The Great Depression of the 1920s and '30s in New Zealand gave rise to desperate living conditions for many - widespread destitution led to people living in shacks and other substandard shelter; disease spread, and inner-city slums flourished.

Those conditions gave the Labour Government - elected in 1935 - a mandate to make the provision of state housing a top priority. Then Minister of Housing Walter Nash told New Zealand it could not prosper or progress with a population that "lack[s] the conditions necessary for a 'home' and 'home life', in the best and fullest meaning of those words". It was a popular sentiment at the time, but look how far we have since regressed. We again have children and their parents living in cars and sheds. We have thousands of homeless; old diseases and ingrained misery have returned as sections of the population struggle to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

And at this critical juncture in our history, our Government is looking, instead, to offload state housing. It is the absolute, ultimate irony: a public welfare system that bridges the gap left by market failure, that, when starved, denigrated and under-resourced, as it is now, can only, apparently, be saved by the market.

That's despite the fact the market has proven itself absolutely useless at housing the poor, the mentally ill, and the elderly - and increasingly, anyone else who hasn't got $50,000 or more in the bank as a deposit.

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Which is more and more of us.

The Government has tried to slip the sell-off of state housing under the radar: I guess they don't want to be seen to be contradicting their pre-election promise not to sell any more state assets. They focus instead on "first home affordability" - a much more pressing concern for their supporters (as long as it does not affect their other supporters, who don't want too much new housing to depress the capital value of their property).

It's a tightrope, indeed - but our minister responsible for Housing New Zealand, Bill English, is probably more than up to the job, given his long experience in ensuring nothing offered as a solution to any of the pressing social problems of our time gives property owners and developers indigestion.

Of course, if we had a tax system that didn't allow property to be such an artificially attractive asset, first-home buyers would indeed have less of an uphill battle. But hush your mouth! Let's instead launch a shiny new housing strategy, manage to build a fraction of the 300,000 houses envisaged, and call it a victory of epic proportions.

The fact is the issue of first home affordability is, while important, not anywhere near as problematic for society as that of the plight of our poorest people at the hands of the private rental market, and after that, the homeless.

We have people across Auckland living in mobile storage lockers, for God's sake, because they can't get a state home, and private rents are impossible.

It is hard to understand how reverting to the Victorian solution of seeing churches and social agencies haphazardly tackle this gaping social wound will work. They don't have the resources, for one thing. They are also not plugged into the bigger picture - the social needs of the tenants, the transport and logistics needs of new housing and so forth, all things a clever, committed government can oversee. Not ours then, which is trying desperately to shift the immediate costs of social housing elsewhere, and the benefits to a crony cohort.

One method they've used is to seed the idea with the public that state housing is all let to gang members and chronic social misfits who trash their properties and refuse to move out. Of course, that does describe a percentage of state house tenants - or any tenants.

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Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think that housing is one of the core concerns of Government, and that the provision of state housing - as well as its proper management and upkeep - is fundamental. It is astonishing that a Prime Minister who grew up in a state house, and has gained huge political advantage from being able to trumpet that fact, can't see why it is wrong to pull up the ladder after him.

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