Rodney Hide: State house policy must free tenants from rentals

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In the 80s, housing minister Helen Clark reprised 1949 with MP Peter Neilson. Photo / NZ Herald.
In the 80s, housing minister Helen Clark reprised 1949 with MP Peter Neilson. Photo / NZ Herald.

It's hard to know what to make of the news that one Auckland couple has lived in the same Housing New Zealand house for more than 70 years. It's a tremendous achievement to live such a long life, especially together. It's also a very long time to live in the same house.

But it seems a little dismal, too, to spend all those years in a house that isn't yours. The back yard, the walls, the roof, the floor, all of them, belong to government.

You couldn't knock a wall out without first checking with the Government. And Government agents must inspect your house to ensure you are looking after Government property.

The tenancy stretches all the way back to 1941. Back then, the first state house was just four years old. State houses were new, but the Government had already built 12,000. That was no mean feat, especially with World War II raging.

For the very first state house, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage helped the McGregor family move in. He carried their dining table through a cheering crowd. It was a powerful political image. Here was a prime minister helping a working family.

The crowd and the people of New Zealand loved it.

The First Labour Government had hit on a political winner. State houses are great politics. Vote for us, and you will get a house! Vote for them and you will lose it!
Today, 6 per cent of voters live in state houses. That vote is the difference between winning and losing. More especially, it's a vote that can be whipped up to cause political trouble and protest and easily get on the news. The votes lost can stretch beyond the 6 per cent living in state houses.

State house rentals average $110 a week. Repairs and maintenance take half that and rates and Housing NZ staff the other half.

Taxpayers keep Housing NZ afloat, kicking in $165 a week for each house. They also kick in another $230 every week in interest on what the Government must borrow to keep the house government-owned.

The obvious policy is to use that $395 weekly subsidy to finance state house tenants into their own houses. And that's exactly what the National Government did on being elected in 1949. That very first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, tells the story. David and Mary McGregor bought their house, declaring it "our little bit of New Zealand". The then-government used the taxpayer subsidy to make tenants independent, rather than keeping them dependent. There's no doubt the National Government of the day won votes doing so.

But the story doesn't end there. When the McGregors died, the Government renationalised 12 Fife Lane. And in 1987 Labour's Minister of Housing, Helen Clark, marked the 50th anniversary of Savage carrying in the dining table by carrying a coffee table through the same front door. She recommitted the Government to being active in the housing market.

Today there are 70,000 state houses. There's a state-owned corporation to manage them and to ensure "New Zealanders in need have access to the right house, in the right place and at the right time, for as long as that need exists".

The uncomfortable question to ask is, whose interests do state houses serve? Politicians or tenants? And is it a policy that is working that sees a couple living in a state house their entire lives with no prospect of ever owning it?

Have we got it right when 70,000 families must rely on a government house in which to live?

To my mind, it's a policy failure. Michael Joseph Savage got his photo carrying the dining table. But he dropped it as soon as he was in the front door, away from the crowd, reporters and, more especially, the cameras.

I reckon the best policy was helping the McGregors buy their own house. What do you think?

- Herald on Sunday

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