The housing crisis and the scapegoating of “foreigners”


By Ian Anderson, student (expanded from a short piece published in Salient Magazine, itself originally adapted from an MA thesis on ‘publics’ and ‘nonpublics’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand).

The housing crisis is a key site of struggle over inequality in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As many increasingly note, an increasing proportion of people do not own the homes they live in. Yet both of the major parties obscure the causes of the housing crisis, perhaps to keep investors and privileged voters onside (particularly older Pakeha, more likely than other groups to vote).

In Aotearoa/NZ, the housing bubble has yet to burst at the time of writing. House prices in Auckland quadrupled from 1991-2014, and wages have not kept up. The growth in exchange value (price) already undermines the use value of housing (a place to live); decreasing numbers of people can afford housing. Recent years have seen a drop in homeownership to just below 50% of the adult population. The same period has seen a 25% spike in homelessness.

National barely acknowledges the housing crisis. As of late August 2016, Key has finally conceded the existence of a housing crisis after years of pressure. However, Key evaded responsibility for the crisis, blaming the previous Labour government.

Meanwhile Labour, attempting to court more of a working-class or conscientious audience, acknowledge the housing crisis while obscuring its cause. This was most shockingly underlined by Labour’s controversial ‘Chinese surnames’ intervention (where Labour released a list of home buyers with ‘Chinese surnames’), failing to distinguish between migrant labour and international capital. As local hip hop artist David Dallas argues, in his recent track ‘Don’t Rate That’:
They buying everything that ain’t taxed
Blame it on the Chinese
Say it’s foreign buyers
But if a Brit buys up you don’t bat an eyelid
Fuckin’ wilin’
Could be third generation migrants
But we out here checking up on last names
What’s next gonna check what shape their eyes is
To tell the truth it probably wouldn’t be surprising

Growing social and economic contradictions among the people; between property owner and vagrant, mortgagee and lender, landlord and tenant; are safely displaced onto a nonpublic, an ‘Other’, defined through racial rather than economic characteristics. In fact, although the government does not collect comprehensive stats on ownership of housing, data from Land Information New Zealand indicates that only 3% of buyers and sellers are foreign tax residents

More broadly, content analysis of Labour Party press releases reveals that they never identify ‘investors’, ‘speculators’, ‘bankers’ per se as a negative influence; rather, they only couple these sorts of terms with terms such as ‘Australian’ or ‘foreign’. Considering business interests fund both major parties, and generally act as a coercive influence (‘business confidence’ is a key term in electoral commentary), Labour is apparently unwilling to alienate local business.

According to Roy Morgan polls, New Zealanders’ main concern is ‘inequality’. However, content analysis reveals that the two major parties appeal to ‘New Zealanders’ as their main constituency, a nationally rather than economically defined public. Examining opposite terms to New Zealander, National is the most likely party to use the term ‘international’, while Labour is the most likely party to use the term ‘foreigner’. Whereas National seeks to appeal to local and international investors, Labour scapegoats foreigners rather than challenging capital per se.

Recent international trends have seen the emergence of new populist movements opposing neoliberalism. These include left-reformist electoral campaigns; Syriza’s election in Greece, Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the US and Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership bid in UK Labour. Conversely, right-wing populist campaigns have found new electoral currency; UKIP’s Brexit campaign in the UK, Trump’s campaign in the US. Unfortunately, NZ Labour gives expression to this international right-wing populist trend. A major left-wing alternative has yet to emerge.

The housing crisis presents a challenge that both major parties are apparently unwilling to address. Marxist geographer David Harvey notes in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism that many middle-class ‘consumers’ gain (precarious) wealth from housing bubbles, not only super-rich investors: “housing asset values have become important political objectives for larger and larger segments of the population and a major political issue because the exchange value for consumers is as important as the exchange value earned by producers”. Herein lies the contradiction for major parties; how to address the housing crisis without alienating voters who benefit from the boom. New Zealanders are the main owners of New Zealand housing, and many benefit from driving up prices (landlords, for example).

The housing crisis is driven by the internal contradictions of capitalism, both local and international. As David Harvey argues, the ‘exchange value’ of housing undermines the ‘use value’. As housing is a speculative commodity – usually purchased through debt – property bubbles are a regular feature of capitalism. As Sue Bradford argued in a recent CounterFutures article on the fight-back in housing, xenophobia “can provide a ‘quick hit’ for popular support, but comes at the expense of promulgating an understanding of the deeper structural dynamics at play”. Those of us seeking to address the housing crisis must distance ourselves from the ‘quick hits’ of poll-chasing politics and develop a systemic analysis which can aid a long-term strategy. Neither major party will address the roots of the crisis. The existing movements for public housing and renters’ rights (see Renters United) offer more of a basis for this challenge.

We need a combined, independent social movement demanding redistribution of land to tangata whenua and the general public, an expansion of high-quality urban public housing; a clamp-down on all speculation and profiteering (whether local or international); and prioritisation of the use value of housing.

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