Housing policies, again.

January 14, 2017


(Image from Schrader, p161)

In my 2016 roundup post at the end of December, I mentioned housing policy, which  is a ‘wicked problem’ that currently fills a lot of newspaper column inches, policy research reports, and is increasingly the most criticised area of Government inaction over this term of Government. 

National Ministers are not having an easy ride on this one. Since assuming power after the 2008 elections, John Key showed himself to be a populist PM, who despite starting out with an agenda of neoliberal policy changes (State-Owned Enterprise sales, privatisation of HNZ, reduction of public services across a whole range of Ministries, mining in our National Parks, etc…), proved to be guided more by frequent polling of voters’ opinions than by his more ideologically bound Party stalwarts or coalition government partners.

After the rather smooth, but startling, transfer of power from Key to Bill English in the final Sitting week of the House in December 2016, there have been rumblings of a sea-change in a variety of policy areas. 

Housing is one of those areas, where Minister Nick Smith found himself in hot water many times; the SHA’s, which turned out NOT to be Crown-acquired land, after a PR stunt involving bussing journalists around to look at sites in Auckland, and the strange case of the thousand-year old stonefields site in Ihumatao, a fomer quarry and traditional kainga of Tainui, which is now deemed a profitable location by Fletchers with the closure of the Puketutu Island sewage treatment ponds. 

It is close to Mangere Bridge, where Te Puea Marae kick-started a major project to help the homeless by opening their doors in the winter of 2016. Ihumatao is also right beside Auckland International airport, and has been considered reserve land, managed by the local Hapu for generations – one of the last sites of traditional occupation left in the Auckland isthmus.

Since the initial protests around redevelopment at Glenn Innes, where HNZ properties were originally to have been trucked off for resale (being, as they are, completely sound houses), there has been a lot of resistance by HNZ tenants to being evicted on spurious grounds from tenancies they have upheld to the letter. 

Attempts to demonise tenants by using dodgy American meth-testing franchises, who have moved into NZ in a ‘business expansion’ exercise reminiscent of Amway, have been exposed by the media during 2016, and yet the powers that be in MBIE, the Ministry that has acquired most of the former Ministry of Housing (one of the first casualties of English’s ascension to leadership) are still keen to gain clear, untenanted possession of those properties in Glenn Innes, where the attractively-named Tamaki Development Corporation (owned on paper by Minister Joyce, English and a consortium of private investors whose names stay in the shadows…) are quietly seeding stories in the media of a potential big overseas corporate buyer.

This selloff of land that was acquired specifically to bring Tūhoe Iwi into the city in the 1940’s and ’50’s, which contains in one of it’s pleasant streets with a view over the estuary, Te Tī Marae, dedicated to the Tūhoe ancestors, is nothing but a 21st century land grab of magnificent proportions. The land at Glenn Innes was acquired as a swap with the Crown, in recompense for refusing to allow replacement of papakainga housing on land that went into Crown management in the Ureweras in the early part of the 20th century, after the raids on Mangapohatu in 1916 which were intended to stifle the growing popularity of the Ringatu sect and their prophet Rua Kenana.

Tamaki Development Corporation have quietly elided over this history, and proclaim themselves the fit and proper entity to pursue the sale of this lucrative piece of land – whose property values have increased since the demise of the meatworks in Panmure that used to discharge effluent into the Tamaki estuary, leaving a taint of offal smell wafting up the banks of the slope as far as Te Tī Marae. Of course, many of the inhabitants of those HNZ properties were workers at the meatworks, and other industrial sites in Panmure, Mt Wellington and further afield. 

History is a funny old thing. There are many good and beautifully produced histories of Government Ministries and their major policies; we have a Ministry of Culture and Heritage that commissions such work, and in the past, it was done under the aegis of the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs.

My researches recently have brought me to some fine publications descending from those official government historians.

Of note are the works of Ben Schrader, We call it Home – A history of State Housing in New Zealand, published by Reed in 2005, and Gael Ferguson’s Building the New Zealand Dream, published by DIA in Wellington in conjunction with Dunmore Press in Palmerston North, 1994.
These two texts, both produced with full assistance of the National Archives and funded by the relevant Ministries, elaborate on the 1990’s sale of HNZ properties, and the ideological build-up to those sales. 

I was surprised to discover that the incoming National Government began the policy of selling State Houses (initially with low-interest loans & low deposits) to their tenants immediately upon gaining office in 1950, even as State Housing was still being built in huge quantities during the post-War baby boom. The policies hinged on selecting working class tenants of ‘good character’, during those years of full employment, and converting them into suburban, middle-class families by the simple expedient of allowing them to gain home ownership.

The glaring cognitive dissonance of this policy came to fruition in the ’90’s under Bolger’s leadership of that National Government. By then, State Housing had morphed into the Housing Corporation, built a few eyesore office buildings which still pepper the regions’ CBD’s, and begun a program of market-rate renting which saw HNZ properties vacated by the working poor, the disabled and pensioners, who could no longer afford to rent them on their fixed incomes. 

This was lauded as a policy success, and the best-built examples of State Housing stock were promptly sold off to private speculators, some of whom developed extensive rental property portfolios; some just held the property long enough to make a good capital gain & then flicked it on to new owners, often young couples who wanted a first home in an established area – these were mostly the ‘pepper-potted’ integrated housing areas, and in desirable suburbs like Woburn in Lower Hutt.
Thus in the 90’s, Bolger and Shipley’s Governments oversaw the largest net removal of social housing units in our history, and concurrently increased homelessness by returning HNZ tenants to the slums that State Housing had been initiated to destroy. Not bad for a King Country farmer and a former GM of Playcentre New Zealand.

“David Thorns, sociologist, argues that the market didn’t respond the way the Government predicted: “It appears that the supplement may have simply raised rents and thus landlord’s profits … there has not been a large increase in low-cost units of accommodation.” (P78, Schrader)

The roots of the current Housing Crisis, therefore, sit within the privatisation ideology and policies of the 1990’s, and the dogged determination of the current National Caucus to continue with the privatisation agenda. A thirty-year lag in producing low-income housing, at which the market has truly failed, has seen low-waged working families, and all other categories of unwaged households, suffer from the incredibly short-sighted policies that only looked to the profits to be made from private financial speculation in housing, and did not consider the national need for housing across all demographic and occupational classes.

Time to #ChangeTheGovernment

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