Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Home ownership a real religion in New Zealand


If buying and selling property was creative and productive, imagine how much better off this country would be.

Photo / Bruce Clarke
Photo / Bruce Clarke

Here's a question I could do without being asked again. From some random chick on Facebook: "Do you have a mortgage?"

Goodness knows I'm not a shy person: I'm happy to say I find G strings uncomfortable, tried pot but it makes me uptight (who needs a drug to do that?) and I already confessed I lost my virginity in my second year at university.

But I find this particular question revoltingly intrusive. It sounds innocuous but is really a gauche attempt to define you by your property ownership status. Are you a property owner, that is someone with value as a virtuous and moral person?

Or are you dirty renter? (Come to think of it she may have been wanting to know if my house is paid off with no mortgage, but even so, the point stands).

I'm fed up with this country's oppressive attitude to home ownership, and I don't mean because my heart is bleeding for young thrusters trying to - cliche alert - get on the bottom rung of the property ladder.

In middle class society owning a house and all the other deeply boring conformist concerns that go with it - property values, school zones, DIY, please skewer my eye out with a rusty nail - seem to be the single measure we use to construct personhood.

The attitude around home ownership is not explicitly acknowledged but here's how it goes.

The rule is: everyone in middle class polite society must aspire to owning a house. Tough beans if you have other passions or objectives or obstacles in your life that make this particular goal irrelevant or infeasible.

By owning a house you now have a right to participate in society as a person with standing. Those who don't own houses are considered losers and, although not overtly stated, pretty much given the impression they are second class citizens.

Strangely they don't seem to notice this much because like practically everyone this group subscribes to the "I am nothing without a house" ethos.

They just rail against property prices and complain about investors pushing prices up, not the whole unspoken property brainwashing con.

Buying a house is unquestionably the ultimate aim in one's life - people are desperate to join the rest of their suburban compadres who can discuss school zones at barbecues. There is a revolting conformist zeal to home ownership - "Oh you're one of us now! Welcome aboard!"

But the real reason those rinky-dinky white heterosexual couples in their pressed Bermuda shorts want to get on the property ladder is because it's the only way those of average IQ can hope to get rich in New Zealand.

Frustrated Yuppies might call for a capital gains tax, but let's be honest: the reason they want to own a house is not to make a vege garden, but to get rich.

Agreed, owning a house might be agreeably cosy in some respects - you can paint it magnolia, you don't have get chucked out by venal landlords - but it is not a signal you are a moral or worthwhile person.

And like most constructs, we don't even realise this one is so pervasive because we are immersed in it. To most middle class Kiwis property is the first topic at a barbecue and this is just "normal".

In fact, people become quite miffed if you dare to suggest there might be other measures to use to get an insight into a person other than which suburb they live in and how high they have scrambled on the property ladder.

Home ownership is viewed with something close to religious fervour. Friends tell me we are not the only ones: other countries have the same mania about property (although I doubt they discuss up and coming suburbs at family dinners in Syria).

I suppose I should be grateful in this country you are assessed for your place in the pecking order by something you can influence.

In the English class system you can be shabby and posh because what matters is still your accent and what school you went to. But our property discourse is still limiting and destructive. Imagine if we put all the effort we put into houses into something more creative and productive? Now that is a question I wouldn't mind being asked.

- NZ Herald

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