In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Homing in on the real Kiwi crisis

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Before worrying about the cost of housing, let's look at the bigger economic picture

Illustration/ Anna Crichton
Illustration/ Anna Crichton

The political year has begun and if there's one thing all parties can agree on, it's that we have a "housing crisis" on our hands.

But is it a crisis in the sense that high-earning professionals can't get their platinum ring-laden fingers on a four-bedroom, recently renovated grammar zone villa for under $1.5 million? Or that university graduates feel put out about not being able to afford something roomy in Pt Chev or Westmere? Or, as our political leaders seem to think, there are thousands of working poor just waiting for the chance at a two-bedroom shoebox in Papakura?

The exact shape and scope of this problem remains unclear to many and yet solutions abound. Labour leader David Shearer, doing his best Dilbert impression, has outlined a frankly fantastical scheme to build just over 192 new homes a week - something like 27 a day - from the moment he takes office. Shearer, who once spoke to a beneficiary on a roof and so knows a little something about housing for the poor, has of course had to modify his original bombast: the houses will be small, outlying and probably a fraction more than the promised $300,000 norm in most cases.

Which sounds like many of the houses already going for a song in fringe areas.

Ten thousand more like these, built at warp speed - once Shearer has solved the manpower crisis in the construction industry, of course; a massive korero with everyone even tangentially involved in building houses later in the year will provide the road map towards this happy confluence of jobs, homes and energy efficiency which will transform the economy.

Sounds great, and comes from a great place. Just like the Greens' effort, which will see families with no equity "rent-to-own" state-built houses.

Many people believe the government should have a hand in the housing market to ensure everyone has a basic level of shelter (even though they voted in a government that patently doesn't); the unknown is whether large-scale government intervention of the types proposed will really be able to create desirable communities outside those everyone is currently attracted to like (well-leveraged) flies.

No such visionary schemes from the National Party, but a promise to speed up the new-housing path from drawing board to ribbon-cutting, as well as plans to wrest control of unused land from local councils. The other great carrot promised by Prime Minister John Key: the steely eye of Nick Smith across the housing sector. For some reason, taken as a package, the Nat plan does little to inspire confidence.

Could it be the very ungrammaticality of the promise? (Key promised Smith would produce a housing plan which kept "that Kiwi dream alive of buying their own home".)

Could it be the idea of giving developers too much latitude or is it an issue with Smith's steely eye itself?

Perhaps the real problem is the over-arching one; the perennial one.

It's not that housing is unaffordable, it's that wages are too low and that surviving on them, which many in the community do while raising a family, is an almost impossible ask. Again, as the political year kicks off, we have the Band-Aid answers to problems that require radical, bold solutions; an overhaul of the game-changing kind our economy hasn't had for a good 30 years.

Vague promises to house the poor and kick local authorities into action seem anaemic by comparison.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com

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