Jolisa Gracewood: Housing a gamble on our future

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Ye Tun Oo, centre, with his son, wife and mother-in-law. Photo / NZ Herald
Ye Tun Oo, centre, with his son, wife and mother-in-law. Photo / NZ Herald

When the OECD this week rated New Zealand houses the "least affordable in the developed world", the Prime Minister laughed off talk of a crisis. I was surprised he didn't trot out the old chestnut about how the Chinese word for "crisis" is made up of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity".

It is etymologically spurious, but beloved by high-rollers, carpetbaggers and dangerous opportunists of all stripes. And as an experienced, successful money-trader, our preternaturally relaxed PM surely knows one man's crisis is another's killing.

But New Zealanders are not alone in worrying about the mounting cost of all this profit. The Guardian's Deborah Orr writes from London: "For some time now ... our houses have been earning more than we do." And James Surowiecki, explaining in the New Yorker Vancouver's stratospheric real-estate, describes "a torrent of capital from wealthy people in emerging markets" that is massively inflating prices in a handful of global "hedge cities".

This bubbly boom isn't just an Auckland issue. If New Zealand is a family, then Auckland is the dad who's popped down to the pokies with the pay packet.

Our Government insists that a) fly-by buyers aren't part of the problem and b) it doesn't need any numbers to know this. Anyone who presses the point is accused of xenophobia. But who's really running scared? This week, the Herald featured Ye Tun Oo, a Burmese refugee who settled in Hamilton two years ago. He and his wife have learned English - their small son is fully bilingual - and both are getting tertiary degrees.

At 44, completing his education is Ye Tun's dream come true: as a student, he was jailed for participating in the 1988 democracy protests. (By coincidence, the same year John Key and pals were making a fortune off the shaky New Zealand dollar.)

Contrast Ye Tun with Donghua Liu, the man who played golf with the PM in hopes of having a word about immigration law. Liu's dream? That we ditch the requirement for millionaire would-be residents to have even a rudimentary knowledge of any of New Zealand's languages.

You can rig a country so that a few people can make a pile of money while literally buying their way out of the conversation about how that happens. Or you can prioritise other values.

I've always thought of buying a home as buying shares in a community. Multiculturalism rocks my world, in a good way. And I know which of these two men I'd welcome as a neighbour.

Funnily enough, the English word "crisis" comes from the Greek for "decision".

It originally meant the turning point of an illness. A decisive moment, after which things take a turn for the worse - or the better. Roll on September 20.

Jolisa Gracewood is an Auckland writer, reviewer and editor and tweets as @nzdodo. The Herald on Sunday is publishing a range of views "Out of leftfield".

- Herald on Sunday

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