Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Housing part of building a society fit for humans

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Instead of state houses, Key's Government has committed to providing "affordable" houses at the Hobsonville Point development. Photo / Dean Purcell
Instead of state houses, Key's Government has committed to providing "affordable" houses at the Hobsonville Point development. Photo / Dean Purcell

I was at a lunch recently with a Very Rich Person. I asked him for money. I'd like to say I was shameless about it but, to be honest, I was a little ashamed. Even though I was asking on behalf of a worthwhile cause dear to my heart (and his, too, according to his public utterances).

He said no, making me feel even worse.

In the not-for-profit sector this kind of begging is called fundraising, which is what agencies are reduced to in these fiscally stingy times, so they can provide important social services government funding increasingly doesn't cover.

Fundraising can be soul-destroying - and, sad to say, lacking the requisite talent and temperament, I've been a dismal failure so far.

But I've learned two things.

First, how irksome and insecure life is when you're reliant on charity.

And second, how hard it is to ask for money. Perhaps I'm too prideful but, however good the cause, there's a certain abasement that takes place on the part of the beggar that I have difficulty swallowing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the very rich are different from you and me. But even the somewhat rich speak a different language now. Increasingly, the wealth gap is also a language gap.

Take, for example, the Government's announcement a few days ago, in response to Auckland's housing crisis, that the housing development out at Hobsonville, about 30 minutes west of the city, would include around 500 to 600 "more affordable" new homes over the coming decade.

The 3000-house development, initiated under Helen Clark's Government, was to have included 500 state rental units and 500 "affordable" houses. But the current Government under former state house kid John Key deemed Hobsonville too good for today's state house tenants.

So instead of state houses, Key's Government has committed to providing "affordable" houses.

Ten per cent of the houses will be priced at less than $400,000 (so, $399,999?), and 10 per cent at between $400-$485,000 - indexed to inflation, which means the price tags will be even higher by the time they're built.

For whom is this affordable? Clearly, not those on low or modest incomes.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley says the houses are "more affordable" in the context of the Auckland housing market, but those words must taste like ashes in the mouths of the many Aucklanders who don't come within a cooee of being able to afford this piece of the Kiwi dream.

Not without an inheritance from rich rellies or a stratospheric salary, in which case, why would they need this kind of taxpayer largesse?

As Green Party MP Holly Walker says, "Half a million dollars for a house might be 'affordable' on Planet Key, but it is far out of reach for most New Zealand families. The fortnightly payments on a mortgage on one of these houses would be around half the net median household income in Auckland - that's unaffordable for the typical family, let alone those on lower incomes.

"John Key once said that building affordable housing at Hobsonville would be 'economic vandalism' but what's really economic vandalism is failing to provide housing that ordinary Kiwi families can afford."

What will happen, says Walker, is that "many of these houses will be snapped up by property investors who will price ordinary families out of the market and those families will remain locked into renting".

This is one of the consequences of inequality.

On one side of the chasm are people who cannot fathom why state house tenants who can't afford to go elsewhere should regard the properties they rent as their homes. They regard state house tenants who resist attempts to be uprooted from the houses they've lived in for decades, as in Glen Innes for example, as entitled cry-babies.

State houses aren't intended for life, they say, and in a way that's true.

But what are they to do? Should the inability to earn sufficient to buy a home or pay rent within reasonable travelling distance of work disentitle people to the sense of security and the benefits of community that a permanent home offers? How far away from employment and good schools and civic amenities are modest-income families supposed to go to secure decent housing?

We should have learned by now that low-income ghettoes don't work.

The housing crisis is complex and many years in the making, but even so the current Government's response is woefully inadequate.

Markets don't care about the housing needs of those on low to modest incomes, but Governments should.

We need a housing policy that responds to today's realities and recognises the importance of secure, healthy housing to human flourishing - and yes, ultimately, to the economy.

It ought to be part of a wider reassessment of how we go about building a society that's fit for humans.

•Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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