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Chris Ford: Message To National - Don't Sell State Housing Stock

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

National's Housing Minister Phil Heatley last week announced plans to offer some of the existing state housing stock to tenants. While fine in principle, what this policy really means is the undermining of the public housing system as we know it.

While National should be congratulated for not having re-introduced market rents for state housing as its 1990-99 predecessor had done, it still has an ideological view that the state should ideally not be involved in providing housing whatsoever. The policy posture it has adopted in terms of insulating and renovating thousands of existing state housing units at the same time is a pragmatic one at best.

I can't but help get the feeling though that National, in the long term, doesn't want to own the same number of units as there are now. Its newly announced policy of offering homes for sale to existing tenants is but one way of cutting down the available number of units available within the community at a time when more families and individuals are financially suffering due to the recession in terms of not being to afford mortgage repayments and with mortgagee sales on the rise, more families (particularly those on low incomes) are on waiting lists.

Heatley and his officials at Housing New Zealand Corporation (HNZC)argue that through offering homes to existing long-term tenants more funds will be raised in order to invest in building or leasing new housing stock to cope with the expected recession drive rise in demand. The reality is that this isn't going to happen as on the other hand, the Government has just released new policy calling for the HNZC to 'talk' (i.e. pressure) mainly elderly or single clients who live in homes with more than one bedroom to vacate them for more 'appropriate' accomodation so that families on the waiting list can be moved in.

While I admit that the waiting list for HNZC properties is long, what we need to do is engage in the development of more positive housing policies. One such policy is the need for a massive state house building programme to meet this growing demand and in doing so accomodation should be comfortable, warm and adequately meet the needs of various groups. This should be an ongoing programme which will be flexible enough to meet changing demographic trends (with an ageing population.) This ongoing state house building programme should be funded by the taxpayer and through corporation investments and should act as a stimulus to the depressed building industry in a time of recession.

Furthermore, future units should be built in areas other than just the low income ghettoes where most state housing seems to be concentrated in now. The vision of the father of the original state housing programme, the late great socialist and Labour MP John A. Lee, was to 'pepper pot' or spread state housing units across urban and rural areas regardless of their socioeconomic disposition so as to avoid the ghettoisation and marginalisation of state housing tenants as exists today. Through living in more mixed communities (and better planned ones with more community spaces), a greater sense of community will hopefully arise across class lines as Lee had envisaged during the time of the first Labour Government in the 1930s. Therefore, if a policy like this were to be adopted then crime and other anti-social behaviours could be stemmed. In the modern world, cities like Sao Paolo, whose left-wing PT (Workers) Party-led city council introduced such a policy have witnessed vast improvements in social wellbeing through the introduction of more socioeconomically mixed communities.

In tandem with a more enlightened public housing policy should come a recognition that beneficiaries and low income workers should be able to buy their own homes and I mean not their own existing state properties which they should agree to vacate as part of any agreement to buy another property. This country should look once more at introducing low-interest loans in terms of the former 3% mortgages which used to be offered by the State Advances Corporation and its successor the Housing Corporation to low income people. While the 'Welcome Home' loan scheme introduced by Labour was a welcome first step in that regard, what is needed is for that programme to effectively be extended to offer the old 3% subsidised housing loans. This will act to take the pressure off the public housing system and at the same time give people who could not otherwise afford to buy their own homes and build up a small amount of additional capital the chance to do so.

The simple thing I'm trying to say to both John Key and Phil Heatley is stop the sale of state housing and engage in a more positive, progressive state housing policy. Besides, didn't Key go on at great length about his state house upbringing during last year's election campaign? If he's true to his roots and continues to see the value of public housing and extending the concept of home ownership to those who can least afford it, then Key should instruct Heatley to reverse course on this policy - but somehow I doubt whether this will happen.

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