Is KiwiBuild "a dog"?

Labour's parliamentary opponents were always going to hone in on the problems and contradictions of the scheme, but what's interesting and telling is the criticism of the scheme is now also coming from the political left, with a building consensus that KiwiBuild is not up to the scale of the task required by the current housing crisis.

Yesterday, leftwing political commentator Chris Trotter published his weekly Otago Daily Times column criticising the scheme, and explaining why it's become "a dog". He argues that "tragically… the Coalition Government is selling the poor a pup" – see: KiwiBuild should be targeting the poor.

Trotter's main criticism of the scheme is that it does little or nothing to deal with the housing crisis, and is targeted to give assistance to the wrong people: "Nowhere are Labour's ambitions for KiwiBuild matched by the resources needed to fulfil them. Worst of all, the people most in need of 100,000 extra dwellings – beneficiaries and the working poor – are not the scheme's targets. KiwiBuild is a perverse mixture of corporate and middle-class welfare, offering a handsome subsidy to builders and a generous hand-up to young professionals."

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He explains that the concept for Kiwibuild was dreamed up under the leadership of David Shearer, as a way of out-manoeuvring leadership rival David Cunliffe. There was never any "necessary detailed development work on how it would be implemented, by whom, and at what cost", because it was always just a political tool rather than a serious attempt to improve society.

He also criticises the scheme for morphing into something that, rather than creating extra housing, just repurposes housing already being built by private developers who have got into financial trouble: "Twyford is willing to buy Labour's promised houses straight off the property developers' plans. At a stroke, bad financial bets are transformed into sure things. Phil's happy. The developers are happy. The banks are happy. And the winners of KiwiBuild ballots are over the moon. About the only people who aren't happy are those who believe that publicly funded social interventions on the scale of KiwiBuild should be directed first to those most in need."

Even the pro-Government blogsite, The Standard, is publishing criticisms of the scheme – see: KiwiBuild doesn't fly. According to this critique, the Government is effectively privatising "state housing land", to be used by private developers and the KiwiBuild scheme, meaning that most of the land will be for privately-owned houses. It says John Tamihere is correct in his call that development on state housing land in Mangere is akin to "social engineering".

It's "probably time to call the Government's flagship KiwiBuild programme for what it is – state sponsored gentrification of state housing suburbs" according to Salvation Army economist Alan Johnson. He explains that many of the KiwiBuild projects are actually being built on state housing land, which is meant for social housing – see: Call it KiwiBuild but it is still gentrification.

At the moment in Auckland, state houses are being demolished in three different locations (Mangere, Mt Roskill and Northcote), and being replaced mostly privately-owned houses.

Johnson says: "Added all up the three big urban re-development projects in state house suburbs being promoted by Government seem likely to involve the demolition of 6050 state houses and the construction of up to 20,000 new dwellings. Of these around 6500 will be state or social housing units." Clearly the Government isn't prioritising state housing at the moment, and is even selling off much of the necessary state housing land.

Similarly, the "massive $1.5 billion regeneration project for Porirua" announced this week, involves selling off state housing land for private houses. The Government's announcement that there will be over 2000 houses on the market has overshadowed the fact that there will only be 150 more state houses than before.

This has other leftwing critics alarmed. Blogger Martyn Bradbury concludes: "Kiwibuild is like the Labour party – it's for the children of the white middle classes. That's fine and dandy, but let's dump the illusion that this is helping the poor and until the new Government do something meaningful on state houses (building 1000 state houses per year isn't meaningful), they should be savaged ruthlessly and relentlessly for this" – see: Surprise, surprise – Kiwibuild is for the children of the white middle classes.

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Perhaps the political left shouldn't be surprised that KiwiBuild isn't aimed at the poorest in our society. After all, the modern Labour Party is more focused on winning middle-class voters. As Martin van Beynen explains today, Kiwibuild's targeting of more well-off New Zealanders is actually by design: "There was another important benefit for Labour in the Papakura welcome. It has made it look like more of a middle-class party" – see: Housing crisis – Method in Labour's KiwiBuild madness.

He explains the electoral calculation behind Labour's policy making: "The poor and the strugglers will always vote Labour or for some one man-cult like NZ First. So that vote is sort of guaranteed and spending some money on social housing is preaching to the choir… It is the middle that decides who governs. The house welcome showed that Labour is not only a party for strugglers. It showed it was awake to the aspirations of young, middle-class achievers who were battling to afford a home in unaffordable Auckland."

Of course, the Government has replied to its leftwing critics, pointing out that such disappointment with Kiwibuild is misplaced, as it was never intended to be a scheme for the poor or homeless. And they point to Housing New Zealand and state housing as other parts of the equation working to fix the housing crisis.

The problem is, Kiwibuild was sold by Labour during the election as their response to the housing crisis. Yes, there might have been some fine print to suggest otherwise, but that was the impression that Labour deliberately used to win a lot of votes. As yesterday's New Zealand Herald editorial stated, "Twyford must carry much of the blame for that false impression which dates from last year's election campaign when he put housing affordability and homelessness into the same breathless 'crisis'." – see: KiwiBuild houses never for the poor.

Similarly, Labour has sought to associate the introduction of Kiwibuild with the imagery and symbolism of the first Labour Government's massive state housing builds, even appropriating Michael Joseph Savage for the task. As Jane Clifton says in her Listener column this week, "KiwiBuild was rhetorically styled as Savage's second coming".

Leftwing critics are pointing to the lack of state housing being planned by this government and have started to protest against the Kiwibuild programme, or at least signal their concerns. For example, Auckland Action Against Poverty held a protest last weekend against the street party launch of the first Kiwibuild properties sold in Papakura – see Scott Palmer's KiwiBuild 'not aimed at low-income families' – Phil Twyford.

Protest coordinator, Ricardo Menendez, is quoted saying that KiwiBuild will "further exacerbate the housing crisis", and that "With a price-tag of half a million dollars, KiwiBuild homes are a future speculator's dream." Similarly, on Twitter he's suggested: "KiwiBuild maybe should be renamed KiwiSpeculator, as it's just an entryway for high income earners into the housing market to then become property speculators."

Another community group, Monte Cecilia, which is a social housing provider, has been highly critical of the way the Government is organising state housing and KiwiBuild. The housing trust's chief executive Bernie Smith gave the annual Bruce Jesson lecture at the University of Auckland last month, in which he condemned the government for taking "short cuts" to tackle New Zealand's housing crisis, arguing, "We need to stop pulling rabbits out of hats and looking for quick fixes" – see Teuila Fuatai's KiwiBuild: a 'community trainwreck'.

Finally, for more comment on the KiwiBuild scheme, see my blog post, Cartoons about Labour's KiwiBuild and the housing crisis.