The Song Remains the Same

by Ken Gibb

While it is as far away from the UK as it is just about possible to be, it is remarkable that the housing problems and the lenses that academics use to interpret them in New Zealand and Australia are essentially the same as what you find in Britain. Of course there are cultural, institutional and contextual differences but it was the similarities not the differences that struck me during the University of Auckland’s hosting this week of the Australasian Housing Research Conference.

This was a good sized conference over two and a half days with more than 120 scheduled papers and two keynotes. The audience was predominantly from the region and I found the whole event very friendly, supportive and welcoming. While I did know maybe a dozen colleagues at the conference, I made many new friends. In particular I should thank Larry Murphy who organised the conference and invited me in the first place. He did a great job in a good humoured way throughout. I particularly liked the way he asked the conference administrator, Aimee, to go and purchase the kind of flowers she would like to be given as a gift, especially so, as it turned out at the conference dinner, that they were for her anyway!

The themes at the conference via the papers I heard and the discussions I was involved in, were familiar ones. Housing affordability problems making home ownership less accessible in high cost cities like Auckland, problems with the large rental market e.g. interesting post-doc work on the provision of elderly care for older private tenants closely linked to pension policy assumptions about seniors owning their homes. Insufficient social housing supply was also stressed by several speakers. There was much interest also in homelessness, understanding it by modelling or deconstructing structural and individual characteristics, and assessing policies like housing first. At the same time, critical analysis of policies like those on affordability, new supply and income-related housing allowances – stressed neo-liberal discourses as well as conducting the research from a range of disciplines including public policy and economics.

In the end I had a few reflections on what I heard. First, there is a lot of really excellent research coming out of Australia and New Zealand. Second, there is a growing appetite for more sophisticated and critical policy analysis of housing. Third, there must be space to debate and articulate different conceptual approaches to understanding and situating housing, be it applied economics, in-depth qualitative interviews, discourse analysis or policy studies.

Finally, having done my plenary talk on the first morning about policy divergence between Scotland and the UK, I had a lot of positive feedback, though one rather direct Australian said to me that ‘your slides sucked’. Interesting. Part of me recognises that doing a talk with text-based slides can be hard work for the audience because they have to listen to the speaker at the same time as taking in the material on the slides. I do plan to move much more to simple images and less if any text and this will only encourage me to go down this road a little quicker in future presentations. So that directness was welcome, honest (even if I liked the slides in question).