Could the language of the market be keeping us from solving the housing puzzle?

Mar 14, 2019 | News

To ensure that public policies that get proposed or implemented to create a new housing system get discussed properly in the public, we need a different language to talk about why good housing matters for everyone.

In New Zealand our homes are our castles. A place of respite, of connection, of enjoyment. We love tucking our kids up in their warm beds on a winter’s night with the rain drumming on the roof.

What we hate is that there are parents who can’t do this. People who are getting their kids up into cold winter mornings after tucking them into the backseat of a car, a garage, or couch in a mouldy damp room. Because we are decent people. But we are decent people upholding an indecent housing system.

We understand that homes are a big part of what helps people thrive. Having a permanent place to call home means families and people can be connected to others in their community, build support networks, work connections and important relationships, and live healthier lives.

But policymakers and politicians of all stripes, across decades, have failed to prioritise the importance of all New Zealanders having such a home.

They have built a system in which many people are complicit. A system that is not just advantaging some people through the special privileges given to housing profits, but in doing so is blocking the opportunities of others to have a home.

It wasn’t just one decision that led to this indecent system. A series of choices got us here. Politicians awarding special privileges to people to people making a profit from the sale of a house, privileges that other investments don’t get, means housing became the chief way to make money for one group of Kiwis. In doing so those benefiting from housing gain have helped build and uphold a system that excludes many people from accessing a warm dry, affordable home.

The pull of capital gain contributes to poor quality and limited houses for people on low and middle incomes. Many politicians have been keen to sell off public housing. Others have failed to build sufficient numbers of new public houses. The number of state houses per capita has dropped fairly consistently since 1988.

People who develop property and build houses are not held to the purposes of the building act by regulators – which is to ensure a new building contributes to people’s well being. Our building standards are too low to ensure people’s well-being, or that a house is durable and low carbon across its lifetime.

People renting out homes have not been made responsible by policymakers for the impact that the homes they rent out have on people’s health. Policy makers expect more from people who rent out electric scooters than people who rent out homes to people.

The downstream impacts of unaffordable and poor quality housing keep our hospitals full every year. Scientists from Otago university have been tracking these impacts for years. From 2000 to 2017 the rate at which children under 15 years old have been hospitalised for infections and illnesses related to poor housing conditions has climbed steadily. Children of families who have the least are in hospital for these conditions at the highest rate.

Ensuring people across all communities have access to a meaningful home is a puzzle the many decent people in New Zealand have to work on together. Like a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle, it requires tenacity, cooperation and a long term view. It needs people to see the picture on the box we are creating.

But can people picture the outcomes that matter?

This week there has been an polarised conversation about capital gains tax, as proposed by the Tax Working Group. Kiwibuild is constantly in the firing line (perhaps fairly). Minor improvements to the low quality of rental stock is painted as a greater threat to investors than an improvement to children’s lives.

Scientists and researchers tell us that the language and words used in public discourse shape how people think, how problems are caused, and the solutions we see relevant.

Part of what is missing in this discussion is that the public cannot see or relate how these component parts may (or in some cases may not) contribute to our collective wellbeing. How many people really understand that people having equitable access to permanent, warm, dry homes, in a community they are connected to, is one of the foundations for a resilient and innovative society? Not that many.

Part of the reason for this is because we don’t have the right language to talk about housing in New Zealand in terms of people’s well-being.

Investor, renter, housing market, rental market, investment property, consumer, accessing the market, return on your investment, capital gain, tax liability, housing supply, housing demand, the housing ladder.

These are just some of the words we use to talk about homes and the people who live in them in New Zealand. It is a conversation utterly dominated by the language of money and markets and consumerism.

Scientists and researchers tell us that the language and words used in public discourse shape how people think, how problems are caused, and the solutions we see relevant.

In housing in particular, research in the US has shown that giving people new, non-market based, language to talk about housing helped move them to seeing the importance of, and supporting, community housing.

Exploring (and constantly exercising) non-market language, language that frames housing as a source of wellbeing for all people, not wealth, gives us a way to discuss the usefulness of new policy proposals in relation to issues that go beyond making money.

Will a CTG remove the barrier many New Zealanders are up against in accessing a warm, dry, affordable home? It is part of the solution. In countries where homes are treated as critical infrastructure for building a population’s wellbeing, tax on the capital gain plays a role. Does exclusion of the family home make sense? Probably not because people are using family homes to uphold the system (they are buying and selling them as an investment).

Will Kiwibuild work to achieve the outcomes that matter? Debatable. In its current form it is attempting to intervene in a market as a solution for middle income earners to access a home they own. It is not delivering affordable solutions (in the way most people understand this term) and not delivering it to people on middle incomes.

Is assistance into ownership the best way to achieve the outcomes that matter in housing for this group? Or would long term, not for profit rental housing that felt like a home be a better solution? These are questions that need to be explored. I understand Kiwibuild will be used to deliver public housing eventually, but frankly that is the more critical area of intervention right now if the Labour-led Government wants to create a solid foundation for many children and families to build great lives .

A new language would also allow a more robust discussion of options like a large not-for-profit rental sector and public housing that is low carbon, durable and prevents fuel poverty in those living in them. It would allow for better discussion of the role of the building industry in carbon emissions; and how to create a larger more robust building sector by, for instance, ensuring jobs in the sector are supportive and more attractive to women. These are all pieces of the puzzle that are often ignored when we only have the language for the market to discuss housing.

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