Dr Ali Memon: Pity the poor who are forced to rent

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Suitable properties about as elusive and unaffordable as home ownership for many, writes Ali Memon

The private sector is the biggest provider of rental housing in Auckland while state housing is reserved for those in greatest need. Photo / Naomi Driver
The private sector is the biggest provider of rental housing in Auckland while state housing is reserved for those in greatest need. Photo / Naomi Driver

There is widespread public anxiety about the future of housing in Auckland. The significance of the housing crisis in Auckland in deciding the forthcoming national election outcome is manifest in competing promises by National and Labour to address it.

However, the current housing policy agendas of both National and Labour are dominated by the goal of promoting home ownership.

Now don't get me wrong. Home ownership is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for all the material and non-material advantages it confers. But what is worrying is the degree to which the proposed housing policy initiatives of the two centrist political parties have been captured by the home ownership drive.

The role of rental housing in satisfying housing needs of Aucklanders is a blind spot in the gaze of our politicians.

The proportion of rental households has significantly increased during the past decade.

According to recent surveys, approximately 40 per cent of Auckland households now rent. The proportion was 34 per cent in 2006.

Yet, the Auckland housing problem is being redefined by the politicians and the media primarily as a home ownership problem. This is not fair to those who rent.

Not every Aucklander can afford to, or desires to, own a home on account of their financial situation, or for reasons of personal circumstances.

Unfortunately, it is easy to overlook rental housing needs because our society and media give so much prominence to home ownership.

A key Auckland housing policy issue that needs public deliberation is how we can configure a sustainable role for rental housing in terms of the relative roles of the different providers: central and local government, private sector and the voluntary sector.

Since the 1980s, we have witnessed the withering away of the role of the state. The private rental housing sector is now, by far, the biggest provider of rental housing in Auckland. However, good quality private rental housing is not affordable for many. Those renting privately at times are forced to make difficult trade-offs such as not going to the doctor or children going to school on empty stomachs.

The direct role of central government in provision of affordable rental housing (described also as social housing) is being further hollowed out in two ways.

First, according to National, state housing will cater only for those with the highest need for housing, for the time of their need. Its expectation is that long term rental housing needs should be met by the private sector. We have been told little about the adverse social impacts on vulnerable households of this historically significant policy shift.

Second, both National and Labour support the policy of expanding the role of the voluntary sector as a housing provider. It is anticipated that ownership and management of state housing will be progressively devolved to non-government providers. While there are merits in this approach, this raises issues about local capacity and funding.

Do the above changes mark the end of state housing in New Zealand as we have known it since the 1930s?

Likewise, there needs to be more debate about Labour's capital gains tax proposal. Admittedly, this can reduce competition for aspiring home owners. However, such a tax could also make investment in the rental housing sector less attractive and thereby increase rents, as the current UK situation demonstrates.

Recent Auckland housing survey results, based on the General Social Survey, make sober reading:

• 13 per cent of renters are dissatisfied with where they are currently living, compared with 4 per cent of home owners.

• 52 per cent of renters (compared with 29 per cent of home owners) report a major problem with their dwelling. Common concerns include lack of insulation, dampness and small size.

• 23 per cent of the rental households are ranked in the most deprived category of the NZ Deprivation Index, compared with 6 per cent of home owners.

• 41 per cent of renters are in households earning $50,000 or less compared with 20 per cent of home owners.

• 58 per cent of Auckland's Maori population and 66 per cent of the Pacific population rent.

What the above data makes manifestly clear is that the housing allocation playfield is uneven. Housing related disadvantages are distributed unevenly amongst Auckland's population.

I would like to see the political parties and the media demonstrate an informed understanding of the needs of renters and how best to respond to these. The risk of not doing so is that social and geographical disparities in the housing of Aucklanders will become further entrenched.


Dr Ali Memon is a senior member of the NZ Planning Institute. He is Emeritus Professor of Planning, Lincoln University and lives in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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