
largely pay for itself. Well-designed, warm, and energy-efficient, such units
could be provided free-of-charge – at least initially – while their occupants
lives were restored to some sort of order. Once family life had stabilised,
regular rental payments could begin.
English’s actuarial approach to welfare would require
considerable political courage to implement. The trick, electorally speaking, would
be to demonstrate the huge potential savings in Vote Health, Vote Education and
Vote Corrections. National’s slogan could be: “A tax-cut to every voter who provides
a future for every child.”
This essay was
originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The
Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 November 2015.