Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: Apartments? Cut their cash and give them garrets

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Student loans won't help the rental crisis, writes Jim Hopkins. Photo / File
Student loans won't help the rental crisis, writes Jim Hopkins. Photo / File

All that interest-free money is giving students ideas above their station

Auckland rent crisis at record high - the Herald.

It's almost instinctual, when we see a story like this on Wednesday's front page, to seek any crumbs of consolation we can find.

But if we were sparrows and such crumbs were our only sustenance, we'd be struggling to stay aflight. Because there was precious little in the piece to warm the cockles of a fluttering heart. Just lots of grim statistics, notably that, nationwide, Auckland tenants are now "worst off, paying around $150 a week more to live in a three-bedroom rental than the rest of New Zealand".

Whether there'd be room for the rest of New Zealand in a three-bedroom rental is a matter upon which the report is silent, thank goodness. There was more than enough bad news to digest. And that's where the impulse to find some cheering counterpoint arises.

"Oh, well," you think, shocked to read that the average weekly rent for a three-bedroom house has jumped $55 in a month, "look on the bright side. At least Auckland's got a Spatial Plan. And a port that works - or would if it did. And plans to spend billions on an inner-city rail loop. And a Statutory Maori Advisory Board. And two political advisers in the Mayor's office".

And then you remember that the Minister of Local Government, Doctored Nick Smith, has indicated he may introduce this wondrous model to the rest of the country and the ice of despair begins to thaw and you start to feel the warm glow of a new dawn of hope.

But it doesn't last - or didn't on Wednesday. Just when the bluebirds of happiness are beginning to chirp, you encounter the dreadful tale of Christie Lundy, a "20-year-old, third-year law and arts student" who had "searched for three months for the perfect central city flat, but settled for a tiny two-bedroom apartment for $370 a week".

This poor child, already doomed to a life of opprobrium or irrelevance by her academic choices, is now in the intolerable situation of needing to spend "most of her student allowance" each week on rent.

This is outrageous. It's appalling; a crisis that cannot continue. For Christie's sake - and ours - we've got to get rid of those damned student loans, and the sooner the better. Whether Messrs Key and Shearer said much in their major speeches yesterday is a matter for conjecture, though, being astute chaps, it's hard to imagine either of them announcing anything that would frighten the political horses.

But they should. Ms Lundy's predicament reinforces the need to revisit this gratuitous bribe. If we didn't have interest-free loans, we'd have far fewer 20-year-old law and arts students ruining their lives and, therefore, much less to pay out in allowances, making this the perfect place to start cutting costs.

If the gummint, on our behalf, chooses to give free money to scholars, it should pay only for the skills it wants. Target the moolah, guys, no more free for alls. By all means give free dosh to those who want to be engineers or biologists or food scientists or software writers so we get people who can create souped-up smart phones or make Viagra out of cheese or anything else with real utility.

But studying law is utility with a capital 'F' and arts even worse. As the great scholar Copernicus once said, "Where the lecture theatres are full, the course is empty."

We should pay people not to do these things - and marketing to boot!

That way, Ms Lundy wouldn't have had her hopes falsely raised so early in life. Nor faced the bleak prospect of abandoning her accommodation.

She could have done what we used to do - stay at home with our folks or sleep six deep in the back seat of a Ford Anglia, holding parties in the boot where 60 people brought flagons and all you had to do if you wanted to feel grown up was wear a duffle coat and sing whiny Bob Dylan songs.

Neither of which required an interest-free student loan. Garrets, yes, apartments, no: they're where you end up, not where you start. An inner-city apartment is no place for a student, and it's a scandal that handing out free money has given the young the deluded belief it is.

Postscript: The death of Jock Hobbs underscores why people say at funerals that the best tribute we can pay someone is not words but the character of our own lives. Trying to be better is the best way to recognise his life, and that of Owen McShane, whose funeral was on Tuesday.

Owen's intellect and willingness to challenge the myths of his age were unsurpassed. It's the measure of a small society that those who should have listened more closely, did not pay Owen greater heed when he was alive.

- NZ Herald

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