IN HIS BOOK The Quest for Security in New Zealand, historian and economist WB Sutch writes that Labour 'had taken office at the end of the worst depression in the twentieth century. It had provided housing, hospital treatment and social security at a level which for a time led the world… above all, it had produced in colonial New Zealand the Western world’s nearest approach to economic and social equality; the first experiment in making the average income typical income’.
Part of this attempt to create a more egalitarian society, the goal of social democratic policies and an ideology that Labour abandoned post-1984, was an expansive programme of state house building. Examples of this intensive program of social housing can still be seen today, including the Dixon Street flats in Te Aro, Wellington. Construction was began in 1942 and completed in 1947. The website of Wellington City Heritage observes :
'The state housing scheme was prompted by a housing shortage during the Depression exacerbated by the decline in building construction and the movement of people into cities to look for work. Those families who already resided in the cities were often in no better position to afford the New Zealand dream home complete with quarter acre section, and the increased demand on rental properties caused rental rates to skyrocket. The Labour Government, led by Michael Joseph Savage, elected in 1935 had pledged to build houses of a modern standard and comfort. The Labour Government scheme differed greatly from earlier schemes by focusing its programme on the principle that access to decent housing was a fundamental right of all New Zealanders.'
Some seventy years, a Labour Government that bears little resemblance to the Labour Government of Michael Joseph Savage, continues to insist that 'the market' can provide access to affordable and decent housing for all New Zealanders. We are expected to believe that access to decent housing as a fundamental right of all New Zealanders is to be respected by a continued loyalty to market-led housing policies that have only led to the commodifcation of housing and subsequent rocketing house prices and steeply escalating rents.
That neoliberalism continues to have a stranglehold on our so-called 'representative democracy' is highlighted by Labour and National's agreement on a common housing policy. Doing absolutely nothing to dislodge the commodification of housing, the assumption is 'the market' will deliver the affordable housing desperately needed. It might deliver some more housing but it won't deliver any affordable housing. The market doesn't build housing for the common good. Any solution to the crisis lies beyond the dictates of the market. It means taking the profit motive out of housing and only the State can do that. As economist Shamubeel Eaqb has noted, 'There is never a market for poor people, it is not possible to build affordable houses for poor people'.
This doomed-to-fail scheme has also been backed by Green Party co-leader and Assistant Housing Minister Marama Davidson. When this Labour Government says 'Jump!' Davidson usually only wants to know how high. Does she really sincerely believe that the intensification of housing in the metropolitan areas of New Zealand's major cities will lead to more affordable housing for working class Maori, the constituency she claims to represent?
We need a steep and dramatic increase in the number of affordable houses which will also help to ease the economic pressure on renters. But this can only be done directly - by the kind of expansive state housing building program we saw in the post war period.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said her favourite buildings are the Fred Newman Flats at Freemans Park in Auckland’s Freemans Bay. They were designed by architect Friedrich Neumann. He escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s and renamed himself Fred Newman.
Michael Moore-Jones, writing for Newsroom, notes that the Fred Newman flats are 'widely held up as a model of mixed-tenure housing, with many still owned by Housing New Zealand, and others coveted on the open market by everyone from architects and art dealers to the Prime Minister.'
Ardern herself has said :
'I think I annoyed my colleagues for years because whenever we talked about the housing crisis and the need to build townhouses and apartments at scale, I would always talk about Freemans Bay Park—four-storey apartments that were really fit for purpose. They were built to last and beautifully designed. And they had communities living in them. I also love their history.”
The Fred Newman flats are an historic example of what can be done but, under this neoliberal Labour Government, less than two thousand state houses are being built a year at a time when the number of folk waiting for a state house has climbed to over 24,000.
The present Minister of Housing, Megan Woods, has a doctorate in history. But she is denying New Zealand's social democratic past and its laudable aim to build affordable housing for all New Zealanders by her continued loyalty to the property investors and financial speculators who will be the chief beneficiaries of Labour and National's new housing policy.