Urban Housing is an Ecosocialist Issue

urban green

Fightback is running a series of articles on the housing crisis in Aotearoa/NZ.

Daphne Lawless (Fightback Tamaki Makarau) argues that we need green, sustainable and affordable solutions to the housing problem. But that means more urbanisation, not less.

It’s obvious that there is a great shortage of quality, affordable housing in Aotearoa. Or to be more precise, there’s a shortage in those places where people want to live. There are regular stories about houses going on TradeMe for a few hundred dollars, in places like Balclutha or other isolated rural zones.

Rural houses are great for people who can support themselves in a rural lifestyle, like farm workers or independent writers or artists. But the facts of life in a modern economy are that most of the economic growth, and therefore new jobs and opportunities, will happen in the cities – Auckland in particular, but Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton as well. Because Auckland is where I live and expect to raise my family, it’s that town which I will concentrate on in this article.

Explosive growth

Auckland’s explosive growth to near 1.5 million inhabitants is also exacerbated, not only by its milder climate compared to our other urban centres, but by immigration. New settlers in our country prefer to live near to people who share their culture, hence Auckland’s massively high levels of cultural diversity compared to the rest of the country. Whether Pasifika peoples in Mangere, Chinese in Botany or people from the Indian subcontinent in Sandringham, Auckland’s cultural mosaic gets more complicated and colourful all the time.

But Auckland’s expanding population needs somewhere to live. The latest survey shows that the median house price in Auckland has passed $670,000 – almost 15 times the median yearly income. Historically, that ratio has been stable at around 4. So a house in Auckland costs almost 4 times as much as it should.

The media blame this on “a shortage of new housing”, mainly blaming Auckland Council’s planning tools, like the Metropolitan Urban Limit – refusing to rezone rural areas bordering the city for new housing. But this is unfair, and pushes a political ideology which is both anti-worker, and anti-green.

One of the main problems of neoliberal capitalism is that, when wages are pushed down, workers can’t buy things and the economy slows. One of the solutions – in virtually every advanced country in the world – has been to semi-deliberately create a housing bubble. Loans for buying houses have become cheap and plentiful, pushing up prices. And when house prices go up, those who already own houses (the middle and upper classes) benefit. They can buy cars or go on holidays and “put it on the mortgage”.

But even capitalist economics understands what happens when you just pump more money into a market – prices go up overall. The longer the bubble goes on, the less hope for the people at the bottom of the “housing ladder”. A similar thing happens in the rental market with WINZ giving out Accomodation Supplement, a rent subsidy for those on low-to-average incomes. This money just goes to boost the landlord’s profits, and rents rise to match.

Pricking the bubble

The housing bubble is therefore just another way of transferring wealth from the property-less to the property-owners. But even our bosses are getting nervous that we could end up in a situation like the United States or Ireland, where after the bubble burst, entire neighbourhoods became vacant after their mortgages were foreclosed on. Hence, the Reserve Bank has recently cut the availability of loans for new home-owners (once again punishing the needy so as to safeguard the gains of the greedy).

So what’s a pro-worker, pro-environment solution to the housing crisis? A bursting housing bubble might bring prices down, but would also cause massive economic recession. The right-wing media and the National Government want us to think that the answer is building new housing zones on the fringes of the urban area at “affordable prices”.

Let’s go through all the ways that this kind of urban sprawl is ecological and economic bad news:

  • New fringe suburbs encroach onto fertile farming land. Some of Auckland’s best volcanic soils (such as the market gardens in Avondale) have long since been built over. Pushing development towards Pukekohe would put the food sustainability of the region under severe pressure.
  • New developments require brand new services such as telephone, stormwater and electricity to be built, at a high cost.
  • In New Zealand, new housing areas are generally built without any thought as to public transport – and generally nowhere near workplaces. Not only does this require that everyone who lives there has to own a car, but they have to commute for stupid distances across our already-clogged motorway network, turning expensive fossil fuels into air pollution as they do so.

The National Government’s “special housing areas”, such as Hobsonville Point, Flat Bush or Hingaia, are nowhere near the recently upgraded electric train services, and will all need new bus or ferry services to make it possible to live there without a car. This isn’t solving the housing crisis – just opening it up to developers to profit from.

Up, not out

The alternative – as many insightful commenters on Auckland’s housing issues have identified, for example, the Generation Zero pressure group – is for Auckland to grow up, not out. That is, new affordable, high-density (flat or apartment) housing should be build in and around the Central City and central suburbs. Amazingly enough, it’s only been legal to build apartments in the Auckland CBD since 1995, and since then its population has grown to 25,000 – and, with a large population of students and creative types, it’s generally a lower-income and more culturally diverse population than the ultra-rich inner ‘burbs like Remuera or Herne Bay.

The rich absolutely hate this idea. The working-class population of central Auckland were systematically moved out between the 1950s and 1970s, when “slums” like Freemans Bay and Newton were gutted to build the Central Motorway junction, and surrounding suburbs like Ponsonby or Grey Lynn were gentrified.

The old working-men’s cottages of Auckland’s central fringe suburbs can now fetch more than $1 million. The last thing that their privileged current owners want is for the price to be brought down by affordable apartments being built round the corner – or indeed, for working-class (or non-white) people to live in their area at all. They’d much prefer working people out of sight and out of mind, in the far-flung fringes. Which is of course precisely what happened to the inhabitants of “old” Ponsonby – Mangere or Otara were settled by refugees from “slum clearances” and motorway madness around the CBD.

Housing and transport are both aspects of the same question, as is access to public services. Auckland’s liberal mayor Len Brown, elected by the working-class outer suburbs over the screams of the Parnell and Newmarket ruling classes, has staked his credibility on the Central Rail Link, an underground railway through the CBD which would greatly increase the efficiency of public transport. Auckland’s inner-suburb privileged class, though, see this as part and parcel of intensified housing, and their representatives on Council have tried to sabotage it at every turn. Making urban life in Auckland more accessible, affordable and vibrant is the last thing that the ultra-exclusive, financially-segregated communities of the city fringe want.

Anti-urbanism

Studying the facts, it becomes clear that to improve quality of life in Auckland, to reduce social equalities and make life richer and more affordable for working people, the affordable as well as the green solution is centralisation and intensification combined with much better public transport. However, many who see themselves on the liberal side or even the Left of politics wouldn’t agree.

When I interviewed MANA co-vice-president John Minto in this paper a couple of years ago, when he was running for Mayor of Auckland, he had this to say:

“They’re replacing existing state housing with 8-story slums in the town centre. We’ve seen this happen overseas – they’ll be rubbish-quality… Families need wide spaces to grow up in – they’re not growing to grow up on the sixth floor of an apartment building.”

There is absolutely no reason why – excluding the greed of developers and the ignorance of planners – high-density living should become a “slum” nightmare like an English “estate” or a French “cité”. All that is required is people-centred and eco-friendly planning. Attention to green space, sustainable transport links, and integration to the broader culture of the city can prevent affordable housing becoming a shunned slum.

Large apartment buildings can even be more environmentally friendly than a traditional, draughty, uninsulated Kiwi single-dweller property – especially in, as has happened in Chicago and other places, they become self-sufficient in energy by installing solar panels on their roofs. The biggest barrier to children being raised in the Auckland CBD is the lack of schools – which could be fixed by a people-centred education policy.

Detroit

While John is motivated by concern for the poor, other anti-intensificationists have less savoury motivations. “Big cities” are something, for these people, which happen in other countries. Auckland, to them, is something like a cancer or a parasite on the country, and should never have been allowed to grow to its giant sprawling size (and certainly not with such ethnic diversity!)

Some of them even suggest deliberately letting it run down and become uninhabitable, provoking a Detroit-style exodus to the other centres or the regions. This kind of ruralist or small town mythology makes one remember Karl Marx’s comment about the “idiocy of rural life” – by which he did not mean stupidity, but self-absorbed parochialism.

Ecosocialism concentrates on quality of life as well as income for working people. “Agglomeration benefits” – the economic, cultural and environmental benefits of concentrating and enhancing the central areas of large cities – are very real. Although some will always prefer a suburban big back-yard lifestyle, the cultural benefits of living in a teeming, vibrant, culturally rich community should be open to all working people of Aotearoa/New Zealand. This is the future that the “Remuera brigade” (you’d say Thorndon or Fendalton in other cities, I suppose) hate and fear.

When they “cleared” Freeman’s Bay and Newton in the 1960s, they told the working-class and Pasifika residents that they’d never miss their old “slums” in their brand new houses in far-away Mangere and Otara. We can see how that turned out – economic apartheid, auto-dependent isolation, and a downward spiralling local economy leading to crime. It’s time to put an end to economic apartheid, and bring working people back into the centre of our urban life and culture – where they belong. The only way we can all fit sustainably is by growing our cities upwards.

A national hui on the state housing crisis will be held in Auckland on February the 21st.
Register at statehousinghui@gmail.com
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