The government’s housing message dilemma

John Key was across the media yesterday, trying to tamp down suggestions the Budget would do anything at all to address the housing “issue” which everyone else in New Zealand has accepted is a crisis. The lines are familiar: there’s no quick fix (so no point doing anything at all), Kiwis are more interested in other things (… which my government has also failed to do anything about.)

Unfortunately, 76% of people and even 61% of National voters don’t think enough is being done to address the fact there are families with newborn children living in cars in Godzone. And the usual lines are ringing more and more hollow.

Watching Key on Breakfast yesterday, it felt like he was honestly surprised at the backlash on housing. At the way his brush-offs and shrugs weren’t met with a jolly laugh and a diversion into What Max Has Been Up To With That New Hair.

But that’s fair enough. Looking at the polls and broad media narrative for the past eight years, we – the embodied Common Sense of Middle New Zealand – have accepted an awful lot of stuff from this government.

We accepted that beneficiaries should be drug tested, and forced into work before their babies are even school aged. We accepted that social housing could be better run by the private sector, and that imposing basic standards on private rentals would hurt landlords too much.

We accepted that it was too difficult to get rid of zero hour contracts – until it wasn’t – and that health and safety shouldn’t apply to “low risk” endeavours like farming – unless worms were involved – and that giving new parents a full 26 weeks paid time with their babies was way too expensive.

We accepted that a surplus was the most important thing a government could deliver, and that there was nothing wrong with the price of housing, especially in Auckland.

For eight (long) years there’s been little mainstream pushback against the ideas that ordinary people deserve near-zero support from their community, and the market must not be meddled with.

But this week John Key has looked up and everyone’s staring at him saying “WTF, mate? People are living in cars? We’re putting them up in motels so their kids can sleep in a bed for once and we’re charging them for the privilege? What the hell is going on and why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

And I don’t think he really knows what to do.

I’m not going over the top to declare The Honeymoon Is Over or try to sell a 1.6% drop in Key’s preferred-PM rating as A Catastrophic Landslide Of Support. I’m definitely biased, and seriously frustrated after eight years of a government which oscillates between do-nothing when people are struggling to feed their families and men-of-action when Saudi billionaires throw temper tantrums.

But the same old lines aren’t working. The discontent is getting mainstream. And John Key may no longer have all the answers.

The Epsom Paradox

After watching several of my Twitter buddies disbelievingly live-tweet the ridiculous proceedings around the Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan the other night, I had some thoughts. The good folks of Twitter liked them, so I decided to expand on them in a post. Here it is!

The angry-making thing about the Epsom Paradox is it’s not hypocrisy. It’s pure cynicism. It’s the logical end behaviour of an ideology which believes the rich and powerful are inherently more deserving, more equal, more important than those people who live in “welfare suburbs”. The belief is not, “deregulation is good”; it’s “deregulation is good when it’s good for me.”

So when I want to build a set of leaky apartment buildings, sell them to unsuspecting people and then pull out of the shell company that holds all the liability, deregulation should let me do that. The market, after all, will somehow find a way to correct for massive issues which only become apparent years after I’ve made my profits and retired to a tropical island.

But when my next-door neighbour wants to put up a couple of townhouses on the back of their section, blocking MY view and meaning other people might be able to see into MY yard, well, that’s a travesty! An infringement on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness! Don’t you know some of those people might be not rich?

I don’t want any of this to be taken as arguments inherently for or against development or intensification. Those aren’t my areas of expertise, and I can only speak from personal anecdata. I live on the back half of a subdivided section; I think the builders did a tremendous job of balancing the space and outdoor areas and maintaining good privacy between the two houses. I’ve also seen rows of townhouses crammed onto every inch of flat space on a section, where comfort and any thought of an outdoor lifestyle was clearly sacrificed for maximising the cash to be made.

I’m a big government kind of girl. I don’t think government, central nor local, always gets things right, but I hold two things to be true: we need to be smarter about how we use land and design housing; and the best way to ensure we do that properly is to be strategic about it. You don’t get much strategy telling the property developers of the world “go for your life, and in 20 years when there aren’t any kauri left on private property in the Waitakere Ranges the market will shed a single perfect tear.”

And the Epsom Paradox shows that there isn’t a strategy at the heart of private property profiteers. They just want to make money off the people who have no power to say no, and protect their own idyllic patches. It’s selfish and short-sighted, and if you ever want one sentence that sums up everything wrong with our current government and many of our local body politicians, look no further.

The ultimate proof of their short-sightedness is this: because the boomerbabies made a great hue and cry over Auckland Council’s rezoning proposals, the Council has withdrawn their submission. So at the next round of hearings on the Unitary Plan, the Council has no argument to put forward – but other organisations like Housing NZ do, and their suggestions are a lot worse for the leafy suburb-dwellers.

Too bad for them.

Who is the left’s Rodney Hide?

I had some thoughts on Rodney Hide’s latest column in the Herald on Sunday:

And they kept developing so I figured I had the makings of a blog post there!

Who’s the left’s Rodney Hide? I submit we don’t have one. Many people have equally-extreme leftwing views, but not a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday. Hide is a commentator – not a blogger. There’s a lot of authority in that distinction, and a lot more influence.

We have some great progressive commentators – like Michele A’Court, Dr Susan St John, Deborah Russell. They get some column space and a few TV spots. But they’re usually talking about real issues. (Shocking!) Rodney Hide talks in narratives. Like redefining the word “industrious” to mean “people with a lot of money”. Or reinforcing the idea that the only good thing is economic value, and the only proper frame for deciding what’s right and wrong is profit and loss.

He’s not discussing a real issue or a concrete policy. He’s tearing down a reverend who dared to say money isn’t everything, and people’s lives are more important than one man’s wealth. The rightwing narrative is so entrenched that we don’t even notice that he’s basically arguing against everything Jesus ever said.

There are staunch left commentators – like Helen Kelly and Robert Reid – who get op eds and panel seats on The Nation or Q&A. But they aren’t the equivalent of Rodney Hide, because they’re not actually extreme. They talk about fairness and decent working conditions, not, say, the immediate need for compulsory unionism and the renationalisation of all private property.

And some people who get to comment “from the left” are significantly to the right of Labour.

daenerys fire

Across the Anglo world, we’ve seen rightwing parties get into power and stay in power, despite passing harmful, often unpopular policies, because (in part) they’ve got a loud voice on their right making them look reasonable by comparison. The UK Tories have UKIP, National have ACT, the US Republicans have the Tea Party.

(They’ve also got a lot more money and convinced us all that economics is a hard science, but baby steps!)

The respective Labour/Democratic parties have chased the ever-moving-rightwards centre – conceding the basic argument that the economy is more important than people. Not only that, they’ve usually been the most vigorous opposers of their own left flank.

leo west wing what are you doing
This plays out every time Young Labour put forward a remit on, well, anything. Instead of rolling out MPs to say “no, that’s stupid”, these are opportunities for Labour to go “well it’s a bit extreme, but” then re-affirm its leftwing principles and announce a toned-down version as reasonable, progressive policy.

That is, do what National do when their right flank calls for total privatisation of state assets – “oh no, but what about selling off 49% of the shares in them?” – or a flat tax – “oh, that’s too far, but what about slashing the top rate?”

Expand the frame of available, credible opinions and declare yourself in the middle.

It may seem difficult in practice, because anyone from the left is automatically “less credible” than a taxpayer-rorting ex-MP like Rodney Hide. But our media are crying out for a drawcard, in this age of falling ad revenue and social media distractions. They want drama.

Look at the Goff vs Collins segment on Stuff: the idea (however well you think it’s executed) is to get a bit of argy-bargy going, post something which will simultaneously outrage the lefties and the righties, and voila: more eyeballs on product. Consider Radio NZ’s Panel, which gets a lot more buzz among the #nzpol blogosphere when it’s not Matthew Hooton vs Mike “I agree with Matthew” Williams. Want to get the left and the right tuning in? Have a real argument. That means having real differences of opinion.

gladiator entertained

I think there’s space for a few more staunch, out-there leftwing voices in our discourse. But there’s a final wrinkle: it only works if Labour wants it to. Only if we want to be the party which puts people first, and isn’t afraid of doing the right thing even when the high priests of the economy scream the sky will fall, which refuses to play the right’s game on their terms.

Find the right people. Put them up there. Shift the centre. Or it’s just going to be two more years of Rodney Hide making it easier and easier for National to get that fourth term.

What do you earn?

Helen Kelly linked to an advice column in the Herald which suggests that while it’s perfectly okay to ask people how much they paid for their house, it’s a no-no to ask about their income.

It’s a great collision between two myths which reinforce a lot of terrible ideas we’re told about people, and value, and solidarity.

Of course you can ask people – with proper etiquette – what they paid for their house. House-buyingness is next to godliness. Buy a house young and you’re an entrepreneur. Own multiple properties and preach the virtues of “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” and you get headlines. There’s no shame in owning one house, five houses, or making millions of dollars literally being subsidized by a state which won’t provide decent housing for people in need.

But there’s plenty of shame in asking people what they earn. That’s private information, after all, and you’re an individual standing on your own two feet and by god, if other people (who aren’t as good and productive as you) find out what you get, they’ll try to steal it!

Or as advice columnist Lee Suckling put it:

Asking somebody about his or her salary is far less permissible. This is purely because it’s none of your business.

The only people that need to know how much you earn are your boss and your spouse.

It’s the gospel of self-interest. You’re an individual. You’re think as an individual. You function as a good little rational economic unit working purely for its own gain.

One of the terrible aspects of our current system is how it unnaturally pits us against each other. You certainly shouldn’t look at the other people working around you and think “we’re in this together. We’re in the same situation! We should be treated fairly and given the same pay for doing the same work.” They’re not comrades. They’re competition!

We’re meant to take it on faith that each of us – the “you” who has to protect your good deal from the avarice of your fellow labourers – is getting the best deal. And we’re meant to see this as a good thing, because the boss wants us to sit at his table in the cafeteria, not them.

We’re meant to trust that the boss is properly sharing his or her profits with the people who created them. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t.

That’s what a lot of people working at Google discovered when Erica Baker created a shared spreadsheet of the salaries of people working at the company. Surprise surprise – they found people weren’t being paid equally for their work. And apparently managers at Google didn’t like this. Erica Baker isn’t working there any more.

The defensiveness is kind of understandable, but also shows the benefits of transparency for everyone involved. We know about unconscious bias. Most people don’t twirl their moustaches and announce “I’m going to pay women less because I hate them”. They don’t realise they’re doing it until it’s all laid out in front of them. And if they think of themselves as good people who aren’t sexist or racist, etc, it can be a shock to discover you were being sexist or racist, etc, in practice.

(In the same way, I doubt Lee Suckling sat down at his keyboard and thought “Haha! How can I reinforce a cult of individual self-interest today? Muahahahaha!”)

A final point: if you’re in a unionised workplace with a collective agreement – and I acknowledge they’re the minority – you do see what your coworkers are earning. You know that the same job is paid at the same rate, or that everyone in your team sits in the same pay band. It doesn’t ruin morale.

What do we see when the people in a workplace or industry are in the union? Higher wages, better conditions, and fairer pay for men and women.

the incredibles coincidence

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep on being impolite. Because “politeness” is capitalism’s way of tricking us into not comparing notes and realising just how much we’re all getting exploited.

No fix for housing affordability as long as we ignore what’s actually affordable

Housing affordability has been a huge issue in New Zealand for a long time, but some extra fuel has been added to the fire by a recent survey which shows housing in Auckland is less affordable than in New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo.

The survey ranked 378 cities in nine countries and considered the cities affordable if the median house price was a maximum of three times more than the median annual household income.

Auckland’s median house price is $613,000 – 8.2 times the median income of $75,100.

There are a lot of reasons for housing being unaffordable – property speculators driving the prices to ridiculous levels, a National-led government which would love to see wages drop – and a lot of different solutions, depending on whether you listen to the people who make money flipping property (open up more land to development, relax regulations on the building industry) or the people who care about people (a living wage, more stringent taxation on speculation).

Personally I think anyone who looks at Auckland and goes “you know what this city needs to do? Sprawl more!” needs to be banned from ever commenting on Auckland issues because they clearly don’t live/have never lived there (or at least, not in the sprawl they proclaim to love).

Principally I’m concerned by the relaxed attitude Mayor Len Brown seems to have:

He defines “affordable” as under $500,000, which is still more than six times the median household income, but insists more options are being developed.

“A good number of [new apartments] are high $200,000s to low $400,000 purchase prices, and what we’re seeing with those developments is they are selling out,” says Mr Brown.

“The most recent example I’ve got is that the St James apartment development, which is being built in conjunction with the renovating of the great old St James theatre. That’s only just come on for pre-sale, and it’s already pre-sold by half – and they haven’t even started the project.”

I immediately question whether the kinds of people who can pre-buy apartments which haven’t even started construction are the kind of hardworking/struggling/middle-New-Zealand families who find it impossible to get their first home – if only because banks demand a far higher deposit on apartments. Even if you’re talking only $280k for the place, you may need to find over $80k just to get your foot in the door.

And it brings to mind what I was saying just yesterday about taking numbers out of context: what use is it knowing that unbuilt apartments are selling like hotcakes unless we ask who is buying them? What proportion are first-home-buyers? New Zealand-based investors? Overseas-based investors? Corporate interests?

But the other problem is this: Brown defines “affordable” as “under $500k”. This is a common bit of silliness in the house-price debate, with even Labour under David Shearer declaring that “affordable” covered everything from $300,000 on-average-per-house to $550,000 for a single-family home.

The problem is, the Demographia survey defines “affordable housing” as a median price of no more than three times the median household income. Across New Zealand, for the year ending 30 June 2014, that was $72,394 – giving an “affordable” median price of $217,000. For Auckland, as quoted above, it’s $75,100 – a bit higher, but we’re still talking a median of $225,000.

Building a lot of apartments in the “high 200s to low 400s” might drag the current obscenely-high median lower, but it’s still not getting us anywhere near “affordable”.

There may be many reasons for housing unaffordability, and many possible solutions, but we’re never going to make progress on the issue as long as we can’t even be realistic about what “affordability” is – and acknowledging that it’s far less than those of us lucky enough to already own our homes would assume.