Are we living in a 'housing crisis' or is the system simply working as intended? 

ALTHOUGH THE PANDEMIC has, once again, overwhelmed all other major issues this year, that doesn't mean they have just gone away. The housing crisis, for example, remains as intractable as ever. Indeed this week the Human Rights Commission issued a stinging rebuke of both Labour and National and their failure to abide by their 'legal duty' and provide affordable housing for everyone.

Its report, Strengthening Accountability and Participation in the Housing System, states that:

'For many years, successive governments in Aotearoa New Zealand have committed to implement the human right to a decent home. Despite these promises, the country faces a housing and human rights crisis caused by decades of neglect. The crisis exposes a failure of public policy and democracy. Democratic institutions with the responsibility to anticipate and swiftly tackle crises have failed to do their job.'

It is somewhat misleading though to say we are in the midst of a housing crisis. After all this crisis has widened and deepened for the past three decades, under both Labour and National government's. It has become something more than just a 'crisis.'

The use of the term 'housing crisis' really came into vogue after the 2008 financial crisis. It implies that the 'crisis' is a temporary blip on the timeline that will eventually be 'fixed' by the right mix of policies. But for the working class housing has always been problematic. Indeed as far back as 1872 Friedrich Engels was talking about the appalling living conditions of the English working class in his seminal essay 'The Housing Question'. 

Engels made an observation worth considering today: 'As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution to the housing question or any other social question affecting the fate of workers'. 

The term 'housing crisis' really became 'a thing' when steeply rising house prices began to impact on the middle class. That has become particularly evident during the term of the Arden government with house prices, as the graph shows, rocketing off into the stratosphere. But, even now, neither Labour or National  have expressed any real desire to see house prices fall. The best Ardern has had to offer is a desire for 'small increases' which in typical Ardenesque PR speak, she has described as 'sustained moderation'. 

While the politicians, all loyal to 'the market', talk of resolving the crisis with the right policies, they imply that such crises are unfortunate exceptions to a fundamentally sound system. The reality though, as we head into 2022, is that houses are not built for the benefit of all - they are built as commodities to enrich a few.  The term 'housing crisis' suggests that the system has temporarily fallen over when, in fact, the system is working exactly as intended. 

I don't wish to disparage the use of the term 'housing crisis'. For starters, it embarrasses the politicians, the representatives of the status quo, who would much prefer to talk about something else. Indeed the National Government of John Key refused to even acknowledge that there was a housing crisis. A few years later Jacinda Ardern visibly frowns and goes on to the defensive whenever she's asked about housing. She's frowning not because there are now over 24,000 folk waiting for a state house but because she knows that the housing crisis leaves her government vulnerable to a drop in the opinion polls - in a way that the pandemic doesn't.

But while the housing crisis might be a political hot potato for the Labour Government, it represents the daily grinding reality for tens of thousands of New Zealanders. The housing crisis represents fear and disempowerment and insecurity - something that our multiple property owning parliamentary politicians will never have to face. 

The Green co-leader Marama Davidson criticised the report of the Human Rights Commission for 'not providing any solutions'. I would of thought that was the job of government. But since Davidson, as Assistance Housing Minister (with a special responsibility for homelessness) has comprehensively failed to provide any real solutions for the country's chronic homelessness, maybe she thinks attack is the best form of defence. 

The solution to the housing question - as Engels puts it - is the creation of an alternative housing model. Trying to make property developers and financiers ignore their profit margins and be more socially responsible is pointless. The starting point must be the defence of houses as homes, not as real estate. 


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