Housing New Zealand

by Ken Gibb

I have just finished a short trip to New Zealand and on the way through the airport I picked up a book on housing by Philippa Howden-Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, called Home truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis. Written in 2015, it is a cry to roll back perceived inequality, improve housing conditions and build a more joined up and evidenced policy framework based on housing rights, affordability, fairness, sustainability and a focus on the system as a whole.

I have read a wee bit about the Auckland housing market which is particularly unaffordable and speculative;  and many years ago in Glasgow we entertained civil servants working on housing policy in New Zealand – but this was my first opportunity to read and digest a proper overview of the housing system as a whole.

The author focuses on a number of large issues, at the heart of which lie the commodification of housing, the run down and selling-off of state housing, the leaky homes scandal that saw 80,000 new homes built with faulty cladding, the lack of regulation in rented housing, the privileged tax status of owners and investors and a mess of housing subsidies.

The result is a poisonous mix of unaffordable housing, speculation, government and media opposition to social housing, exclusionary zoning and land supply that fuels sprawl and the car economy.

What is to be done? Howden-Chapman calls for four key policy reforms plus a number of follow up ancillary ideas. These involve:

  • subsidising mortgages for first time buyers but in ways that will not push up prices.
  • the promotion of corporate and institutional private renting investment to transform the sector in New Zealand
  • increased supply of inner city social housing including not for profits
  • tying rental subsidies to independent assessments of rental housing quality.

Additional policies proposed include regular assessments of housing condition through surveys and in turn comprehensive needs assessment. The author also calls for statutory responses over emergency homelessness and for the return of mandatory inclusionary zoning of affordable housing within new developments, wider support of brownfield higher density and compact city style urban management. Overall and consistent with these ideas, there should be a comprehensive national strategy for housing embracing the health and wider economic consequences of better housing.

Drawing on recent writing by Kate Barker, the author bemoans the short termism of New Zealand – something exacerbated by a three year electoral cycle. This fundamental lack of fit with long term housing problems is a universal problem and one of course I bang on about a lot of the time in these posts.

It reminded me of the point recently made by Anthony King in his 2015 Pelican book on Who Governs Britain? He was also deeply concerned with short termism and the inability to do enough systematically about difficult long term problems. He argued that, while they have plenty of inter-party rivalry, Nordic countries’ political parties often demonstrate a capacity to do a good job of coming together to build consensus and undertake policy proposals through national commissions that all, government and opposition alike, can sign up to and stick with over a period of time (i.e. over a succession on governments) to make headway with questions that the Anglo-Saxon countries just find insurmountable.

Perhaps this is how both New Zealand and the UK might overcome such wicked problems? Britain has a long and inglorious record  of using royal commissions to put things in the long grass. Could a formal and properly resourced cross party commission on topics like housing be made to work? Surely worth further thought and consideration?

A small addendum. Our flight this evening from Wellington to Sydney included one Boris Johnson and his FCO entourage fresh from his maiden visit to New Zealand. As probably the only Glaswegian on the flight I was tempted to engage with the great man concerning his widely reported comments the other day on arrival to NZ that the traditional Maori greeting of rubbing noses might lead to a head butt in a Glasgow bar. But he was in business class and I was in economy….

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