“Working-class millionaires”: the housing bubble, inequality, and NIMBYism

Image via Getty/Newshub


This article is for Fightback’s magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

In my article on the Auckland local body elections in 2016, I paid special attention to (now former) Auckland Councillor Mike Lee – a long-standing Left-wing activist who had distinguished himself by opposing intensified housing in the central city/inner suburbs area which he represented.1 Although the debate has moved on in Auckland, it is currently raging in full force in Wellington. Some of the strongest voices against similar housing intensification in that city – whose rate of rent inflation now outpaces Auckland’s2 – are councillors elected from the Green Party.

“Now I don’t know why progressives like that have a mind block. I just don’t know,” commented urban geographer Ben Ross to the Newsroom website.3This article aims to provide an answer to Ben Ross’s question; one which uses the much-misunderstood idea of class – in the sense of the social analysis pioneered by Karl Marx – to suggest an explanation for “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) attitudes among the self-described Left. On the way, I hope to show how a class analysis makes it easier to understand why the massive inflation in housing prices and rents has been allowed to happen in the first place.

Whatever happened to class?

It’s very difficult to talk about “class” sensibly, since the uses of the term which are current in popular culture and the mass media are very difficult from the sense in which Marx used it. The popular understanding of the media is that “working-class” is a cultural identity – or a “consumption” identity – meaning someone who consumes “ordinary”, mass-market things, rather than fancy “elite” things. In New Zealand terms, someone who drinks Lion Red beer and watches rugby, rather than drinks Cloudy Bay wine and goes to dance recitals, might be called “working class”.

This idea of class – based on what people consume – is very popular among Right-wing populists who want to build a mass movement against media and cultural “elites”, rather than the capitalist system and the billionaire class. The crowning stupidity of this approach came from the US presidential spokesperson who tried to argue that the “working class” identified with Donald Trump – at the time the most powerful head of state on the globe and infamous for flaunting his wealth – because he ate Big Macs.4

In contrast, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discussed class, they specifically meant a social distinction based on ownership of the means of production, and on control over others’ labour power. Marx and Engels’ vision, as expressed in the Communist Manifesto, was of society increasingly divided between two major classes – owners of the means of production (capitalists) and those who needed to work to survive (proletarians).5

So why do Marx, Engels and socialists in their tradition worry so much about the idea of (socioeconomic) class? Because class is a kind of “dirty secret” of capitalism and liberal democracy. On paper, in a society such as Aotearoa or Australia, everyone is equal; we all have the vote and the same human rights. But in practice, the owners of property make sure – through their influence over the economy, over the lives of their employees and tenants, and with their ownership of mass media and dominance of educational institutions – that democracy can never develop to the point that it threatens their privileges. As French poet Anatole France put it: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Class, then, is why democracy under capitalism never works “as advertised”. But class analysis is not a conspiracy theory. It is not as if all the members of property-owning classes consciously “rig” the system to benefit at everyone else’s expense. Marx argues that the ideas in people’s heads develop from the way in which they live their lives6:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Privileged classes and groups are not (entirely) consciously and selfishly guarding their privileges; but it just seems like “common sense” that a way of organizing society which makes their lives comfortable and pleasant is the correct state of affairs. This is why “rational” arguments for social change, or appeals to people’s better nature, have limited impact on the privileged. But even worse, these ideas “trickle down” to dominate all social layers, even the most oppressed7:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

The common sense of gentrification millionaires

So how does all this help us understand the “progressive mind-block” where veteran socialists and Green Party activists end up opposing housing intensification? In my 2016 article I suggested some explanation of how Mike Lee, in particular, ended up in that position:

Mike Lee’s main achievements for the Left were as chair of the Auckland Regional Council, when he was elected by all the people of the old Auckland City, from Avondale to Remuera to Otahuhu. His anti-Unitary Plan stance, however, has been as the councillor for the Waitemata/Gulf ward – including the central city but dominated by the gentrified, super-wealthy suburbs of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay et al… One does not need to be a Marxist to point out that a good elected politician promotes the interests of their constituents.

Similarly, in Dileep Fonseka’s Newsroom article, he mentions how pro-intensification Wellington councillor Rebecca Matthews “inadvertently highlighted Green Party-aligned Deputy Mayor Sarah Free’s ownership of multiple properties when she captured a screenshot of declared property interests”.

“There is a generational thing here,” Matthews told Fonseka. “I’ve met maybe one person under 35 who is against this stuff….people have got in this position because they managed to buy these houses cheaply many, many years ago.” This is a point which I also raised in my 2016 article, when I pointed out that Mike Lee’s constituency

were beneficiaries of racially-biased gentrification. Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were heavily Polynesian working-class suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. They were pushed out of the area in the 1980s… and young, “hipster”, Pākehā took advantage to buy up cheaper housing in what were then insalubrious but culturally rich suburbs. This generation subsequently benefitted from the massive neoliberal housing boom. They may have “done up” their Ponsonby villas, but no amount of “doing up” can justify a 2000% increase in capital value over 30 years.

It’s worth mentioning that there are far more extreme opponents of contemporary urbanism than Mike Lee or the Wellington Green Party. The most notorious are a small group in Auckland led by café owner Lisa Prager, who have gone beyond opposition to intensification to active sabotage against bike lanes and traffic-calming initiatives in the inner suburbs. Prager and her group, however, go well beyond the concerns about “heritage” and the greed of property developers raised by the councillors:

Prager believes transport and roading changes being made by AT are “designed to assist multinational corporations to transfer public money into private hands via confidential contracts”.

Alternative transport lobby groups like Bike Auckland and Generation Zero along with blogs like Greater Auckland were a part of a global conspiracy called Agenda 21, she said

For those who have followed Fightback’s analysis of the far right, this is the familiar form of conspiracy theories that we hear from far-Right groups opposing COVID health measures or multicultural society in general. It’s worth noting that even mainstream “NIMBY” discourse resorts to milder forms of ‘alternative facts’, such as accusing pro-intensification activists of being fronts for the Property Council (as Mike Lee does in his response in Fonseka’s article), or claiming that there are tens of thousands of “ghost homes” sitting vacant so there is no need for new housing.9

Prager’s group, although far more extreme than the NIMBY councillors, fit the same class profile we’ve been discussing: small property/business owners; Pākehā; of the generation which came of age before neoliberal reforms and the property bubble. In a 2019 article about anti-transgender/anti-sex work attitudes from some on the Left, I suggested that:

fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them.10

NIMBYism – as a defence of a status quo which benefits a particular middle-class layer, couched in the language of social justice, and envisaging a conspiracy of big business and progressive activists against it – is a classic example of a Right-wing populist argument which disguises itself in Left-sounding language, effectively enough to confuse those who identify as “Left” but feel their privilege to be threatened by social trends. In other words, the kind of thing which Fightback has been warning against for many years.

The wealth effect builds a constituency

However, if the problem with house-price inflation and NIMBYism were due only to the economic self-interest – or “mind blocks” – of local body politicians and grumpy shopkeepers, it would be much easier to solve. The knottier problem is one at the level of the entire economy – and baked into the neoliberal economic model which has ruled the global economy for the last four decades.

A capitalist economy always runs a balancing act between keeping wages as low as possible, and therefore profits high; and the problem that profits can only be made if the goods and services produced can be sold. And if wages are too low, workers can’t afford to buy things.

One possible answer to this problem is expressed in the mantra of New Zealand’s neoliberal politicians in the 1990s of an “export-led recovery”. You can keep wages low in your own country if the goods and services are sold overseas – a model which has shown its most impressive success in China and other East Asian economies. But the benefits of this model decrease as more countries adopt it, in a kind of “race to the bottom”.

Runaway inflation in the property market of New Zealand, and other countries, suggests another way out from the contradiction between wages and consumption – what economists call the household wealth effect.11 Encouraged by near-zero interest rates, a continuous rise in the value of people’s homes means, bluntly, that people “feel richer”. Jacinda Ardern’s government has acknowledged that people “expect” there to be continuous rises in property values – an endorsement of a permanently inflating asset market which no Government would ever make for, say, the stock market.12

Given this implicit Government guarantee, there is no reason for people who own housing property not to run up ever increasing amounts of debt – “putting it on the mortgage”. But this maintains consumption levels, and thus keeps the economy ticking over, at the price of increasing social inequality. Those who have property get continuously richer – those who can’t get on the property ladder pay rent at an ever-increasing proportion of income. This is what they call a “K-shaped recovery” – recovery for property owners, stagnation or worse for the rest of us.13

Some Leftists object to housing property being used as the key to a class analysis. Someone’s personal house, they argue, is not a “means of production” in the same way that Marx meant it. But in the current financialized neoliberal economy, as we’ve seen, a house is not only a place to live but an investment asset, which not only inflates spending power above what wages and salaries could provide, but continually exacerbates the distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.14 In Australia, income inequality between the highest and lowest deciles nearly doubled once housing costs are accounted for.15

Ben Ross’s perplexity at the “mind-block” of progressive NIMBYs is resolved when we recognize that such people are only “progressive” insofar as it doesn’t impact upon their own social status and comfort. An economy where house prices were stable, or fell, would be disastrous for the comfortably-off older Pākehā layers from which our local politicians are overwhelmingly drawn – no matter how they justify it (to themselves and others) with concerns about heritage or conspiracy theories. Worse still, it would no doubt lead to an economic crisis with a collapse in consumption – unless balanced by a large increase in wages and salaries, which is the last thing that big business wants.

The housing asset bubble will end – one way or another. Auckland’s formerly runaway rents have begun to “flatten off” with increased building since 2016, though property prices continue to inflate16. Either the era of near-zero interest rates will come to an end due to adverse economic developments elsewhere in the world; or the misery imposed by increasing rents for unhealthy and unsustainable housing will reach a tipping point where the self-interest of the NIMBY classes will be overruled. The question is how much pain working people have to suffer before that happens. The suggestion of former Green Party leader Metiria Turei in 2016 of crashing the housing market by 40% is an excellent one, that might be accomplished through massive intensification of sustainable housing, accompanied by a programme of rent control, coupled with a big increase in wages and salaries, and reforms of National Superannuation and KiwiSaver to offer alternative forms of economic security to property ownership. Only then might the stranglehold of the landlord class over politics in this country be loosened.

1 https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

2 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/auckland-rents-up-nearly-3-per-cent-new-barfoot-thompson-data/

3 https://www.newsroom.co.nz/the-lefties-who-want-less-housing

4 https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/375422-gorka-americans-like-trump-because-he-eats-big-macs-on-air

5 See elsewhere in this issue for discussions of modern developments in class analysis which look in more detail at the various social groups which are “in-between” these two major layers.

6 Karl Marx, “Preface” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

7 Karl Marx, “The Illusion of the Epoch” in The German Ideology: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm

8 https://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/central-leader/102298217/anticycleway-protester-arrested-after-destroying-traffic-island-with-sledgehammer; see also this tweet from Auckland Councillor Pippa Coom https://mobile.twitter.com/pippacoom/status/1410540515653685249

9 https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/125463204/ghost-houses-a-spectre-of-nzs-housing-crisis-or-just-a-bogeyman

10 https://fightback.org.nz/2019/08/26/swerf-and-terf-the-red-brown-alliance-in-policing-gender/

11 https://www.rbnz.govt.nz/research-and-publications/discussion-papers/2019/dp2019-01

12 https://www.interest.co.nz/property/108301/pm-jacinda-ardern-says-sustained-moderation-remains-governments-goal-when-it-comes

13 https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/money/2021/04/explosion-of-wealth-inequality-as-housing-boom-leaves-many-behind-economist.html




Everyone should care about urbanism, and here’s why


New housing in Waterview, Auckland

New Zealand cities have so many good things going for them, but they’re let down by inadequate housing and transport. Mouldy old homes rent for exorbitant sums. Traffic-clogged roads are unpleasant (or even unsafe) for anyone not in a car.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can rethink where we live and how we get around, and transition to a society that is more affordable, more equitable, healthier, and with much lower greenhouse gas emissions. This will be better for all urban residents, especially low-income and vulnerable people.

What Do Urbanist Cities Look Like?

Urbanist cities should be inclusive and offer a range of housing and transport choices. Affordability is key to becoming inclusive: everyone should be able to afford a lifestyle that satisfies their basic needs (see ‘the human right to housing’) and allows them to participate in society.

That doesn’t mean everyone gets everything they want: cities are limited for space and there are tradeoffs involved. New Zealanders expect to be able to drive wherever and whenever they want, and that has to change.

Why Aren’t We There Already?

Since the 1950s, New Zealand governments and councils have spent the vast majority of their transport budgets on roads, with almost nothing for public or active (walking and cycling) transport. That has resulted in the car-dominated society we have today.

Working-class neighbourhoods were starved of public transport – not because the wealthy neighbourhoods have gotten all the investment, but because too much money went on motorways and non-driving modes only got crumbs.

Working-class communities suffer when there aren’t good alternatives to driving. Low-income households are more likely to be carless, and this can cut them off from accessing jobs, educational opportunities and the other places they need to get to. With better alternatives to driving, low-income households can manage without a car more easily, or manage with one less car and save money without making their lives any harder.

Since the 1970s, new homes in New Zealand have been built on the edges of our cities, with little regard for how the residents will get around if they don’t have a car. The rate of housing construction has also slowed since the 1970s, and it fluctuates with economic ups and downs. Auckland was especially hit by the post-GFC downturn, even as the city’s population kept growing – and that was when the housing shortage really started to escalate into a crisis.

Auckland’s housing crisis shows up in all sorts of data. Most of the Western world has an ageing population and the average number of ‘people per household’ is falling as a result – but Auckland stayed flat at 3.0 people per household over 2001-2013 and has now risen to almost 3.2. The statistic might sound bland, but it has real-life consequences, with people struggling to find homes that are right for them. It hits low-income areas hardest and results in overcrowding and substandard living conditions.

Rents in some cities have skyrocketed since 2015, as faster population growth hit a wall of inflexible housing supply. Even in Auckland, rents have steadily crept upwards year after year (now over $560 a week), whereas a stronger supply response would see them flatten out or even decline. Landlords haven’t had to compete for tenants, so they haven’t bothered to upgrade their properties – 38% of rented homes in New Zealand are damp, and 20% are mouldy.

Decades of bad decisions have brought us to our current situation. Neither housing nor transport are good enough, and it’s not good enough to say that they’ll take decades more to fix. We need rapid action on all fronts.

Creating Better Choices

At a government level, both left and right-wing parties agree that “we need more housing supply”, but they can’t quite agree on what that means. At the council level, things are even more disjointed as many councillors feel the need to appease NIMBY (not in my back yard) voters.

As for me, I want to see lots of new homes in places that are central, well-connected or highly desirable. This often isn’t allowed under current planning rules. This will deliver real housing choices and bring down rents everywhere, not just the places where those homes are built.

Cycleways and bus lanes can be rolled out very quickly (and cheaply!) with political and community will, and in just a few short years they could cover much larger parts of our cities. Building busways or light rail is more expensive and takes longer, but we will need that too.

Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, said “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. To unpack this: driving is expensive for the poor to afford. If they have good public (and active!) transport options, that’s a start. If public transport is so convenient that even the rich want to take it, that’s job done.

I grew up in a central Auckland suburb, and flatted in Mt Albert and Sandringham while studying. I never considered living in an apartment until I moved to the city centre in 2009. 12 years on, I’ve never wanted to leave. Large parts of the city centre have transformed around me, creating shiny new apartments and hotels but also public spaces and waterfronts a short walk away. I’ve never been more than a 15-minute walk away from university and (subsequently) work, and now that I have a toddler I’m a similar distance from his daycare.

I’ve chosen this lifestyle, which comes with pros and cons, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the choice. Living close to work is a luxury in Auckland, and not having to sit in (and contribute to) traffic is a luxury as well. Many Aucklanders have chosen something different to me – maybe they really enjoy suburban living, or being out in the wops even if it means a lot of driving – but many Aucklanders feel like they don’t have good choices about where and how to live.

The Auckland and Wellington city centres offer a glimpse of the future (albeit with room for improvement), but there’s currently no ‘middle ground’ between them and car-dependent suburbia. Providing middle-ground housing options in more places is a big part of the solution.

The Outcome

What would an urbanist city in New Zealand look like – Auckland or Wellington after ten years of focused change? It would be densest in the central suburbs, and around transit lines and town centres. Land here is valuable so people would mainly live in apartments, but these would range from small to family-sized with floorspace quite affordable. The buildings themselves could be at suburban scale, well designed and integrated with their surroundings. Further out, housing would trend more towards townhouses, terraces, and walk-up apartments. And further out again, homes would predominantly be detached houses as they are today.

Public transport would be so reliable and practical that we’d take it for granted – and we’d take it all over the city. Bus lanes and signal priority would mean buses arrive when they’re supposed to, with crosstown routes connecting town centres and suburbs. “Rapid transit” lines, including rail, light rail and busways, would help to shift people in and out of the city centre and other high-demand areas.

Active transport would be equally reliable and practical, with people on bikes protected from those in cars so that 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds could cycle without fear. The world is already in the early days of an electric (e-bike) revolution – these incredible machines can cover distance quickly, and ‘smooth out’ hills for much easier riding. They will have a profound impact globally. In New Zealand they will be relevant in every suburb of every city, and even in smaller towns and rural areas. E-bikes might just save us all.

It’s not about forcing people into chicken coops or out of their cars. There should be good choices available for everyone in the city, meaning:

  • Housing everywhere becoming more affordable (i.e., lower rents), with new options that don’t exist currently: high or medium-rise apartments in town centres, and walk-up apartments or terraces close by.
  • Shortening your commute – because you might want to move closer to work, in one of the new homes. Most of us would like to spend less time on the road. Many areas will see improved public transport, and everywhere will be easier to bike around.
  • Bringing people closer together, and giving them better alternatives to driving, brings more opportunities within reach. It’s a powerful thing for economic development to increase the number of jobs that can be accessed within 45 minutes of a suburb.
  • The public benefits are huge. Continuing to sprawl out into the countryside will be very expensive for Auckland, with the infrastructure costs alone almost $150,000 per home.

All of this is completely achievable. We must choose whether to keep doing what we’ve always done or strive for something better. That “something better” will create better choices for the people who live in our cities, or who might someday. It will benefit people throughout those cities: high income or low, central or suburban. Even people who continue driving will be able to enjoy safer, less congested roads.

Urbanist cities are fairer, more affordable cities. That’s good news for everyone. As to how we can get there? I suggest advocating to your council for a vigorous NPS-UD response on intensification (look the acronym up!) and pushing for bus lanes and cycleways, the transport ‘quick wins’.

Jacinda Ardern’s housing policy: Appear to be doing something, but don’t scare investors

By Ani White.

Written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on housing. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

In 2017, Jacinda Ardern led the New Zealand Labour Party to a surprise victory, with promises to address the housing crisis as a key plank of the new government’s mandate. In its fourth year of government, the party continues in its failure to substantively deliver on its promises. It seems the main aims of the government’s housing policy are: appear to be doing something to help renters and first-home buyers, but don’t scare capital or investors. However, the goals of helping renters and helping landlords are mutually incompatible. Therefore, Labour has consistently watered down its own proposals.

To set the scene, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a ridiculously inflated housing market, against a backdrop of steep inequality. New Zealand ranks number two in the international house price growth ranks, increasing 22.1% in the year to March 2021, while global house prices rose 7.3%. In contrast, New Zealand wage rates increased 1.6% in the year to March 2021. Rents increased 3% over the year ending April 2021. Stories such as the Upper Hutt pensioner whose rent was increased by $135 at once, from a starting point of $410 a week, are rife. The increase, to keep the flat in line with market rates, which did not violate recent regulations. In short, house prices and rents continue to surge, while incomes do not keep up. Homelessness is also the highest in the OECD, and 48% of housing applicants are Māori compared to 16.5% of the general population, on land that was appropriated from Māori by Pākehā (European-descended/non-Māori) capitalists.

The Ardern government’s first measure to address the housing crisis was to ban most foreign buyers, who made up only about 3% of homes bought nationwide. This was a symbolic populist measure by a party that had scapegoated foreign buyers during its period in opposition. A content analysis by the author found that Labour Party press releases during their time in opposition never identified groups such as ‘investors’, ‘speculators’, or ‘bankers’ per se as a negative influence, except when negatively coupling these terms with modifiers such as ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’. As we argued at the time, this diverts attention from the vast majority of landlords, speculators, and other profiteers who are Pākehā New Zealanders. Banning foreign buyers was also the only flagship housing policy that Labour delivered on. After this symbolic populist gesture, the unwillingness to confront the forces actually driving the housing crisis remained consistent in the ensuing 4 years.

The biggest symbol of the Labour Party’s failure to fulfil promises on housing is KiwiBuild. This was a policy to build 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years, a goal the government quickly fell behind on. The inadequacy of KiwiBuild has been attacked from the right, particularly by the opposition National Party. The hypocrisy here is breathtaking, after National spent its last two terms in office selling off public housing and doing nothing substantive to address supply issues. Yet the fact that Ardern’s government is attacked from the right should not stop us criticising them from the left. Although this big infrastructure project was portrayed by both supporters and critics as a return to social democratic public housing policy, Joel Cosgrove argued in Fightback at the time of the KiwiBuild policy’s launch that it sought to address the supply problem in a fashion compatible with continuing financialisation of housing assets. Instead of expanding public housing, the policy aimed to expand ‘affordable’ private housing in collaboration with the private sector, by a given value of ‘affordable.’ Fightback quoted prominent left-wing commentator John Minto highlighting the problems with this definition of ‘affordable’:

No low-income family will be able to afford $300,000. These families struggle from week to week and will never be able to save a deposit or meet the mortgage repayments required for home ownership. They are caught in the vicious squeeze between high private rental costs and the government’s impossible criteria for eligibility for a state house

This affordability problem has since been highlighted by Salvation Army head Campbell Roberts, who apparently was involved with a discussion the Labour Party based its policy on, but who considered the numbers the Labour Party generated unrealistic:

Those numbers were just not sustainable. There [weren’t] 100,000 people needing housing if you didn’t do anything about making them affordable.

As of February 2020, there were $26 million of unsold KiwiBuild houses on the government’s books. This would not be an issue if the investment was in public housing for those in need, rather than attempting to reconcile supply and demand on the terms of a warped market.

Another, far more modest yet no less controversial, policy the government has failed to deliver is the Capital Gains Tax. This tax on capital gains acquired through selling assets, such as housing, is not particularly radical (Australia and the USA both have CGTs). Yet given the aggressive entitlement of New Zealand’s property-owning class, and their unwillingness to accept even the smallest incursion on their profit margins, opponents of the policy launched a scaremongering campaign. Then-opposition leader Simon Bridges called it an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”. Ardern’s government dropped the policy in early 2019, ignoring the recommendation of the Tax Working Group the government had formed, citing lack of public mandate. Indeed, public opinion was divided – although a Horizon Poll found 44% for capital gains tax and 35% against, a Reid-Research poll found 39.1% for and 49.8% against (a number that was exaggerated by reporters focusing on answers to questions like whether superannuation should be taxed, or whether the policy should be a priority for the government, rather than simply whether people supported a CGT in general). Yet this was not a clear consensus against the policy as it was portrayed by the right, so much as a divided electorate, with polls turning up shifting results at the margins of that division. Moreover, public opinion shouldn’t be viewed outside the context of the sustained scaremongering campaign from the right, without a sustained pushback from supporters of the policy. Ardern’s unwillingness to take clear positions on contentious issues – as also illustrated by her refusal to disclose her vote in the cannabis referendum until both the referendum, and the election, had wrapped up – takes the conservatism of ‘the public’ for granted, and uses that perceived conservatism as an excuse. Yet public opinion does not form in a vacuum, it is formed through a process of contestation and coalition-forming. Every progressive win, however small, must be fought for. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is not a fighting party, even when it comes to a tax measure that already exists in many neoliberal policies.

Many have praised the Ardern government’s response to COVID. Indeed the government has shown competence in a crisis, taking decisive action based on expert advice, and communicating its decisions clearly (a key reason for the success of lockdown measures is that they were widely understood and supported). Yet as Bronwen Beechey highlighted in a Fightback article at the time:

Although a reasonable effort was made to house rough sleepers in motels, many families spent the lockdown in overcrowded, cold, damp homes. High rents and decades of neglecting or selling off public housing have created a housing crisis. These conditions help coronavirus and other illnesses to spread.

Additionally, as Jacobin‘s Justine Sachs and economist Bernard Hickey highlighted, the government’s crisis response of lowering mortgage rates and pumping up asset values bailed out property owners and businesses while leaving renters in the cold.

Many have argued that Labour’s 2020 landslide victory gave the party a mandate to take stronger measures (particularly after losing the excuse of having to please conservative coalition partner New Zealand First). However, in a way, this electoral victory gave Ardern’s Labour stronger incentives to back away from any confrontation with investors and property owners. Labour was able to win over much of the traditional right’s base, for example winning 15 seats previously held by National. This was likely a reward for both the party’s competent crisis management, and its lack of radical policy measures on issues like housing and climate change. In her acceptance speech, Ardern underlined her commitment to national unity, to govern for “every New Zealander”, and to avoid polarisation:

[T]o those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before and the results tell me there were a few of you. To you I say thank you. We will not take your support for granted. And I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander. The governing for every New Zealander has never been so important more than it has been now. We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope that this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are.

These conciliatory words should be taken at face value: this is not a government willing to risk political polarisation, in other words, a deeply centrist government. As in most countries, the traditional right’s base is primarily white and wealthy, also one of the likeliest groups to vote. Winning over a swathe of wealthier voters gives the party even greater incentive to not tax wealth, or take any other measures that may alienate Labour’s new friends. If Labour took meaningful measures to address the crisis, such as directly taxing wealth or controlling rent, they would risk not only capital flight but voter flight. This is not to say that these policies are unpopular per se, but more specifically that they are unpopular with the prized white and wealthy supporters who Labour has managed to attract.

Labour’s March 2021 release of a new housing policy was typically underwhelming. The policy largely consisted of changes to the tax regime, although stopping short of straightforwardly taxing wealth and property, and instead attempting to incentivise behaviour like new builds. In an article for open-access academic website The Conversation, Public Finance Professor Norman Gemmell argued that these changes to tax policy were “incoherent”, and failed to address the supply problem head on:

If there are better alternatives, they do not lie in even more ad hoc fiddling with a coherent tax regime.

Instead, like the famous real estate mantra of “location, location, location”, the mantra for New Zealand housing policy should be “supply, supply, supply”

Ironically, reader responses to a Guardian callout for NZ readers’ takes on the policy tended to divide into either renters saying this would do nothing to help them, or investors/owners saying it might cut into their margins but was a reasonable compromise. Granted, this is representative of Guardian readers, a group predisposed toward leftish-liberalism, yet the class divide between investors accepting the policy and renters questioning its impact illustrates the compromised nature of the policy. In contrast, economists from major banks such as ANZ and Westpac warned of the impact on higher rent, showing an uncharacteristic concern for the plight of renters. Rent and property prices are already rising astronomically, so this warning seems both disingenuous and to simply suggest that the status quo will continue. Yet this convoluted tax policy is also a clear consequence of Labour backing away from blunter measures like taxing wealth and property in general.

In summary, New Zealand’s Labour government remains constitutionally unwilling to confront the forces driving the housing crisis. Instead, Labour seeks to square the circle of appearing to do something for renters and first-home buyers, but not scaring investors, property owners, and ‘middle voters’ with measures perceived as radical (such as directly taxing wealth, controlling prices, and substantially investing in public housing). As these imperatives cannot be reconciled, Labour has stepped back from substantive measures in favour of “ad hoc fiddling.”

Housing accessibility and human rights



This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

When our landlord issued a 90 day notice of intent to take back occupation of the home my young family had been renting for two years, I did what most people in my generation have had to do at some point; I spent hours of my time desperately scouring real estate websites, publications and new paper listings in hopes of finding another home to rent at a time when demand significantly outstrips supply.

Unlike the majority of hopeful tenants, however, I dismissed most of the available properties without forwarding an application. Instead I went into the Ministry of Social Development and applied for social housing in hope they could make up for the lack of private rental houses that would be even minimally accessible to my mobility impaired daughter.

I was advised to continue looking for private housing and to keep my daughter’s disability a secret to prevent any discomfort from potential landlords. The wait time for social housing would be months, perhaps years, and emergency housing providers would unlikely be able or willing to accommodate a family with our requirements.

By luck we were able to secure a private rental and with some hefty funding for a temporary ramp, hoist system and fancy shower chair, the house was made minimally accessible to her basic care needs.

Housing and erasure

While stories like this are seldom heard in the well chewed-over discussions on housing challenges and solutions, they are hardly isolated.

In October 2017 the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing presented a report on the right to adequate housing for persons with disabilities1. The report highlights the fact that globally, the right to adequate housing remains beyond reach for most persons with disability and that legislation and policy have generally ignored the need for action to protect the right to housing for disabled people.

For people with disabilities, being unable to access suitable and secure housing compromises the choices available to them within their communities. If housing cannot be secured, a person may be forced into living with family members beyond a time period that they feel is appropriate. If housing is not suitably accessible, or cannot be reasonably modified to enable independence, a person may find themselves reliant on disability support workers. If housing is not located convenient to community facilities, support, employment or reliable and accessible public transport, a person with disabilities may find themselves isolated and struggling to participate fully in society.This creates vulnerability as disabled people are forced into situations where they cannot fully exercise their human rights. and reinforces harmful narratives of the burden of disability on society.

In such a society disabled people are actively erased. While 2013 census data estimated that a total of 1.1 million people, or 24% of New Zealanders were disabled it is estimated that only 2% of our housing stock is accessible. As the United Nations report says: “Most housing and development is designed as if persons with disabilities do not exist, will not live there or deserve no consideration”.

While numerous organisations and consumer groups representing various disabled groups have highlighted the urgent need for minimum accessibility standards and action for access to adequate housing, little meaningful action has occured at Government level. Housing accessibility is protected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities2, to which New Zealand is a signatory. It is therefore fundamental to our responsibilities to Disabled People that any future policy or initiatives intended to address housing be centred around ensuring a minimum level of accessibility.

Is KiwiBuild accessible?

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life3. When comparing the cost of incorporating Universal Design into new builds against the cost of retrofitting those same builds, it soon becomes clear that failure to ensure accessibility in housing policy and initiatives is not only creating undue hardship to to persons with disability, but it is a poor economic choice in the longterm. According to the research, testing and consulting organisation BRANZ (www.branz.co.nz), building using concepts of Universal Design would add little additional cost (around $3,000 per dwelling). Yet retrofitting a building that has not been built to an accessible standard may well cost over $20,000.

The much-lauded KiwiBuild programme has made no assurances to or carried out consultation with any of the organisations representing disabled people. This seems at best counter productive to the purpose of state funded housing projects, and at worst a significant breach of Human Rights. A society that intends to be inclusive must begin with fully accessible communities, including access to housing for disabled people, and also “visitablity” – the ability to access the homes of friends, family and community members to ensure full and uncompromised participation in society.

The costs of not building new homes or carrying out renovations to a minimum standard of accessibility are significant, and in New Zealand that cost falls upon our already very stretched Health system. Funding for modifications is difficult and time-consuming to access, has strict limits that place financial burdens on disabled people and their families, and is not accessible to people who are unable to secure stable long term accommodation.

Recently Phil Twyford, the Minister championing the Kiwibuild programme was invited to speak at the Universal Design Conference of 2018. While his speech conveyed his recognition of the challenges of access to housing to that disabled people face and a need to ensure a diversity of housing stock to meet a diversity of need and family structure, it is concerning that no firm commitment has been made to ensure that a minimum standard of accessibility will be applied to the Kiwibuild programme.

Community connections

It was also announced in September this year that a new social housing development has been planned for Otara, incorporating features to meet the needs of disabled tenants. While 71 apartments have been planned for the development, only seven ground level apartments have been specifically planned to accommodate mobility impaired individuals. While there are many disabilities and needs beyond mobility impairment, this does not reflect that 14% of New Zealanders (over half of the disability community) have a mobility impairment.

Moreover, for people with disability, the ability to maintain connections with their communities and supports are vital. Creating separate communities for disabled people to exist in, rather than ensuring all housing provides the ability to accommodate all disabilities, forces people with disabilities to be cut off from their supports, their communities and to remain invisible.

As a carer the strain of inadequate housing cannot be understated. It has created an ongoing cycle of instability and crisis for our family. The struggle to find adequate housing in our local community has forced us to sever ties with our support networks, deal with transfer and inconsistency of service provision and case management, feel frequently vulnerable and exposed having unfamiliar care staff coming into our home, and struggle to find inclusive social situations. The lack of access to fully accessible housing or to state funded modifications has required that my physical safety and the safety of my child be compromised in the process of providing basic care.

Leaving disabled people vulnerable and without choices, and placing additional strain on their families and carers by failing to ensure adequate housing, continues to result in terrible human rights abuses for people with disabilities. We have a responsibility and the capability to ensure that adequate and secure housing is an accessible right for all.

Sprawl still the plan in post-quake Christchurch

sprawl chch

Source: Stuff.

Byron Clark is an activist based in Ōtautahi / Christchurch.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To susbcribe to our publications, click here.

Six years on from the earthquake that levelled much of the city, the population of Christchurch has almost returned to pre-quake levels. As with everywhere in New Zealand, house prices are up, but rents have fallen slightly from the high point of the city’s accommodation crisis.

Construction is now more common than destruction. In fact, much of the recent population growth has been driven by skilled tradespeople moving to Christchurch from overseas and elsewhere in New Zealand to participate in the rebuild.

The story of Greater Christchurch is different, however. When people moved out of the city following the quakes, many didn’t move very far. While Christchurch’s population declined, the surrounding districts of Waimakariri and Selwyn swelled. These continue to be popular destinations for people searching for relatively cheaper homes than those offered in the city.

In the past year, the population of the Waimakariri District grew 3.7 per cent, and that of Selwyn District 6.6 per cent. This compares to 1.9% for Christchurch City. Even before the earthquake, almost half the population from these districts either side of the city commuted to work in Christchurch. The northern motorway into Christchurch now sees 50,000 cars a day – 10,000 more than before the earthquakes.

Waimakariri is now the South Island’s third largest population centre, bigger than Nelson and Invercargill. However, the regional council (Environment Canterbury, aka ECan) has been ineffectual at providing transport options. In 2014 commuter rail was ruled out as the $10 million price tag was seen as too expensive. Yet currently, $900 million worth of motorway projects are happening around Christchurch.

Despite some bus priority lanes in the northern suburb of Belfast, public transport commuting from North Canterbury is no quicker than travelling in a private motor vehicle. Buses are an option mainly used by those without the option of a car.

Meanwhile, the new commuter town of Pegasus, promoted as a place where one could “live where you play”, was a spectacular flop. The development shifted hands from one property developer to another while those who bought homes there never got the promised amenities such as a supermarket – let alone the yacht club and equestrian centre that were promoted in advertising for the town.

Now a new development, Ravenswood, is about to begin construction. Larger but less ambitious than Pegasus, artists’ conceptions of Ravenswood depict – refreshingly honestly – enormous car parks surrounding the buildings in the commercial area. Anchor tenants have already been found: a supermarket, a petrol station and a fast food outlet. Ravenswood in its current conception depicts an anachronistic model of suburban living that is not sustainable in the twenty-first century.

In the south-west of the city, while commuting times might be shorter (thanks in part to an already completed motorway project) the same suburban story is told. Writing in The Press, Philip Matthews describes the new subdivisions of former farmland:

“Wigram Skies and other new suburbs tell you that the near future will still be car based. These are not pedestrian suburbs. You rarely see anyone walking. The monotony of housing is broken by occasional playgrounds and childcare centres but there are no corner stores and few community facilities. No churches. Shopping is the communal activity.”

The rebuild of the central city has looked more positive. With a new bus station and cycle lanes separated from the roads, Christchurch is starting to look like a modern city should. However, most central city apartment complexes and town houses have been priced out of reach for all but the wealthy, with some priced as high as $1.5 million.

The boarding houses and bedsits that once provided shelter to the inner-city poor are gone, and social housing hasn’t filled the gap. The City Council had 2649 council homes for rent at the start of September 2010, but only 2292 available for rent as of 11th December 2016, according to figures from an Official Information Act request obtained by the State Housing Action Network. Meanwhile, central government plans to sell 2,500 state houses in the city.

We need to stand for Niki, because she is standing up for you


Source: Stuff.

Vanessa Cole is a member of the Tāmaki Housing Action Group.

This article will be published in Fightback’s magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to City. To subscribe, click here.

Elderly tenant Ioela ‘Niki’ Rauti has made headlines for refusing to be moved from her house on Taniwha Street, Glen Innes. While she has received support from many people, the backlash from some commentators have tried to derail her struggle by framing her as selfish for holding on to a three-bedroom home during a housing crisis. Niki’s struggle is not an individual struggle, but a struggle of people against the processes of capital accumulation and its manifestation in the state-led gentrification of Tāmaki.

In The New Zealand Experiment, Jane Kelsey shows New Zealand’s historical habit of blindly following economic ideas that had never been trialled elsewhere in the world. The Tāmaki experiment is much the same – adopting urban planning and privatisation which have failed internationally. The transfer of 2,800 state houses in Tāmaki (Panmure, Point England and Glen Innes) to the Tāmaki Redevelopment Company (TRC) is privatisation by stealth. The insidious language used by the TRC frames this transfer as urban ‘regeneration’ – a grand project which will see the building of more homes and the revitalising of a community which embodies the problems associated with the geographical concentration of poverty.

The experiment in Tāmaki is a well-orchestrated campaign. The reality of these policies, without the spin, is mass privatisation of state housing, the displacement of the poor through state-led gentrification processes, and destruction of working class communities by private developers into a desirable and attractive landscape for an incoming middle-class. If Tāmaki was the experiment for the rest of Auckland, and for the rest of New Zealand, then it is a failed experiment. While the redevelopment has received public attention and criticism, the discourses and myths produced by the Government are powerful in justifying and dampen the violence of dispossession.

Paula Bennett promised that freeing up public land by removing state homes in Tāmaki and building more houses will help alleviate the exorbitant increases in house prices and build more houses for those in need. Yes, more houses have been built, but providing public land to private developers has led to exploding unaffordability. The median land values in Glen Innes, one of the first areas to be redeveloped, have increased from $400,000 to nearly 1 million since the redevelopment begun in 2012. The housing market in Tāmaki demonstrates that increasing supply and density of housing does not necessitate affordability. One reasons is that our existing affordable housing (state housing) is being replaced by a large amount of private housing, and property developers are not interested in the reduced profits of “affordability.” State housing once functioned to stabilise the housing market in particular areas, meaning that surrounding rental properties were cheaper. Very few people will be able to rent an affordable house in Tāmaki once this project is completed, particularly if landlords continue to capitalise on the increasing land values in the area.

As for the argument that “mixed-tenure communities” will provide better access to resources for the poor and solve the social problems facing unevenly developed communities. Most of the international research suggests that this new urban planning logic does the complete opposite. The logic of social mixing is built on classist ideas of middle-class neighbours teaching the poor how to behave and providing aspiration for mobility. This is a logic which ignores the economic processes which occur when capital moves into low-income communities, processes which lead to displacement and social cleansing.

Developers in Tāmaki have to build a certain proportion of social and affordable houses as part of the deal of buying and accessing cheap public land. Their main goal, however, is to profit from speculating on land value increases. While the TRC have promised tenants that they can remain in the area, this was a reluctant concession following years of community resistance, and does not account for other forms of eviction through the Social Housing Reform Programme (SHRP) which begun in 2013.

The establishment of a social housing market by means of transferring state housing to Community Housing Providers (CHPs) is occurring under the rhetoric of efficiency. Tāmaki Regeneration, a company set up to regenerate and redevelop Tāmaki, is now one of these new ‘social’ landlords, given 2,800 households to manage. As part of the company Tāmaki Housing Limited Partnership manage the tenancies, and Tāmaki Regeneration Limited are in charge of redevelopment. The Government will argue that this is not privatisation as the TRC is currently owned by the New Zealand Government (29.5% Bill English, 29.5% Nick Smith) and Auckland Council (41%). The TRC, however, was set up in the interim period to manage the properties and the tenancies. Soon, however, the tenancies will be transferred to various different social housing providers and the land will eventually be sold to developers and investors to build the mixed tenure housing.

If we look to the UK, this process of transferring management of public housing stock to private organisations lead in many cases to privatisation. Without sufficient subsidies to support management of properties, private developers are the only organisations that can withstand the costs. The Salvation Army have already backed down from taking on state housing stock for this very reason. The most concerning issue here is the foreshadowing of large scale privatisation in which the private market is held as the sole supplier of the basic human right to housing.

While we are promised to reap the benefits and efficiencies of privatisation, history has shown that the private market does not provide affordable and secure housing for the working class and unemployed. Housing is a right, and an essential material need. To sell it off to private developers or transfer it to private housing providers is to commodify something that should be for living. When Niki is standing up against the redevelopment of her home, she is standing up against the economic processes by which capital dispossesses the poor for the profit of the rich. We need to resist the narratives of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and fight for the right of all to affordable, secure and public housing. We need to unite to dispel the myths of regeneration and to fight the historical and continual dispossession of people by capital. We need to stand with Niki, because she is standing for you.

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.

Housing: ‘Aww, poor thing’ – A victory for the loudest Aucklanders in the room

housing auckland

Fightback supports the universal right to housing, including expansion of high-density, high-quality public housing, and strict price controls on privately owned houses. This article by Alex Johnston, reprinted from The Spinoff, makes a case for high-density urban housing in Auckland.

Yesterday the democratic deficit present in Auckland’s local body politics was well and truly evident. In a room of 150 middle-aged, middle-class property owners, my colleague Flora Apulu and I presented to the Auckland Council governing body on behalf of the Youth Advisory Panel.

You wouldn’t think it looking at the demographics of those present, but we were the voice of the roughly half a million Aucklanders under the age of 24. It was a voice that we on the Panel believe has been sidelined in the Unitary Plan debate about how Auckland provides more housing both now and in the future.

We talked about the urgent need to provide more housing choices so that young people can have places to live that are affordable, connected to good transport and with access to employment, study and opportunity.

When Flora, justifiably nervous with the responsibility and the tense atmosphere in the room, pointed out that we were the youngest people present by a lot, and that she felt the “weight of our generation” on her shoulders, she was met with heckles of “poor thing” and “aww” from the crowd. I would like to believe that some of that was genuine sympathy and not sarcasm or condescension. However the vociferous response we got through the rest of our presentation – when mentioning the struggles young people face with housing and conveying the impression that property owners are pulling the ladder up behind them – would suggest otherwise.

The disappointing thing about the controversy surrounding late changes to Council’s submission on the zoning plans was that (some) property owners’ voices were given greater weight than those already shut out from the housing market. There were plenty of submissions that called for broad intensification across the city or even in specific suburbs, which were reflected in the zoning changes. But these were outweighed by the fact that some who found the zone of their own property changed in order to meet the need of the entire city hadn’t been directly consulted on.

The outcome of the meeting left the Council removing the zoning changes from their own submission on the Unitary Plan, and still leaving a deficit of around 200,000 houses over the next 30 years.This is something that can hopefully be addressed now that the Unitary Plan sits with an Independent Hearings Panel, who will hear the evidence from all sides and try to meet the requirements of our city’s burgeoning population.

For me, addressing the housing crisis in Auckland doesn’t need to be something that causes generational conflict. But the treatment of real issues that young people face when it comes to housing, and our attempt to convey that and present a solution while being shouted down, reveals a broader narrative of resistance to change that lies beneath the complaints about lack of process.

This was interestingly brought to attention by a tweet by mayoral candidate Victoria Crone following our presentation to the Council:

Respectfully, it is my view that our treatment by the audience showed that many do not understand youth issues, since they were not willing to listen to what we had to say. As Crone acknowledged later, we weren’t even Generation Zero – their presentation was to come later.

Young people have had less ability to organise and submit around the Unitary Plan – our time is focused on getting by week by week. Indeed, turning up to that meeting required both Flora and I to take time off work. Thinking 10 years ahead about what type of zone might be better so that we can still live in Auckland when we move out of our parents’ houses takes a lot of forethought, time and resources.

But it’s not just our voice that needs to be given more weight. It is the voice of renters who make up half of Auckland’s population, of the working poor, who are being pushed into further and further away suburbs, of elderly who need housing options to stay in their communities when downsizing.

The Unitary Plan affects all Aucklanders, and our concerns need to be taken seriously, but yesterday, it was the loudest voice in the room that won.

Hot bedding, sex-for-rent and $170 bunks: The rental crisis in Auckland


by Fiona O’Callaghan

Just over a year ago, I was living in a garage. It was renovated to the extent that it had been carpeted and the interior walls gyprocked (but not painted) and the entrance filled with a ranchslider. I had to go up to the main house if I wanted to use the toilet, shower or cook anything beyond toasting or microwaving. I was paying $180 per week. The garage had been divided into two “flats” with another tenant paying the same amount for the other one. There was a couple living in the main house paying $250 per week, and another tenant in a portable cabin paying $180 as well.

I was there for two years, then two days after Christmas received an email from the landlord, giving me two weeks’ notice. She and her husband had been living in one of their other properties, and had decided to sell up and move back to the house. She said she wanted to turn my part of the garage into a home office. When I told her that legally she had to give 60 days’ notice (confirmed by the Tenancy Advice line) I received a phone call and a tirade of abuse. She claimed that the property was classed as a “boarding house” and therefore she could give 48 hours’ notice if she wished. She eventually agreed to give me three weeks to find somewhere else. Fortunately, I was able to find a room in a shared house which was not only cheaper, but I could use the kitchen and bathroom without having to brave the weather.

A few weeks after I moved out, the room was advertised on Trade Me as a “renovated” garage (i.e. it had been painted inside and the carpet upgraded) for $200 per week.

According to Trade Me Property, in the 5 years from December 2010 to December 2015, rents in Auckland increased by 26.9 per cent. The average rental for an apartment at December 2015 was $450 per week, $400 for a 1-2 bedroom house, $550 for a 3-4 bedroom house. At the same time, the increasing property prices have put home ownership out of reach of the majority of working people, increasing pressure on the rental market. Particularly hard hit are those on low incomes, particularly students, beneficiaries or sole parents.

The New Zealand Bureau of Statistics defines homelessness as “Living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.” An Auckland Council study in 2014 estimated around 15,000 people in the greater Auckland area were “severely housing deprived.” This includes people sleeping rough, but the majority are “hidden homeless” – people living in garages, cars, caravan parks, in overcrowded or damp houses, “couch surfing” or staying with friends or relatives.

In a situation like this, exploitation by some landlords is inevitable. In the last few weeks, there have been reports of owners of inner-city apartments advertising shared rooms with 3 or for others, or even “hot bedding” where two shift workers take turns to sleep in the same bed when the other is at work. Recently, a Trade Me advertisement offered a lower bunk bed in a two-bedroom Queen Street apartment for $175 per week. The advertisement said that the top bunk was occupied by a 20-year-old Japanese woman, and that they wanted a female flatmate who would “preferably stay in the bottom bunk alone.” The advertiser, who has since withdrawn the listing, told the NZ Herald that “There are many other listings, if you search on Trade Me, with the same format. It’s very hard and expensive to live in Auckland.”

More concerning are reports of “sex-for-rent” arrangements, where young women are offered accommodation in return for sexual favours. Advertisements have appeared on the North American Craigslist internet site, offering free accommodation for young women. One in central Auckland offered a “nice place to share”. It continued, “I won’t charge any money. Instead I would like to have some real fun.” Another ad from a “sincere and genuine middle aged, divorced guy” asked for an Asian female student to share a 1 bedroom “upmarket” North Shore apartment for free, with “electricity, water, wifi broadband also included, also includes companionship by mutual arrangement”.

Sandz Peipi Te Pou, national manager of TOAH-NNEST sexual violence prevention network, told the NZ Herald: Our concern is that the power dynamic of someone paying the rent could put people in a position where it’s hard to say ‘no’ to sex they don’t want.”

Unlike many European countries, where renting is the norm and tenants have more protection, renting in New Zealand has been regarded as a temporary situation on the path to home ownership. Those who couldn’t afford to buy could access state housing. However, with the sell-off of Housing New Zealand properties and the overheated property market, private renting is becoming the only option for many.

The government has introduced changes to the Residential Tenancies Act which include the requirement that from July 2016 all social housing properties, and all rental properties from July 2019, be insulated “where it can be practically installed”. It also requires that from July 2016, smoke alarms be installed in all rental properties, and strengthens provisions against “retaliatory notice” (where a landlord evicts tenants for complaining about breaches of the Act). This is not going to make a great deal of difference to the majority of tenants. It is already against the law to rent out a damp house, or threaten to throw tenants out for complaining about it, but in a housing crisis where rental properties are scarce, tenants will put up with poor housing conditions rather than risk becoming homeless.

The Green Party has introduced a private members bill to amend the Residential Tenancies Act. It proposes minimum standards of warmth, dryness and safety for all rental properties, restricts rental increases to once every 12 months and set a standard minimum three-year fixed tenancy (with provisions for both parties to set a term of their choice). However, the bill has to be drawn from the ballot of private members’ bills before it can be debated, and given that the National and Act defeated the proposed Rental Warrant of Fitness last year, would be unlikely to pass. Even if it did, it allows two years for social housing owners, and four years for private property owners, to get their properties up to standard.

None of the major political parties are attempting to address the structural issues that are causing the rental crisis – such as the fact that the housing market has become a vehicle for profiteering by wealthy investors, and the privatization of public housing.

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.


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.


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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