Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: MPs too busy investing to sort out housing crisis

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In Germany, nearly 60 per cent of people rent their homes. In bigger cities it's higher. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
In Germany, nearly 60 per cent of people rent their homes. In bigger cities it's higher. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

No wonder our parliamentarians devote so little time to confronting Auckland's housing crisis. They're too busy investing. Over the past year, our 121 MPs seem to have added, between them, nearly 20 more properties to their overall portfolios.

The latest register of MPs' pecuniary interests reveals them owning 245 homes and 71 farms, vacant sections and commercial buildings between them. This easily cracked the 300 mark that eluded them last year.

Government MPs led the way, averaging three houses each, so it's little surprise they're in no particular hurry to strangle the golden property goose that just keeps on giving; to them and their baby-boomer "investor" mates at least.

At times, I feel like I'm the only Auckland baby-boomer not indulging in the current speculative frenzy. I do admit to a momentary twinge when the villa next door to mine went up for sale 20 or more years ago. But when I realised it would mean I'd have to ramp up the rent to cover the mortgage and drive out the current tenants, I knew I wasn't cut out to be a landlord.

My elderly neighbours were turfed out anyway. But not by me.

My feelings were no doubt coloured by prior experiences of renting privately in London. Soon after moving into the upstairs of an elderly terrace house, I ran into an old friend from Auckland who was working in the local council. She offered to check whether my flat had a controlled rent, something I knew nothing about. It did, and the council ordered the landlord to lower the rent, and reimburse me for early over-payment accordingly. I shared the good news with the tenants downstairs. It was part of tenant-friendly regulations, used to ensure housing was both affordable and to discourage rampant speculation.

This came to mind while reading the recent Herald probe into the affordability crisis. It canvassed a smorgasbord of possible solutions, such as throwing open Auckland's development boundaries, intensification, cutting immigration, taxing speculators, and restricting the flood of bank lending that has fuelled the buying frenzy.

Into this mix I would add a legal requirement that the speculators/amateur landlords treat their rental properties not just as tickets to unearned wealth, but as someone else's home, for which they have obligations, both to society, and the tenants. One suspects such an obligation would have a salutary effect on the present free-for-all.

The international benchmark for such legislation is article 14 of the Basic Law of the German Federal Republic which states: "Property entails obligations. Its use should also serve the public good."

In Germany, nearly 60 per cent of people rent their homes. In bigger cities it's higher. The reasons are historic. After the war, few citizens could afford to build their own home.

With a majority of voters renting, and housing associations and private companies the main landlords, housing law in Germany has developed to protect the rights and interests of the renter, rather than the private owner, as here. There are no tax advantages, for example, to home ownership. Rents are regulated, tenants can't be kicked out on a whim, or because the landlord wants to move a relative in, or sell up. You can put down roots in your chosen neighbourhood with a security of tenure impossible in Auckland.

Accommodation also has to be of a liveable standard. Compare that with here where the last Building Research Association of NZ House Condition Survey noted that "nearly twice as many rented houses were in poor condition compared to owner-occupied houses". Only 22 per cent of rental properties in the main three cities were in good condition, 44 per cent were in "poor condition". Nearly three-quarters "had some mould".

Today, Labour leader Andrew Little will introduce a Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill setting minimum standards for insulation, heating and ventilation in rental accommodation.

With 51 per cent of New Zealanders over 15 now renting, and young home buyers all but locked out of the Auckland market, it's amazing such legislation is not already in place. Given the present crisis, it's little more than a token gesture. If adopted though, it would be a belated signal from our property-accumulating MPs that they finally acknowledge that with property ownership comes social obligations.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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