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.